OC Transpo experiences week of woe as trains, buses pulled from service

From an LRT derailment that is shutting down the Confederation Line for at least a week, to a crowded replacement bus service, to a double-decker that inexplicably veered off the road into a ditch, it's been a bad week for transit in Ottawa.

LRT derailment, crowded replacement buses and veering double decker have characterized terrible transit week

Crews walk along the Confederation Line in Ottawa on Aug. 9, 2021, one day after a problem axle on this out-of-service LRT train dislodged a wheel from the rail. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is now investigating. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

Troy Charter has never been more on the money in describing public transit in Ottawa this week.

"It's not an ideal situation."

OC Transpo's director of rail operations has drawn the short straw, being the public face of a week of woe for transit in this city. It's been up to him to apologize to passengers, while insisting the transit system is safe.

"Whenever you have to stop service for a period of time, like we have right there, it's frustrating for our riders, it's frustrating for our staff," Charter told CBC. "All we want to do is provide a good service."

This week, that's easier said than done.

LRT off the rails

It began last Sunday afternoon, when a light-rail train experiencing problems was parked at Tunney's station. Workers decided to move the empty train to the Belfast garage later in the evening, when the Confederation Line was less busy.

But the operator stopped the train because he felt the ride was "bumpy" and "rough" and called in a technician, who eventually discovered an axle issue had caused some sort of derailment — an event that not only shut down the LRT system, but attracted the attention of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), not for the first time.

In order to both investigate the incident, and get the derailed train back to the garage, the system was shut down. It would take three days to move the train, in part because officials, including ones from the TSB, wanted to examine what had happened at the site.

But part of the delay was due to the fact that Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) — the group that's supposed to keep the Confederation Line in good shape for the next three decades — didn't have the equipment it needed, city officials said. 

A heavy-duty dolly or truck dummy, which can hold up wheels but doesn't have a motor, is used to move trains that aren't working, including when they have derailed. According to OC Transpo officials, RTM not only had to bring in the equipment, but also test it in the yard before using it out on the main track.

It was left to OC Transpo's director of transit operations Troy Charter to answer for a terrible week at public transit. He conceded it's 'not an ideal situation.' (Jean Delisle/CBC)

And, of course, it's no easy feat to move a train onto a dolly system. That was finally accomplished on Wednesday. The two-car train then travelled on its own steam — one car pushed the one that had derailed — albeit very slowly, taking hours to travel the approximate 10 kilometres from Tunney's to the Belfast yard. The train was accompanied by half a dozen people who walked alongside the train in the hot, humid weather to make sure the light-rail car didn't slip off the dolly.

Once back in the shop, the axle in question will be disassembled for study. RTM is also inspecting the axles on the rest of the 32-car fleet before light-rail services re-starts, which isn't expected until at least the end of this week.

"It depends on the state of their inspections and the root cause analysis as to what happened," he said. "So we're still thinking of a Friday or Saturday return. But I do need to throw in those caveats that ... those trains need to be signed off and certified as safe to go back into operation."

As of Wednesday evening, RTM had not responded to requests for comment on this issue.

The axle of an LRT train on Ottawa's Confederation Line that caused the entire line to be shut down this week. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

Commuter complaints

With the Confederation Line down all week, the city has been running replacement buses, known as the R1 service. 

But many passengers took to social media to complain that there were long waits for the buses. And when they did arrive, they were often packed — which is not only uncomfortable during a heat wave, but worrisome during a pandemic where we are being asked to physically distance.

Charter said that OC Transpo put more buses on the road and made other schedule changes that relieved congestion by Wednesday afternoon's rush hour.

In the meantime, the city has said it won't be paying RTM its monthly fee, or at least it will be holding back a big chunk of it.

In another memo this week, OC Transpo boss John Manconi wrote that RTM's "monthly payment is calculated based on several factors including vehicle availability, station availability, kilometres travelled and other indicators. As a result of this current service suspension, deductions from RTM's monthly payment will be significant."

The deduction is expected to amount to a few million dollars. 

A sign at uOttawa station alerts would-be LRT riders that the Confederation Line is closed. Service was suspended Monday following a problem involving a train's axle. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Double decker off the road

In a separate bus issue, OC Transpo pulled 19 double deckers off the road on Monday after one of them veered off the road into a ditch. The two passengers and the driver were unharmed.

The transit agency determined the bus needed a steering adjustment and inspected the other buses of the same model. Of the relatively new double deckers, made by Alexander Dennis, 12 of them were determined to be safe and they were returned to the road on Wednesday. The remaining seven require the steering adjustment and will be repaired in the next few days.

The J523 models only went into service in July 2020.

Charter said that safety is the city's top concern.

"We're not going to take any cuts," he said. "We're not going to try to do things quickly. We're going to make sure we do it safely and reliably."

But looking ahead, these latest transit problems cannot bode well for ridership this fall, something even the official with the unenviable task of putting up a good front on a bad week recognizes.

"We're gearing up to welcome people back and looking forward to seeing increased rides and loads from our customers," said Charter, "so anything that may shake the public confidence we need to pay attention to."

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