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.
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.