Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ottawa's O-Train: The good, the bad and the ugly

I was pretty excited to see Ottawa's new O-Train service in action this week on the recently dubbed Trillium Line. It didn't take long for my excitement to turn to disappointment.

This Monday, after months of testing, the city retired its fleet of Bombardier Talent light rail trains, replacing them with more efficient Alstom Coaradia LINT trains. There is much to like about the newly expanded O-Train service. There are more trainsets working on the old CP Ellwood/Prescott Subdivision. There are several passing sidings and new traffic signalling equipment, which have increased the frequency of trains to five minutes. The new trains are better for the environment.

The $60-million expansion of the service wasn't even launched this past Monday before a faulty insulated joint and controller error (OC Transpo's words) halted the new service in its tracks. This held up the official launch, much to the chagrin of numerous city officials and OC Transpo executives, who had staged several photo opportunities at O-Train stations for the morning rush. After some delay, the trains began to run, although commuters were none too pleased with the morning rush hour snafu.

New Alstom Coradia LINT train C7 heads south near Somerset Street on March 4, 2015

By the end of the first day, it was evident that the new service was not operating properly, so transit officials suspended service, telling riders to take the bus until further notice. On Tuesday, commuters were told the Trillium Line would be up and running by Thursday. Meanwhile, at the northern end of the line at Bayview Station, I noticed a brand new trainset sitting idle, being guarded by OC Transpo constables, since it was not able to return to Walkley Yard.

By any estimate, it was a terrible week for the city's light rail service, although service seemed to be returning to normal Wednesday afternoon. I ventured out on my lunch break to see what was going on and was surprised to see the service operating at five-minute intervals. This shot below is what the city wants you to see. Two O-Trains pass each other near Somerset Street, making use of the new passing sidings that were installed last summer and fall. It was fun to see this for the first time.

Here's another shot of the meet:

Of course, this latest snafu could have happened to any train service in any city. The fact that it happened in Ottawa might just be a coincidence. I tried to restrain myself earlier this week, given my vocal criticism of the city's railway policies. But, since this is a blog, I am going to let the city have it one more time. The following is my personal list of the top ten railway blunders here in the City of Ottawa in recent years. I will keep this list mainly focused on recent commuter rail decisions.

1. Allowing CP to tear up the Prescott Subdivision within city limits. This has to be the top blunder of all. This is the mistake that the city is now paying for dearly. The O-Train launched in 2001, just a few years after CP was allowed to rip up its Prescott Subdivision in 1999. Had the former Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (now the City of Ottawa) had any vision in 1999, it would have retained the rails and right-of-way for future commuter use. It's obvious today that the biggest demand for light rail is coming from the southern suburbs Barrhaven and Riverside South. This mistake leads to blunder number two.

2. Not expanding the Trillium Line on existing trackage. The one saving grace of the local government's inaction in 1999 was that it retained trackage to the southern limits of airport land, near Leitrim Road. This will allow the city to expand the Trillium Line to the airport, if it ever gets around to committing to this long overdue expansion. Council still has not moved much on a city staff proposal to expand this line, which I find baffling. The expansion is currently undergoing an environmental assessment, but recent comments from the mayor suggest support for this expansion is no sure thing. How the city waited 14 years to seriously consider the merits of this expansion is beyond me. Anyone who wants to take public transit to Ottawa's airport knows why a rail link is desperately needed. Bus service on the two-lane Airport Parkway is simply not enough. And, if this expansion does eventually happen, the city will now have to create new rail beds and lay new tracks to Riverside South.

3. The tunnel. This blunder, in my opinion, is simply a matter of cost. I will admit that routing trains below Ottawa's core makes sense, given the old downtown would be hard pressed to accommodate trains without a good plan. However, given that Ottawa has several wide one-way streets with limited business frontage and wide berths for tracks, I have always maintained that trains on the surface can work. These one-way streets are used almost exclusively by city buses during rush hours as it is. Building a billion-dollar tunnel is simply not affordable. Many other cities operate commuter trains on roads. I have never understood why former Mayor Larry O'Brien insisted on a tunnel. Current Mayor Jim Watson vowed to look at the tunnel issue when he was elected, but he soon found himself an ardent tunnel supporter.

4. From nowhere to nowhere. The current O-Train Confederation Line plan began when former Mayor Larry O'Brien essentially scrapped his predecessor Bob Chiarelli's rail plan. Although Chiarelli's plan had major flaws, it looks downright sensible in retrospect. The biggest flaw with O'Brien's O-Train plan is that the first phase of the service begins and ends in areas of the city that are not terribly close to neighbourhoods. These areas, Tunney's Pasture and Blair, are well served by the city's Transitway rapid bus service. We all remember the bridge to nowhere in Alaska. I fear this will be train to nowhere. This will be rectified when the second phase of the Confederation Line is in place, but are commuters going to jump on board with Phase I? I wonder.

5. Dropping the ball on the Prince of Wales Bridge. Ottawa city buses go to Gatineau every day. Gatineau buses cross the river to Ottawa every day. Why has no one ever bothered to look into extending the O-Train over the Prince of Wales Bridge on existing trackage? The city owns the bridge and tracks and yet seems determined to convert the bridge into a recreational pathway.

6. Bob Chiarelli's proposed abandonment of the Trillium Line. At one point, the former mayor was proposing to tear up the current alignment of the Trillium Line and replace it with an all-new north-south alignment. Considering the land expropriations, environmental assessments and enormous costs involved, this thankfully never came to pass.

7. Building a new O-Train service facility in the middle of nowhere. This was another strange component of Bob Chiarelli's plans at one point. Instead of establishing a maintenance and commuter train yard in Ottawa's half empty Walkley Yard, there was a plan to build a completely new O-Train yard and servicing facility along Bowesville Road in the south end of the city near airport lands. Environmentalists were furious with this part of the plan, since the proposed new yard would be plopped down in the middle of a natural area. This idea, thankfully, has never attracted much support.

8. Deafening silence on Mike Maguire's common sense plan. Mayoral candidate Mike Maguire had a radical idea in the fall election. Why not establish commuter rail on existing trackage in the city? The most common objection to this plan was that the city had already gone too far with its own plans to press the reset button. I think the merits of Maguire's idea were lost amid the noise and fear-mongering during the election campaign. I still wonder why no one ever suggested that the two ideas could co-exist. After all, CN still has some vital - and sparsely used - trackage in the city that travels through densely populated areas.

9. Inaction on the Beachburg Subdivision. Any hopes for regional rail to Renfrew County, Pembroke and Petawawa went out the window when the city essentially washed its hands of this rail line. CN tore up much of the right-of-way this past fall. A small part of this subdivision is still in place to north Kanata, where it could be used as a commuter link. But that will not likely happen. The city simply does not see the value of commuter rail on this line. I understand why there would be no interest in retaining this line outside of Kanata, but using the rail to the north end of this suburb still makes sense.

10. Deafening silence on Carling Avenue plan. I was no fan of  former councillor Clive Doucet, but when he ran for mayor, he had an idea for light rail that had some merit. He suggested running trains down the middle of Carling Avenue, a divided six-lane thoroughfare through much of Ottawa's west end. His plan was short on details, but he correctly pointed out that the road passed through a number of densely populated areas, including numerous rental communities. Sadly, there was no consideration for this idea. And now, the city is haggling with the National Capital Commission over where to place part of the second phase of its western LRT line, since the NCC won't let tracks cross over its precious Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway lands.

This was an exhausting post to write. I can't believe how much fodder this city gives rail critics like me. This is the city that keeps on giving.

Oh, and Happy Trails to the Bombardier Talents! They served the city well from 2001 to 2015. Sharp looking trains. I will miss them on the current Trillium Line. I'm glad the city is keeping them and I hope to see them in use again.


Alex said...


I largely agree with your points, but I have a few differences of opinion. Before getting to that though, I feel that it should be noted that your sequence of events for the Trillium Line's failures are a bit incorrect. The service actually ran fine on Monday after it was fixed, right up until the trains were taken out of service at midnight. It was only first thing Tuesday morning that issues were discovered at the Brookfield signal siding south switch, causing delays. If the issue had been discovered Monday, there would have been a better bus service running first thing Tuesday morning, and the trains would not have come out and sat the the platforms as they did all day. By late Tuesday the system was running again, although only testing, which continued until noon on Wednesday.

The next biggest thing is that the Environmental Assessment to expand the Trillium line southwards is currently ongoing. Transit commission decided in 2011 not to expand the line before the Confederation line is complete in 2018, so as to not overwhelm it. It's interesting to note that a maintenance facility at Bowesville is still in play, as it remains approved on the EA for the old N-S LRT plan.

The Talents are being kept in storage by the city for use on this expansion in the future, which is why they were not sent off with more fanfare. In fact, they actually ended service earlier then expected, when flooding between Carling and Bayview stations on Friday caused the line to be shut down.

The southwards expansion is part of the 2013 TMP, and was included in the Mayor's "Stage 2" election campaign. It should be noted however, that funding for an Airport link is not part of Stage 2, although it is included in the EA so it can be built when funding is available.

I must disagree with you on the tunnel. With the current downtown Transitway ridership, surface light rail would have very little room for future growth, and would be subject to delays and interference due to traffic signals and weather. A tunnel provides increased ridership capacity for years to come, which is important as extensions to the east and west are currently undergoing environmental assessments.

This brings me to my next difference of opinion, which is that this is a train from nowhere to nowhere. In 2018, it may well be, but it is not going to stay that way long. There is a very good consensus between politicians, staff and the public that this is only the first step, and we need to keep expanding the Confederation line to maximize it's potential. One only needs to look at the blow back when the Ontario PC party questioned funding the second stage to see the local support for the expansion is strong.

On Carling, I agree that it is a good candidate for a Streetcar or LRT, but disagree that it is the place for the Confederation Line. In the TMP, it is identified as a corridor for BRT, which is probably adequate in the near term.

On all of your other points, I agree. The amount of track being removed from the area is very disappointing, from the Beachburg Sub, to the CP tracks from Mattawa to Smiths Falls, even the rails to Wakefield. Once they're gone, they're gone.

Michael said...

Alex -- Thanks for your comments. We'll agree to disagree on the tunnel. Notice that I say it is the right solution in theory, but the costs associated make it overly expensive when other alternatives could work, like running trains on streets.

Also, in regards to the O-Train expansion on the Trillium Line, you are correct on all the facts you state but you will note that my comments apply to the lack of support among elected politicians for this expansion. See Mayor Watson's most recent comments on this expansion and you will understand my criticism more clearly perhaps.

Your sequence of events for the Trillium Line's problems this week are a bit curious. A number of riders would argue with your point that the service was operating fine after it was fixed. Many commuters on my bus spoke of how it was not working well at all. But you are correct that it was operational after being fixed Monday morning.

In regards to Carling, my criticism is that the city never considered this route for part of the Confederation Line. I am not suggesting it is the best option, only that it should have been more carefully considered.

As for phase I LRT ending at Tunney's and Blair, I understand that these stations will be the end of the line for a short time, but my criticism stems from the fact that this service will need buy in from commuters immediately and these choices for the ends of the line will not make it convenient for people to get on board with this service in the short term. That, in my opinion, is bad policy. For people to embrace public transit like this, you need to make it convenient.

The Bowesville maintenance facility technically being in play is a good point, but I will wager a fair amount that this idea is dead in the water when the city already has facilities in place at Walkley, which can easily be expanded in an otherwise underused rail yard.

As for the Talents, you are correct that they are being kept for possible future use. I should have mentioned that in the post. I will miss seeing them on the current Trillium Line, however. They are elegant looking machines.

David said...

On those railway blunders:

1. How much more of the Prescott should have been kept? Riverside South, after all, isn't actually along the Prescott. Perhaps it should have been "planned" to be along it, but it wasn't. New railbed starting just south of Leitrim would be needed to get to Riverside South, whether the Prescott had been retained or not. The bigger boo boo was taking out the crossing infrastructure at Leitrim, as well as taking out the passing siding at Gladstone (which we have now had to rebuild).

Arguably losing the Carleton Place sub through Kanata and Stittsville is a far greater blunder, because that really will be difficult to undo.

2. It wasn't the RMOC that retained the trackage to Leitrim but CP itself. CP knew well that its track went past the airport wanted to lengthen a runway over the Prescott sub corridor, so CP kept that track to keep its options open. We just inherited that.

3. I actually came up with a scheme to run LRT down Albert Street back in 2010. It even retained local access to parking garages and loading bays. A knock-on effect is that Slater would either need to be turned into a two-way street, or reversed with Laurier becoming the eastbound one-way street.

4. Well... we've got to start somewhere. Sure, if we had another billion to spend and didn't do the downtown tunnel we could probably run the line further afield sooner.

8. Maguire's plan, unfortunately, didn't add onto the current plans, but instead replaced them with a service that only a relative few would be able to use, and then only at peak periods.

9. The failures on this part run through all 3 levels of government, along with failure to act on the Chalk River sub as well. We, as a country, now have one of our largest military bases completely isolated from the nation's rail network. For its part, CN demanded way too much money for the land underlying the line itself.

10. Carling is no solution for the WLRT. If things were starting to look like we'd use Carling for the primary route to the west, you can bet that we would now be hearing from numerous nimby groups - in particular business nimby groups - about using Carling at grade. It's a route with perilous cost escalation dangers. It's also a recipe for westend suburban councillors to demand that the high-cost express bus services continue to operate into downtown Ottawa along the Parkway.

One railway blunder you're missing - bigger than 4, 8, 10 on your list - is the failure of Ottawa to act to gain control of the former industrial trackage and associated lands in Alta Vista south of the VIA station in the early 2000s. Now that area is home to an expanse of asphalt dotted with a few box stores and sporting the moniker "Train Yards". This area, contiguous with OC Transpo's existing St. Laurent bus garage, should be home to the LRV storage and maintenance yard, but instead we had to expropriate nearby active business properties to build it.

That blunder stems in part from the failure to begin planning the current project in the early 2000s and instead focussing on replacing the O-Train (blunder 6 and with it, blunder 7).

Michael said...

Thanks for your comments, David. Some excellent points.

I will disagree with you on Mike Maguire's transit plans and the suggestion that they would only benefit a few people. CN's trackage in the west end of the city runs through some heavily populated areas that would greatly benefit from commuter rail. Yes, it would be rush hour traffic mainly, but I don't see how the current LRT alignment will anything other than a rush-hour dependent service. And, as I mentioned in my post, I wondered why his plans were never considered as a possible addition to our current LRT plans. I did not necessarily agree with Maguire's notion that his plans for commuter rail on existing tracks should replace everything that has been done so far.

As for Carling, I am not suggesting this should be the western route of the LRT. I was merely suggesting that parts of Carling should have been closely examined for their merits in hosting a light rail line. The current configuration is, as we have all seen, problematic to say the least.

David said...


My biggest problem with Mike Maguire's plan was that it wasn't a "plan" at all.

He didn't come at it from the perspective of creating a transit plan that would serve the city, but rather just to have something to put in his campaign to offer up as an "alternative" to what was already being developed. His is less of a transit plan that it is of a "spend as little capital on transit as possible and still pretend I have a transit plan" plan.

When I say *his* plan would serve very few, that's not because of where its corridors are but because there were no stops on it except at the ends and it lacked any kind of real ambition by design. For instance, an Algonquin student in Kanata would be out of luck with Maguire's plan since it would go right past Woodroffe without stopping. His was integrated with nothing, not even the existing Transitway system. By his own admission, Maguire's "plan" would have served all of 6400 riders per day - about half that of current O-Train ridership.

He could - for instance - have pulled out a copy of O'Brien's transit task force plan, and use that, at least as a starting point. But he didn't.

He just got out a map and started marking lines on it without the faintest idea of what he was doing. Indeed, he routed absolutely everything up the Trillium O-Train corridor north of Confederation Heights, including trains coming from some random location in South Orléans, all without twinning the Dow's Lake tunnel. I suppose that's consistent with 6400 riders per day, but that's rather faint praise.

Maguire basically did the biggest disservice imaginable to anyone else who had serious ideas about leveraging existing rail infrastructure for incorporation into our rapid transit system. If there were ever any hope of injecting some resource-conscious thought into rapid transit in Ottawa by using existing rail lines, he's done a good job of shooting that one down.

If you were to have said that blunder 8 was not incorporating the Mayor's Task Force plan into our rapid transit plans, I'd agree with that. But Maguire's less-than-amateur doodling on maps? Nope.

Keith said...

There is no doubt our city politicians have likely missed several opportunities to capitalize on existing rail infrastructure, but the bottom line is this, they are politicians, not rail fans. They have constituents who likely don't have the slightest interest in mainting what should be vital rail connections, and as such, they are allowed to disappear and become nothing more than memories. The reason I, and likely many others follow this blog is that I am a railfan, and find the state of rail use in Ottawa, and to a greater extent eastern Ontario to be very sad, but it is what it is.

I for one wonder why the Confederation line hasn't been incorporated into existing rail, or former rights of way. If it is to occuply most of the transitway heading to the east end, why didn't it run under or over the Queensway at Lees, cross the old CP bridge over the Rideau, and connect somehow with the existing Via Rail station, thus providing a connection that could have amounted to some sharing of existing Via trackage.

There is a good chance some of these blunders and missed opportunities will come back to haunt the city at some point in the future, but unfortunately for now, all we can do is watch in dismay.

Mike said...

Maguire's plan in theory would have actually been very useful to many people in Ottawa and I liked the idea of mainly using existing track for transit purposes. But as David already mentioned, Maguire's plan only consisted of two stops from Kanata all the way to the downtown core, making it absolutely useless for anyone either; living in Bells Corners, other parts of Nepean who want to go downtown or (as David already pointed out) someone in Kanata who needed to stop somewhere in Nepean. This makes absolutely no sense to me. The same went for the east and the south, there was going to be one stop in Orleans and in Barrhaven to serve the route all the way downtown.

I am all for using existing track in Ottawa for transit, and I've always thought the Renfrew sub would be fantastic for commuter rail as it passes through many suburbs in Nepean that would be very useful to many people in the west end. But, I find it defeats the purpose if it would only serve a portion of the people that could potentially benefit from it.

AJ said...

I to was greatly disappointed at the O-Train situation. The only nice part was the ruined photo ops (we seem to do A LOT of those around here for some reason).
I generally agree with a lot of your points, although the PoW bridge for me would rank higher.

For 8. on your list, how Mike McGuire's plan vanished midway through the election could be explained relatively simply. Back in October, McGuire wasn't the only person who believed in using existing trackage - Guy Annable who was running against Rick Chiarelli and also was running on this concept (made sense as much of his ward was in Bells Corners). This is important, as I have gotten much info from him at the time. McGuire, in conjunction with Guy Annable had fully intended to run a news conference to announce the specifics for this part of their platforms (it was originally talked about as a generalization earlier in the campaign). The event was planned for city hall and would be either 10 or 11 am (my memory on the time is hazy unfortunately). The problem here is that this event, which would have brought loads of publicity and discussion over the CN lines to the west, never happened. The event was set for October 22nd, 2014 - the same morning of the Parliament Hill shootings. The shooting dominated the local media over the following week and a half to the election and the two hopefuls never ended up getting a proper platform announcement or discussion out. That was your deafening silence. Frankly I think if they set things up properly with makeshift stations throughout Kanata, Bells corners, Queensway Carleton and Nepean, I think it was a cheap, temporarily solution that could have worked in the interim and eventually as a solid part of the transit plan. Couple that with a spur line to the CTC for games and weekday commuters and you'd have a winner.

9. For this one, the sad part is that I think Jimmy was using this as a stick for some of his other policies with Renfrew County - the municipality and towns that wanted the line for commuter service. What I mean here was that in the summer there was a big to-do regarding Watson trying to lobby the province to get provisions over Renfrew county and the country effectively telling the province to have him mind his own business. I don't 100% recall the specifics (likely his unhappiness that these areas are growing with former Ottawan commuters who he can't tax) , but I'd have to ask around to get refreshed. it was a no brainer as a commuter system and unlike the current tunnel and even east-west line projects, would actually accomplish removing cars from the 417.

As for the Bombardier Talents, why they don't use the existing trackage out to Kanata with some sort of slapped together addition is beyond me. We have them, they work solidly, they're paid for, the line is there, the commuters are there.. oh right this is making too much sense for the city to take seriously.

Michael said...

Thanks Mike, Keith and AJ for your comments. The only thing I would stress again: I am not in any way suggesting Maguire's plan should have been considered as an alternative to the existing plan. I am suggesting that commuter rail on existing infrastructure should be considered. That is a major error on the part of the city.