City's own consultants skeptical about LRT launch date, inquiry hears

A public inquiry has heard from a number of witnesses that many participants in the LRT project were well aware that the light rail system, while deemed safe, had reliability issues ahead of opening to the public.

Testimony mounts daily that many knew about problems before opening

WATCH LIVE | Day 9 of the inquiry: 

The City of Ottawa's own consultants on the massive LRT project questioned whether it was wise to open the Confederation Line to the public in mid-September 2019, the light rail public inquiry heard Wednesday.

A team of Parsons consultants, who were hired by the city from 2015 to 2019, testified Wednesday afternoon that they believed the trains weren't reliable enough and maintenance staff were too overwhelmed.

Although scoring the trains and giving their advice on the LRT launch date was not technically what the Parsons team was hired to do, they told the commission that they shared their views with the city.

In an email dated Aug. 21, 2019, Mike Palmer told his Parsons colleagues that he understood the trial running of the trains was finishing the next day.

"Unsure how many days it was in the end — but certainly not 12!" he wrote, referencing the much-repeated promise that the Confederation Line would have to run virtually perfectly for 12 consecutive days before the city was handed the keys.

A number of us are unsure whether there is wisdom given the fragility of the rolling stock and signaling.- Mike Palmer, consultant

"There are meant to be four weeks of practice for OC Transpo. I think that will be potentially reduced and so I think it will be on or around 17th September," wrote Palmer.

"A number of us are unsure whether there is wisdom given the fragility of the rolling stock and signaling, but others may be able to comment more on that."

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The city has set Sept. 14 as the launch date for the Confederation Line?

The Confederation Line was officially launched Sept. 14, 2019.

The email also mentions that the equipment to measure the number of trips that trains made and the kilometres they travelled during the trial was not working the previous week.

When asked by inquiry co-lead counsel Kate McGrann if he had shared his opinion of the readiness of the LRT with the city, Palmer said he had.

Two other Parsons consultants — Jonathan Hulse and Thomas Fodor — also testified they also shared Palmer's skepticism about the launch target for the LRT.

Maintenance staff 'overwhelmed'

The inquiry has heard from a number of witnesses that many participants in the LRT project were well aware that the light rail system, while deemed safe, had reliability issues ahead of being opened to the public.

Fodor, for example, told McGrann that the maintenance staff was "overwhelmed" during the trial-running period and couldn't keep up with multiple problems — a concern that Fodor communicated to the city.

He told the inquiry commission that Rideau Transit Group and its partners couldn't get the whole fleet of trains to operate at full service during most days of the trial running.

"I observed trains that came to the hand-off platform that failed and had to be removed, which delayed other trains from going in. I observed train failures out on the main line as well," he said.

"Basically, the fleet that was supposed to be out there for the full time frame was rarely, if ever, achieved."

Witness testimony in the first eight days of the Ottawa LRT public inquiry shows that many parties knew the Confederation Line had reliability issues before launch. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Ottawa's own lawyer Peter Wardle pointed out that none of the consultants were actually involved in the scoring for the trial running.

Wardle also produced two daily reports submitted by Fodor to the city during the trial period that showed the consultant confirmed that the scheduled number of trains were "ready for service."

But Fodor stood his ground.

"These are two days out of the time I was there," he told the commission.

"As far as I can recall, most days, they could not achieve the fleet that was required. And if they did initially, there were a lot of removals and attempts to replace them with [other] trains."

Fodor also testified trains that would not have been allowed to operate during public service were used in trial running.

Earlier on Wednesday, the commission saw a chart showing that at least half a dozen "main events" were still happening daily in the last week of testing in August 2019. Another chart indicated there were 211 main events in the week from Sept. 2 to 7, 2019 — just a week before the Confederation Line was opened.

Many of the events were related to the cameras and videos on the trains and platform, or the information display boards, but others involved brake and power issues.

It was well-known by all parties.- Bertrand Bouteloup, Alstom project director

Another of the commission's co-lead counsels, Christine Mainville, asked Alstom's project director Bertrand Bouteloup if it was well-known that revenue service would not be perfect and that there would be incidents.

"Yes, it was well-known by all parties," he said.

Passengers wait for the next train during delays after the Confederation Line is fully launched in the fall of 2019. (@danavaughan001/Twitter)

Mayor and Manconi making 'calculated guess'

In an earlier email dated July 26, 2019, Palmer wrote to his colleagues that he understood the Confederation Line was going to be declared substantially finished within days. 

"My guess is that the city (read mayor and JM) are taking a calculated guess that the remaining issues can be cleared up through the 12+ days of trial running and the 28 days of OC Transpo playing trains," he wrote.

The "JM" in the emails is former OC Transpo head John Manconi.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, centre, rides the Confederation Line with a number of other city officials, including former GM of transporation John Manconi, left, days before the city took possession of the LRT. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Palmer — who, among other things, was a TTC executive — went on to say that he would probably do the same if he had "absolute clarity" from RTG about the state of the project, but said he was worried that information was being withheld from the city.

He makes it clear the message is his personal opinion and that he'd "appreciate this email not being shared outside of Parsons." 

Palmer also jokes that he won a $100 bet he had with a few colleagues and city counterparts about when the Confederation Line would be completed, but only because he had the latest date.

Wardle, the city's lawyer, suggested the email was simply a casual note, but Palmer disagreed.

"The style may be casual but it's a serious message" about the state of the system, he said.

On Thursday morning, the commission will hear from Richard Holder, a manager in the city rail office who was also part of the trial running.