Ottawa·Analysis

What happened to the 'relentless pursuit of perfection'?

OC Transpo boss John Manconi promised taxpayers would "get everything they are paying for" by the time the Confederation Line launched last month. As Joanne Chianello writes, it seems $2.1 billion doesn't go as far as it used to.

It seems $2.1B doesn't go as far as it used to, Joanne Chianello writes

Ottawa's general manager of transit services, John Manconi, speaks on the phone at Tunney's Pasture station during Wednesday's LRT delay. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Back in March, OC Transpo boss John Manconi didn't restrain himself in describing what he and his team were striving for when it came to our shiny new LRT line: The "relentless pursuit of perfection."

When he was pressed for answers about why the Confederation Line was missing yet another deadline, Manconi told us he wanted to make sure the system was safe and reliable, and that "taxpayers get everything they are paying for."

If we've accepted an LRT system that is so sensitive the doors get irreversibly jammed from the simple effort of holding them open — a natural human reaction from transit riders around the globe — then we're in trouble.

It seems $2.1-billion doesn't buy what it used to.

That is the unavoidable conclusion after what Ottawa commuters have experienced this week.

Perfection? We'd have settled for something better than utter chaos.

Twice this week, a jammed door that couldn't be reset on location caused extended delays, leaving commuters late for work and causing students to miss exams. Many finished their journey downtown on foot. On Wednesday, hordes of riders spilled back over the bus platform at Tunney's Pasture, some jumping the fence, a few suffering panic attacks.

LRT too fragile?

Both times, city officials blamed passenger error for the problem.

But if we've accepted an LRT system that is so sensitive the doors get irreversibly jammed from the simple effort of holding them open — a natural human reaction from transit riders around the globe — then we're in trouble.

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

Even Mayor Jim Watson agreed, telling reporters after Wednesday's council meeting that the city has asked train maker Alstom "to come in first and foremost to find out why is the system so fragile that opening a door is shutting the system down."

Manconi told reporters that during rehearsals, staff did pry open a door to see what would happen, but it wasn't an issue — which is why he said he was "stumped" by the door problems this week. 

Mayor Jim Watson said the city would be looking at introducing a fine for people caught prying open the doors of trains on the Confederation Line.  0:35

But door issues have plagued the system for many months. The trains were "not ready for prime time," as Manconi put it back in June, when he said the vehicles would have to be "virtually defect-free" before the city would accept them. 

How long have these issues been going on? We have heard since spring the door issues were among the problems plaguing the Alstom Citadis Spirit vehicles, which, as CBC reported in February, have never been used anywhere else.

Frustrated commuters said their trip was hampered by delays on the Confederation Line on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.  0:59

Council wasn't told about trial halt

Did train issues come up during last summer's trial run — the one that was supposed to be 12 consecutive days of "near flawless" service that didn't end up being 12 consecutive days?

It's hard to know, as the city refused to answer questions about the trial run. In fact, CBC has learned Manconi had prepared a memo on July 31 to tell council the trial run was being put on hold for 48 hours. That memo was never sent.

We are told the Confederation Line doors open and close 86,000 times a day, but that is of little comfort if a single stuck door can cause the sort of mass confusion we saw this week.

According to the draft memo, obtained through an access to information request, the "performance over the first three days of trial running has resulted in the joint decision to pause the ongoing system assessment." One of the six "critical elements" being monitored was "vehicle performance."

Neither Manconi nor the city's communications department responded to a request for comment on why the memo was not sent. The mayor and his chief of staff say they didn't know about the memo.

How can councillors, or the public, hold city officials to account over issues that are hidden from them? 

Passengers wait for the next train during delays the morning of Oct. 8, 2019. (@danavaughan001/Twitter)

Unanswered questions

There's more we can't find out from the city.

Manconi told us as recently as July that rush hour service would require 15 double trains. Suddenly, in August, he said we only needed 13. CBC has been asking since the technical briefing on Aug. 23 about the number of days that 15 trains were operated successfully during the trial run — neither Manconi nor anyone in his office has been able to answer that question over the past  seven weeks.

CBC has also been asking about how the city and Rideau Transit Group, the consortium that built the Confederation Line, arrived upon the reliability targets for the LRT. (Manconi told us in August that the LRT had to meet a 96 per cent reliability threshold.)

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi said two door-holding incidents caused major delays. The transit agency will be taking measures to prevent further door issues, he said.  1:10

How was the 96 per cent target decided? Was it ever lowered during the project? We've been asking since Sept. 3, with no response.

While 96 per cent may be a great score on a math test, is it an adequate bar for a mass transit system? We are told the Confederation Line doors open and close 86,000 times a day, but that is of little comfort if a single stuck door can cause the sort of mass confusion we saw this week.

Reporters asked the mayor if the city accepted the LRT system too soon. "We got all the safety sign-offs by the individuals at the appropriate level," Watson responded.

No one is claiming the doors are unsafe. What they're saying, given the indisputable evidence of this week, is that they're no longer confident the Confederation Line is reliable enough to get them to work, to school or to doctor's appointments on time.

And that's not a lot to ask for $2.1 billion.