Ottawa buys light rail trains with no proven track record

The light rail vehicles that are one of the significant reasons for delays to Ottawa's $2-billion LRT project don't have a proven track record and are expected to make their North American debut in Ottawa.

The Alstom Citadis Spirit is specifically designed for North America — but we'll be the 1st ones to use it

The Alstom Citadis Spirit light rail train was designed specifically for North America, but Ottawa will be the first to use it. (CBC)

The light rail vehicles that are one of the significant reasons for delays to Ottawa's $2-billion LRT project have no proven track record and are expected to make their North American debut in Ottawa.

France-based company Alstom, a member of Rideau Transit Group — the SNC Lavalin-led consortium building the 13-station Confederation Line —  is supplying the trains for the project.

Alstom's Citadis line of trains is used in more than 50 cities in 20 countries, largely in Europe.

The company designed a new version of the light rail car, called the Citadis Spirit, specifically for the North American market that would be able to handle colder weather and winter conditions.

But although the provincial agency Metrolinx has purchased these same vehicles for two Toronto-area projects, "Ottawa will be the first North American city in which the Citadis Spirit will operate," according to an emailed statement from Alstom.

'Fleet availability' issues

City officials said earlier this week they believe the LRT-completion deadline will be missed a third time, even though RTG said it "anticipates" meeting the March 31 hand-over date.

One of the significant hold-ups is what OC Transpo boss John Manconi referred to as a "fleet availability" issue. 

In other words, not enough trains are ready.

Of the city's 34 vehicles, only 14 are completed enough — or in good-enough working order — to be tested along the entire 12.5-kilometre track.

Even then, only four to six vehicles are being tested at a time, and it's not clear how many minutes they are able to run in one shot. 

The testing of the vehicles started in 2016.

10 vehicles don't have control system yet

The vehicles have been assembled at OC Transpo's Belfast Yard facility where, among other things, they are retrofitted with the Thales control system.

Thales is the brain of Ottawa's automated light rail system, telling trains, for example, where exactly to stop on a station platform. (Although the trains are automated, a live, trained operator will be on board.)

Twenty-four of the light rail vehicles have been given safety certificates from Thales, according to Michael Morgan, the director of the city's rail construction program.

That doesn't mean they're ready for passenger service, but the certification is a milestone in the commissioning of the trains.

So 14 of these vehicles are actually ready for full testing.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said this week he does not believe that RTG will meet its March 31 deadline. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

But another 10, despite having their control systems green-lighted, are not able to be tested. They need "modifications," said Morgan.

Perhaps an error code that mistakenly comes up in the operator's car, or maybe a problem related to the doors, Morgan said by way of example.

He adds some issues are more complex, where workers have to get underneath the vehicle.

The final 10 cars? They don't have the Thales control system completed, even though the deadline for the entire Confederation Line is less than seven weeks away.

Two vehicles are so unusable — or at least not usable without a major amount of retrofitting — that RTG is going to swap them out for two vehicles that the city bought for the next phase of the LRT.

Panels have come loose at least twice

Last week, a panel came off one of the trains and caused some damage to the Bayview Station platform.

"We're still looking at the root cause of that, for why that may have happened," said Morgan, but added that it is not "raising any red flags" that it is a systemic issue. 

Another panel was torn off a parked train during last September's tornado.

A replica of the Alstom Citadis Spirit was on display at Lansdowne in 2015. (CBC)

Even though they were unproven, the city agreed in 2017 to spend about $300 million on an additional 38 Citadis Spirit vehicles for Phase 2 of the LRT, the contract for which is supposed to be approved by council late this month.

"Would it have been nice to have a year of experience with the vehicles in service before, to take all those lessons and apply it to the later vehicles?" said Morgan.

"Yes, it would have been nice to have had that experience."

But he said now that the city has made its technological choice with the trains, it needs to stick with that decision, he said.

"We selected a vehicle, we selected a train control supplier," said Morgan.

"We need to carry those decisions through the stage two. We can't change midway through that process."


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.


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