Ottawa·Analysis

How OC Transpo missed its best chance to get us on board

At the very moment Ottawa's public transportation network needed to win fans, it failed spectacularly.

At the very moment it needed to win fans, the Confederation Line failed spectacularly

The platform at Parliament station sits empty last week, before what one manager called 'the biggest service change ever' for OC Transpo and its customers. (Gerry Buffett/CBC)

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, but really, OC Transpo had two.

The first came on Sept. 14, when the Confederation Line finally — finally — opened its gleaming doors to the public. (More on doors later.) 

Thousands filed aboard that pleasant Saturday afternoon. Most had no particular place to go; they just wanted to play some small part in a historic day. From Tunney's Pasture to Blair and back again the bands played, the public art impressed and the train operators waved as they pulled up to the platforms.

Everyone, it seemed, was smiling.

OC Transpo's second chance at a first impression came Monday, when suburban commuters long accustomed to getting to work on trusty old bus routes like the 95 were suddenly forced to transfer onto the LRT to complete their journeys, whether they wanted to or not.

This was where the rubber was to meet the road, the first real test of what one OC Transpo manager dubbed "the biggest service change ever" for the public transit agency and its customers.

A very bad week

Things went OK on day one, but the following morning it all fell apart, and all it took was a single jammed door on a train at uOttawa station.

People crowded platforms up and down the line, waiting for trains that weren't coming, while buses continued to disgorge more passengers behind them. Ironically, it was the buses that saved the day, called back into service to ferry stranded commuters the rest of the way downtown. 

If day two went badly, day three was worse. Two jammed doors at two different stations caused another delay, but this time, hundreds of passengers refused to board the backup buses.

At Tunney's Pasture, a steady stream of humanity filed down Scott Street, choosing the 3.5-kilometre walk downtown over OC Transpo. Others hailed a cab or summoned an Uber, whose customers gladly paid a hefty "surge price" that one driver said was the highest he'd ever seen.

Passengers look for another way to get downtown at Tunney's Pasture station on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Thursday brought another delay, but this time it wasn't a jammed door that ground the system to a halt.

According to a city memo, a train became immobilized at Bayview station when the onboard computer that runs its systems and subsystems failed and couldn't be reset. In other words, the brains of the operation stopped working, and no one really knows why.

That a passenger holding a door open can disable an entire LRT line for an hour or more is baffling. That a vital computer system failed mysteriously is probably worse. If it was your car, which problem would you rather take to the mechanic?

Broken trust

Here's something we do know: the chaos that marred this week's morning commutes has eroded the riding public's trust in the transit system, perhaps irrevocably.

That's happened because at the very moment it needed to win fans, the Confederation Line failed spectacularly. The only thing it proved was its unreliability.

"We just want to get to work," rider Fraser Smith told CBC on Thursday. For the third morning in a row, OC Transpo had failed to get the federal government employee from his home in Nepean to his office near Parliament station.

I know that right down the street I can park my car for 13 bucks a day.- Fraser Smith, OC Transpo customer

 

On Thursday, the bus that was supposed to drop him off at Tunney's Pasture just kept going downtown. 

"I paid to use the train today, but I didn't get to use the train today," Smith said. "I know that right down the street I can park my car for 13 bucks a day."

He's not the only one with that idea, either. On Thursday morning, just four days into a transportation sea change that's supposed to transform the way this city moves, downtown streets were crammed with vehicles. 

This doesn't bode well

City councillors are taking notice. Coun. Catherine McKenney couldn't help it: from her kitchen window, she could see the throngs streaming down Albert Street on foot.

"People can't wonder if once a week, even once a month, that train's not going to get them into work, into school, back to pick up their kids from daycare," McKenney said.

"People will just continue to get more frustrated, and what I'm most worried about really is a decline in ridership."

Commuters on the LRT faced long delays for the second day in a row, leading many to find other ways to finish their commute downtown.  1:29

She has reason to worry. OC Transpo ridership has been in gradual but steady decline since 2011, but the launch of the Confederation Line was supposed to be the catalyst that reversed that trend.

To say the future of transit in this city relied on things going smoothly this week is no wild overstatement. 

"We need transit to work," Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower said Thursday. "When it breaks down, that erodes the trust, and it makes it so much more difficult for us to make some of the tough decisions that we need to around investments in transit and mobility in our city."

He's talking about Stage 2 LRT, and Stage 3 beyond that, projects that are supposed to transform "Autowa" into a thoroughly modern, multi-modal metropolis.

Looking for a way out

But that transformation demands trust, and this week that trust was broken. University students missed midterm exams. Schoolkids who were proud and excited to take the train by themselves had to call their parents to come pick them up. People with anxiety suffered panic attacks on crowded platforms. 

Those of us who were dazzled by the Confederation Line on Sept. 14 are already looking for a way out. 

A single photo, by Maclean's journalist Shannon Proudfoot, quickly emerged as an iconic image of this disastrous week. It shows a man, bag in hand, deftly vaulting a chain link fence at Tunney's Pasture station to escape the chaos.

If the city can't find a quick and lasting fix to the problems plaguing the Confederation Line and slowly restore the trust that's been lost this week, many more will jump that fence. OC Transpo's last chance to make a positive impression will have passed us by.

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