Former transit manager grilled over WhatsApp messages, LRT testing changes

OC Transpo's former manager John Manconi faced the harshest questioning yet at the Ottawa light rail public inquiry on Tuesday. Wednesday's proceedings are underway.

John Manconi says he didn't remember sharing trial run scores

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, centre, and then-transportation GM John Manconi, left, ride the Confederation Line with a number of other officials on Aug. 23, 2019, the day after the trial run was deemed a success. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

From questions about never-before-seen WhatsApp text messages, to his role in lowering the trial testing bar, to keeping information from members of council, John Manconi faced the harshest questioning yet at the Ottawa light rail public inquiry on Tuesday.

The city's former general manager of transportation and as such, the public figure perhaps most associated with the Confederation Line was on the hot seat for five hours, much of it being grilled by commission co-lead counsel John Adair.

More and more, lawyers at the public inquiry are entering evidence revealed in hundreds of informal WhatsApp messages over several group chats to provide insights into what might have led to LRT breakdowns.

Manconi used the chat channels to ask the mayor's office to approve sending a memo to council in the summer of 2019. Staff in the mayor's office asked daily for updates on how trains had done during the morning's testing. Transit chair Allan Hubley would weigh in.

Adair pointed to a memo Manconi drafted that would have alerted all of council that the LRT failed its first few days of testing and needed to reset. It was never sent after city manager Steve Kanellakos said council was to wait until the entire trial run was over.

"Why would you be updating only the mayor and Mr. Hubley and not anyone else?" Adair asked.

Councillors Allan Hubley, right, and George Darouze were including on WhatsApp chats with Mayor Jim Watson and OC Transpo head John Manconi in August and September 2019. (CBC)

The lawyer suggested that looking back, Manconi would agree other decision-makers also needed such information, especially on the finance and economic development committee and the transit commission.

"In retrospect, I would do the same thing that we did here," said Manconi. "I needed a communication channel to keep them informed."

While the city's lawyer Peter Wardle pointed out that the mayor has a different role than other council members — legally Watson is the municipality's CEO — he didn't talk about why chair Hubley should have information other council members did not.

Osgoode Coun. George Darouze even appeared as part of a WhatsApp chat in September 2019.

Two men in side-by-side screens on a video call.
Former OC Transpo head John Manconi, right, was grilled by the lawyer John Adair with the Ottawa light rail public inquiry on Tuesday. (Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry)

The use of WhatsApp came to the commission's attention in mid-June when consultant STV Inc. sought to have messages included as evidence.

In early May, Manconi didn't mention the existence of the WhatsApp messages during his interview with commission lawyers when asked if he had given the mayor or city manager daily updates during the LRT's trial run. He now says he forgot to mention the group chats.

Meanwhile, Manconi denied he was facing political pressure even with many messages flying back and forth.

"The mayor is known for for wanting to have a granular level of detail," Manconi explained.

Manconi only witness confused about score

Some of the more pointed exchanges occurred over the subject of the trial run — 12 consecutive days of full-service testing of the Confederation Line that "needs to be near-perfect" before being handed over to the city, as Manconi told city councillors May 5, 2019.

It's already been reported that the criteria was changed partway through the trial run, but the commission read into the record just how poorly the trial was going. It revealed that Manconi was sharing that information with the mayor and Hubley in a WhatsApp chat group that included the city manager.

"Today was the first day we applied very stringent [project agreement] requirements on what constitutes vehicles that are revenue service ready," Manconi messaged on WhatsApp on July 25, 2019.

"Unfortunately, [Rideau Transit Maintenance] did not do well and only four vehicles are on the line." 

Former OC Transpo boss John Manconi says it was RTG's Peter Lauch who suggested reverting to the easier, 2017 criteria for the trial running. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Adair pointed to a message early the next afternoon, when a staffer in the mayor's office asked how the morning had gone.

When Rideau Transit Group hit the major milestone called substantial completion on July 26, 2019, only four or five of the 15 trains were on the tracks, Adair concluded from the messages.

The commission's lawyer tried to make the case that it was Manconi who recommended the scorecard be altered.

Manconi testified that he had been confused about how the reliability score of 98 per cent over 12 days had been reached, with no day falling below 90 per cent — criteria the inquiry heard was created by Rideau Transit Group's construction arm and agreed to by city officials.

At the suggestion of RTG, Manconi said there was a discussion and ultimate agreement among the city's transit officials and experts that they should lower the score to 96 per cent averaged over nine of the best 12 days.

Former RTG CEO Peter Lauch told his board of directors on Aug. 7, 2019 that even on the days the LRT was passing the trial run, the customer experience would be 'horrendous.' (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Adair pointed out that the inquiry heard from multiple witnesses with first-hand knowledge of the trial run and received 1.5 million documents. 

"Are you aware, sir, that you are the only witness who has said there was some confusion over whether it was 98 or 96 [per cent]?" he asked. "Are you aware you are the only person who's given that evidence?"

Manconi replied that he said he was the only one who was confused.

"Right, and not one other witness has said you were confused," Adair said.

In fact, a text message from one of the city's rail managers Richard Holder Aug. 6 read: "Fyi, John is not going to move off the 98%."

Earlier in the day a key transit consultant to the city, Thomas Prendergast, testified that it's not unusual to change the criteria during a trial run if it's considered to be too demanding.

When asked by a commission lawyer if he'd been asked for his opinion on altering the scorecard, Prendergast said only he was aware there had been discussions on the subject. 

WATCH | Day 13 of the inquiry: 

Manconi wants to know 'what's in it for me': Lauch 

Trial running began on July 29, 2019 and the Confederation Line promptly failed. As it did the next day.

The system didn't pass on the third day either.

After a pause of two days, the LRT passed for four days straight — until Aug. 7 when it performed so poorly it triggered a "restart" of the 12-day trial.

That day, then-RTG CEO Peter Lauch wrote to the consortium's board members, telling them he expected restart for that day and even though the LRT had passed in previous days, "as a passenger experience, the days that are passes would be horrendous for the city and public outcry would be brutal, as well as from the mayor and council."

As a passenger experience, the days that are passes would be horrendous for the city and public outcry would be brutal.- Peter Lauch, RTG

Lauch goes on to write "Manconi made it clear that he wants to know 'whats in it for me' to get you a PASS on Trial Running."

He suggests Manconi is taking some heat not only over Stage 1 of the LRT, but also over Stage 2, where RTG partner SNC-Lavalin won a $1.6-billion contract without meeting the technical scoring threshold.

It's unclear what Lauch meant by this — he's testifying on Wednesday morning — and Manconi told the commission he doesn't remember saying that.

"That is not my style," Manconi said. "I would never make that statement."

But Adair points to Lauch's letter as the reason Manconi decided to change the testing criteria.

"What happened is," the lawyer suggested to Manconi, "As you saw on Aug. 7 as you started to slide back into days that were bad, and as you saw that even the days that were passes were horrendous, what you did was you suggested to RTG that you could get them a pass by reverting to the old criteria as long as they were prepared to help you out on Stage 2?" 

Manconi replied "I disagree with that, one hundred percent."

The criteria was changed on Aug. 14, the trial run was deemed complete on Aug. 22, and the next day, a ceremony was held at city hall announcing the handover of the Confederation Line.

WATCH | Highlights of that handover event: 

Are you ready for rail?

3 years ago
Duration 1:13
The city has set Sept. 14 as the launch date for the Confederation Line?

Downgrading to 13 trains changed contract 

On multiple occasions, Manconi told council, the public, even upper levels of government that 15 double-car trains were required to operate during the morning and afternoon rush hours. 

In fact, 34 light rail vehicles making up 17 trains were always deemed a requirement for a reliable LRT system.

In the city's quarterly report to the province in March 2019, the city wrote that "the ability of RTG to operate 15 double cars consistently" would determine the handover date.

Manconi announced on Aug. 23, 2019 that only 13 trains would be required for rush-hour service because ridership levels were lower than expected.

However, the contract called for 15 trains and reducing that requirement to 13 meant city officials had changed the terms of its contract with RTG without letting council know ahead of time.

The inquiry continues Wednesday, with Lauch appearing in the morning and a panel of city councillors and transit commissioners in the afternoon. 

Mayor Watson is scheduled for Thursday and city manager Kanellakos, for Monday.