Frustration building as transit users head into week 2 without LRT

Some transit riders in Ottawa say they're feeling frustrated as they grudgingly begin another week without access to the city's light rail system.

Ottawa's light rail system has been out of service since a train derailed Sept. 19

A red-and-white train is parked on train tracks on a sunny day while yellow tape with the word "Caution" is strung up in front of it.
Caution tape is strung up next to the site of an LRT train derailment on Ottawa's Confederation Line on Sept. 19, 2021. No one was injured when the train left the tracks. (Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada)

Some transit riders in Ottawa say they're feeling frustrated as they grudgingly begin another week without access to the city's light rail system.

The LRT has been out of service since a train derailed on Sept. 19 before entering Tremblay station. It was the second derailment in less than two months on the system, which recently celebrated its second anniversary.

"It's been quite horrible," Audrey Moey said.

Moey commutes from Stittsville to downtown and said she's been trying to use the R1 replacement buses that are running instead of the train.

"The R1 buses have been incredibly packed in the morning rush hour, and I felt very unsafe on the buses because people were crammed in like sardines," said Moey.

Audrey Moey commutes from Stittsville to downtown on a regular basis. She says service has been 'horrible' recently because the R1 buses running to replace the LRT are packed with commuters and she doesn't feel safe. (Submitted by Audrey Moey)

Last week, John Manconi, the general manager of OC Transpo, told the city's transit commission that he planned to "throw everything we've got" at the problem.

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OC Transpo 'stretched thin'

As part of an ongoing effort to enhance the R1 service, OC Transpo announced new measures that included direct trips from downtown to Blair station during the morning and afternoon rush hours, and a Cyrville station bypass for all R1 buses.

In total, 148 trips over 23 routes have been withdrawn to support the R1 service, but Pat Scrimgeour, OC Transpo's director of transit customer systems and planning, said no crucial, first or last trips have been removed.

"During the period that O-Train Line 1 service is suspended, the R1 replacement bus service is the main spine of the OC Transpo network, and it has the highest priority," Scrimgeour wrote in an email to CBC.

High-capacity articulated and double-decker buses have also been reassigned to R1 service to further increase capacity. 

But Kari Glynes Elliott, a board member with advocacy group Ottawa Transit Riders, worries that despite its best intentions, OC Transpo simply doesn't have the capacity to operate the R1 service for an extended period of time.

"Unless they've suddenly managed to snap their fingers and obtain a whole bunch of new buses and drivers. I think they're stretched very thin," Elliott said.

"I would say the whole transit system is in decline, and it's very, very frustrating. It's sort of a spiral of decline where the prices are going up and the service is going down and people are angry and frustrated."

Looking for alternative transportation

Tristan Barr is taking matters into his own hands and searching for a private driver to get his 14-year-old son to school and back every day.

Barr said last week it took his son nearly two and a half hours to get back to his house in Ottawa's Westboro neighbourhood from Colonel By Secondary School because of overcrowded buses.

"I have some pre-existing health conditions that put me at risk for COVID, so we started looking for alternate ways to get them all the way across town," Barr said.

Tristan Barr and his son Phoenix share a celebratory drink after a big bike ride. Barr said it was good training in case Phoenix ends up having to cycle the 38-kilometre round trip to school each day. (Submitted by Tristan Barr)

He's contacted other families to see if they can organize a ride share, called a limousine service for a quote, and is even looking into an electric bicycle.

"We'd love to see a solution soon to make the commute a little easier," Barr said.

It could be another two weeks before Ottawa's light rail system is fully back up and running, according to the CEO of Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), the consortium that maintains the Confederation Line.

City manager Steve Kanellakos wrote in a memo to council and members of the transit commission on Friday that the city had retained major North American rail industry firm STV "to undertake the independent and impartial review of the cause, actions, safety plan and return to service for Line 1."

The firm is expected to begin work Monday, and members of council will be updated with anticipated timelines after STV finishes its preliminary assessment.