The turbulent 1st year of Ottawa's LRT network
Breakdowns, letdowns — then COVID-19
It launched late, it broke down over and over, and then it got sideswiped by a pandemic.
Save for a few fleeting moments of new-train-smell optimism, that's the story of the first year of light rail in Ottawa.
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And sure, many of you may not want to relive that whole experience. But just in case, we've put together this month-by-month account of a year that proved immensely frustrating, politically volatile and unexpectedly smelly.
- The Confederation Line opens to the public on the afternoon of Sept. 14, more than one year behind schedule. Enthusiastic riders pile on board, taking photos and sharing high-fives, while Mayor Jim Watson declares, "The future of transit in Ottawa starts now."
- Two days later, during afternoon rush hour, the first train glitch pops up: an unspecified "technical issue" that causes an eight-minute delay.
- As further delays occur, complaints begin to arise that OC Transpo isn't properly informing riders. The agency promises to do better.
- A pair of raccoons move into Pimisi station.
- Dozens of bus routes the LRT was meant to replace are taken off the roads. The first workday without those routes, Oct. 7, is described as a mixed bag.
- The line's first serious problem occurs the next day when a jammed train door — caused by a rider holding it open — causes delays across the network. After a similar experience the next day, Watson calls for "punitive measures" to be taken against door-holders.
- On Oct. 10, a computer failure occurs during morning rush hour, the third straight day of disruptions on the line.
- Watson says the city has "got to do better" after riders deal with nine hours of delays in one week alone.
- Problems begin to emerge with the stations themselves on Oct. 22 when multiple riders slip and fall at Lyon and Parliament stations after a rainstorm reveals the floor tiles are too slippery when wet.
- After a three-hour delay during morning rush hour on Nov. 1, Watson says he's "furious" with the state of the Confederation Line and announces $3.5 million in emergency funding for OC Transpo. He also orders OC Transpo boss John Manconi to return 40 recently retired buses to service.
- Transit commission learns Nov. 4 that a sewer pipe was punctured while building the downtown tunnel, leading to bad odours at Parliament station.
- The growing list of issues leads city councillors to call for a planned fare hike to be postponed and — after another delay sends riders trudging through the snow — for downtown bus routes to be reinstated.
- Cracked rail welding on Nov. 13 causes more slowdowns.
- A train stalls in the tunnel near Rideau station on Nov. 20, and two days later a "switch issue" causes delays between Blair and St-Laurent stations.
- Riders complain the trains still don't have stability straps, leaving the grip bars out of reach for many.
- On Nov. 21, transit commission votes to freeze OC Transpo fares until March.
- Despite the myriad problems with the line, documents reveal the consortium that built the $2.1-billion network, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), actually got the highest technical score of all the project's bidders.
- OC Transpo promises stability straps will be installed on all trains by the end of January.
- The city says the stench at Parliament station will be fixed by Dec. 13. A transit commissioner is roundly criticized when he speculates the complaints might be due to the fact "women have more developed senses of smell than men do."
- An electrical problem causes two trains to lose power on New Year's Eve. The cause is traced to dirty train roofs.
- Despite those delays — and 17 others scattered throughout the month — December actually turns out to have been the best month so far for the line, offering a degree of hope for the new year.
- Unfortunately, 2020 gets off to an inauspicious start when, on Jan. 16, an overhead power line breaks and falls on a train at St-Laurent station, causing the longest delay to date.
- Full service isn't restored until the following morning, and both the City of Ottawa and RTG hold a news conference to issue a public apology.
- A switch issue befalls the line during a snowstorm Jan. 18, leading to a two-and-a-half-hour delay.
- The same problem crops up the next day, along with a jammed door issue at Hurdman station and smoke in the downtown tunnel.
- On Jan. 20, OC Tranpso says it's taking three of its 13 trains offline due to mechanical issues.
- As even more trains are taken offline — primarily due to flat wheels — transit chair Allan Hubley blames all the problems on Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), an RTG offshoot that is supposed to keep the trains in working order.
- The city continues withholding monthly payments to RTG/RTM because of the poor service, something its contract permits. By now roughly $20 million has been kept back.
- By Jan. 30, the line has been short trains for nine consecutive weekdays. Riders also begin noticing a strange odour at Rideau station that smells like rotten eggs.
- On Feb. 4, after more than two weeks of shortages, OC Transpo is able to bring 13 trains back online.
- The city traces the bad smells at Rideau station to stagnant water leaking in.
- With no end in sight to the problems, the fare freeze is extended.
- Four trains are taken out of service Feb. 14 after "debris" on the track damages their transponders. That debris later turns out to be a piece of one of the trains.
- A cable that's part of the overhead power system snaps on Feb. 26, and subsequent problems reduce the line to five functioning trains the following day — the fewest yet.
- Those two days of commuting misery prompt some councillors to consider a "divorce" from RTM, with one councillor calling the line a "lemon" ill-equipped for Ottawa's weather.
- With the aroma of sewage remaining an issue at Parliament station, air fresheners are quietly installed — and then removed after a CBC story leads to concerns they could trigger asthma and headaches.
- The city issues a "notice of default" to RTG on March 10, the first formal step in potentially ending the city's relationship with the consortium. RTG is accused of misrepresenting its abilities and given until March 31 to come up with a credible plan to fix the Confederation Line.
- A CBC analysis finds that six months after the launch, the line has had more bad days than good ones.
- Cases of COVID-19 begin to spread in Ottawa, forcing major changes to the line that include increased cleaning and new rules around boarding.
- As ridership plunges, major service reductions are implemented March 27.
- A city report says winter testing on the trains before the Confederation Line launched was actually carried out indoors in simulated conditions.
- On April 8, council learns that RTG has responded to the complaints in the notice of default but has given no timeline for when service will be improved.
- A report fails to find any issues with the air quality at Rideau station.
- OC Transpo boss John Manconi tells council that RTG continues to provide no firm date for when the line will be fixed, other than by year's end. He says that response is "not acceptable."
- With ridership still low due to COVID-19, the line is shut down on May 31 for four days of repairs.
- RTG promises to have 15 trains running on the line — the number originally promised to the city — by early August, but Manconi remains skeptical.
- Mask use becomes mandatory across OC Transpo, including on the Confederation Line, on June 15.
- The line is shut down again on June 21 for repair work, and that work takes longer than expected.
- RTG CEO Peter Lauch announces his resignation on June 22, much to the surprise of some members of the city's transit commission.
- Nicholas Truchon, an executive with more than two decades' experience working on public-private partnerships like Ottawa's LRT network, is named as Lauch's replacement on June 30.
- A new problem pops up July 2 when workers find a crack in one train's steel wheels. OC Transpo launches a fleet-wide inspection, leading to service reductions.
- On July 4, Manconi says more defective wheels have been found and that only seven trains will be in operation for the foreseeable future.
- The cracked wheel issues draw the attention of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which decides to launch a formal investigation into the matter.
- Manconi tells council in a July 21 memo that a train recently started malfunctioning while in the storage facility, sending "literally millions" of false alarms. He also reveals that warping of the rail lines due to hot weather is a bigger problem than originally thought.
- RTG finally provides all 17 LRT trains — 15 for active service, plus two backups — to OC Transpo, but ongoing inspections for cracked wheels mean the line still only has 13 trains running at any given time.
- The city says it will be withholding more than $40 million from RTG because of the line's problems.
- On Sept. 14, the city marks one year since the launch of the line — with considerably less fanfare than in 2019.