Thu. May 19th, 2022

After a few derailments and a cracked wheel, the Confederation Line is out of operation indefinitely. What does it take to make the city’s troubled light rail line work consistently again?

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It is one of the strangest times in the history of public transportation in the Canadian capital.

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The most expensive infrastructure project in the history of the city of Ottawa, the completed $ 2.1 billion Confederation Line, is out of order. Operator OC Transpo must redirect enough buses every day to quickly move paying customers and provide sufficient capacity to enable physical distance during a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the head of the transit agency has resigned from the municipal council, and the new general manager will not start until October 18, leaving Transpo’s temporary bus-only operation in the city’s railway manager with support from the mayor’s office.

On top of that, there are three ongoing LRT investigations at the Transportation Safety Board — the two derailments this summer and a wheelbarrow problem discovered in 2020 — and the city has been checking to see if its contractor, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), has finally solved older missing after issuing a default notice to the consortium in March 2020.

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Transit riding has fallen sharply as COVID-19 has only thousands of workers commuting as far as their home offices, and now the mayor and chairman of the transit commission will turn off the box offices and open the gates for the entire month of December (something Transpo has never done before) for to regain confidence in public transport, and specifically the two-year-old LRT system.

Although it is early in Ottawa LRT’s life, residents have lost faith in the electric rail system and are seeking City Hall to take responsibility.

Can the city put the crazy days of the train behind it?

Maybe, but certainly not alone.

The Transportation Safety Board investigated an LRT derailment near Tremblay station in Ottawa last month.
The Transportation Safety Board investigated an LRT derailment near Tremblay station in Ottawa last month. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

While the city operates LRT, it is largely reduced to a leadership role when it comes to the health of the system due to a public-private partnership with RTG. The company’s subsidiary, Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), is responsible for taking care of Alstom Citadis Spirit trains, tracks and stations for 30 years.

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For city council members looking for someone to hold accountable, it is the source of much aggravation.

The city’s power is going to hold maintenance payments back in the range of $ 4 million to $ 5 million each month, but that does not do much to reassure transit customers who live with longer bus commutes when LRT is not suitable for running.

The two main line tracks in September and October are the most jaw-dropping collapses in the Confederate line’s short history. After reading the preliminary observations from TSB, the derailments shared one worrying thing in common: Trains ran for a period of time while showing signs of collapse.

When it came to the derailment on August 8, TSB believes there were signs of problems on the train before making the 12.5-kilometer journey across the city center and being put out of service for what maintenance staff thought was a braking problem. While a technician saw burn marks on a brake disc, there was critical damage to the other wagon in the double train. A shaft cartridge assembly overheated, leading to a cut wheel.

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On September 19, a westbound train pulled into Tremblay Station already from the rails and left the station in that condition, according to TSB. The derailed train crossed the bridge over Riverside Drive before stopping. The regulator has not published its theory on the cause of the derailment.

No one was injured in both incidents, but the city is now experiencing an extended shutdown of the service to repair the infrastructure from the derailment on Sept. 19 and bring in an independent consultant to create a return-to-service strategy.

At the political level, city council members are asking the city council to determine how the 30-year maintenance contract can be canceled – what has often been called the “nuclear power” scenario at City Hall – and find out what it takes to set up a federal Line maintenance department inside the municipal council.

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Other councilors want the city to request a judicial inquiry to dig into the creation of the LRT system and contracts.

What makes the Ottawa LRT mess even more confusing is that the problems are happening despite the collective construction, engineering and transit experience of RTG’s parent companies. ACS Infrastructure, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin are not beginners, nor is the company responsible for making and maintaining the trains, Alstom.

John Manconi, former general manager of transit, was a defender for the Confederation Line.
John Manconi, former general manager of transit, was a defender for the Confederation Line. Photo by Errol McGihon /Errol McGihon

Before leaving City Hall, the recently retired Director General of Transportation John Manconi told reporters that “everything can be corrected”, repeating a line he had provided at other times where LRT has underperformed.

But getting the attention of “Alstom, Alstom, Alstom”, the French train builder that supplied LRT’s trains, is critical, Manconi said.

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Something does not click with the maintenance scheme, which is composed of RTG and RTM, where two thirds of the 200+ employees are Alstom employees. The derailment in August is a clear example where TSB suggests that the maintenance program is “inadequate” for a specific safety issue when it comes to the cartridge assembly for the train wheels.

As for how things are going these days at RTG and RTM, the organizations cannot publicly comment on issues related to the Confederation line unless they receive permission from the city under the terms of its contract.

Work continues to get LRT back online, but there has not been a confirmed timeline for returning to service.

The Transit Commission has demanded that city management hire an independent expert to ensure the LRT system is safe before trains start rolling again.

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Finding a new set of eyes to undergo LRT is becoming more difficult for a city that continues to require studies of its new transit system. There has been a delay in trying to find the right consultant for the latest review.

“We also wanted someone to come here quickly so they could get started,” Mayor Steve Kanellakos said in an interview the day he told the council he would not hire a consultant who had performed LRT-related work for the city in the past.

But while taxpayers, transit riders and councilors are rubbing their teeth over a wide range of LRT delays and problems, at least one expert says what the city faces is not unusual.

Gordon Lovegrove, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia with an interest in sustainable transportation who had a hassle-free, non-eventful trip on the Confederation Line when he visited Ottawa last month, said that even after two years of operation, it would not ‘It is not uncommon for an LRT system to still have cracks. The crucial thing is to get engineers involved in the matter.

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“This is the normal shake,” Lovegrove said in an interview. “What Ottawa is going through is nothing new.”

Lovegrove said he can understand the political pressure on City Hall, especially when there is a reputation at stake, reinforced by the fact that it is the country’s capital.

“Obviously, everyone and their dog wants the system to succeed, including the people who will ride on it and depend on it,” he said. “Reliability is crucial if you want to get a riding ship.”

Adding a new technology to a transit system is also about the city adopting “a whole new culture,” Lovegrove said, comparing the beginnings of the Vancouver SkyTrain more than 35 years ago.

“If you do not take a risk, there will be no progress,” Lovegrove said. “It can only go up from here.”

jwilling@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JonathanWilling

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