Friday, February 21, 2020

Ottawa's light rail disaster

I have been reluctant to share any thoughts about Ottawa’s new electrified Confederation Line light rail system on this blog. You don’t need to live in Ottawa to know that the launch of the east-west Confederation Line has been an unqualified disaster. There is no other way to describe this system. It was already well past its launch date when it began service in September. Admittedly, hopes were high when it did begin operations, but the problems began almost immediately.


Here is an unofficial summary of what Ottawa commuters have had to face since September.

1. City officials insisted that the trains had to operate flawlessly for 12 consecutive days before actual commuter operations were to begin. That did not happen, but city officials used all sorts of bafflegab and doublespeak to explain away this obvious failure to comply with its own guidelines.

2. The first major problem happened almost immediately when commuters tried to pry doors open when trying to catch a train. This is common in most transit systems. Most buses and subways have safety and redundancy systems that account for this behaviour. The O-Trains could not handle these situations and the doors would remain open after being pried open. The trains would then shut down. The door issue has been resolved through a change in commuter behaviour, but it’s not clear to me that the issue was ever fixed. The city insisted that technical adjustments were made.

3. Switches on the Confederation Line would often not operate normally, which would shut down part or all of the system. This happened multiple times before the issue was largely fixed. It should be noted that this problem has begun to resurface recently, due to winter conditions.

4. The city had told the public that 15 O-Trains would run during peak periods in order to maintain normal 3-minute intervals of service at all stations. The system has not yet had 15 trains working at one time. City officials have quickly changed their tune, saying the number of trains operating during peak periods is 13. No one has ever explained why this has changed.

5. There have been many cases where these trains have shut down for no apparent reason. If there were explanations for these mysterious failures, they were not well communicated with the public or not shared with the public at all.

6. Early on, a piece of the continuous welded rail broke apart, forcing the system to shut down while repairs were made to the (at the time) brand new right-of-way. The city insisted that this is a common occurrence in any rail system. Officials were then forced to admit that this “common occurrence” has never once happened on the Trillium Line since it first began operations in 2001.

7. A long piece of the overhead catenary was torn off its bracing by an O-Train for no apparent reason near Saint Laurent Station. The city never offered any explanation as to why this would happen.

8. Multiple O-Trains experienced power failures around the New Year. In this case, it was explained that the company that maintains the trains had to modify its maintenance practices because the pantographs that pick up the power were being compromised by a mixture of copper shavings from the overhead catenary mixed with rock salt.

9. In the New Year, the entire Confederation Line was severely compromised by a number of flat spots on the train’s wheelsets. The company maintaining the fleet explained eventually that its wheel truing machinery had broken down. The result was that only eight trains were available for use during peak hours for more than a week.

10. On New Year’s Eve, the city offered free rides on the O-Train for those going out for a night on the town. A mysterious failure on one of the trains caused a delay of more than an hour, due to the fact that there was obviously no back-up in place for train failures. Eventually, those stranded on the stopped train did get aboard a replacement bus, but the incident was the latest black eye for the beleaguered system.

11. It took weeks for the city to explain that a faulty sump pump was causing a lingering sewer smell in the underground Rideau Station. The problem has not been totally resolved yet.

12. There are now problems with a rotten egg smell at the underground Lyon Station, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained.

13. The city now says it will take more than a year to fix the electrical problems that are causing untold delays on the Confederation Line.


I mention all these instances as examples of some of the more egregious errors that have happened since this new service was launched. Some of the problems were to be expected with a new system. But the service interruptions have been an almost daily occurrence since December. It’s actually hard to think of a stretch of more than three to four days where the system has operated normally without any problems.

There are three more recent developments that have further eroded any trust the citizens of Ottawa have in our local leadership.

1. The company that is largely responsible for the current Confederation Line, SNC Lavalin, was handed the contract to extend the Trillium Line as part of the Phase II of the system’s expansion. This, despite the fact that the company had failed to meet the minimum technical threshold to advance in the bidding and was disqualified by the city’s own technical evaluation committee. That committee’s decision was overturned by senior city officials, due to a secret power they held to make such an arbitrary decision. It has since been revealed that SNC failed to grasp in its bid that the Trillium Line is not an electrified line, but rather a diesel line. The company’s bid also did not include provisions for snow removal. Yet, they won the bid. The city council has ordered an independent review of this contract process.

2. City officials have only recently come forward publicly with the revelation that the trains they purchased from Alstom, are not terribly reliable in a North American winter. These trains are a specifically modified version of another Alstom train that is used worldwide. However, the fact remains that the trains used here are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. They are the first to be used anywhere. And, as one city official admitted, they are so far proving to be lemons.

3. Ottawa residents were told that the company that is maintaining the Confederation Line and electric O-Trains has not been paid yet, due to the poor performance of the service since September. Only, that was another lie or half truth from city officials. It was actually revealed that the city, in fact, paid the company, which is called Rideau Transit Maintenance or RTM, $4.5 million.

I won’t offer my opinion, other than a few words. Everything that I have mentioned here is what has been reported. As a taxpayer and commuter, I can only hope that things will get better. I have lost trust in this city’s senior managers and the mayor. This will affect my vote in the next election. But, here’s the obvious truth. This is what happens when you don’t understand railways and have not had to live in a city with overly visible railways for the better part of half a century.

5 comments:

Keith Boardman said...

LOL. Yep. That's a political can of worms for sure.

My take... the city got it completely wrong, however, I'm not a rail expert, just a fan, so it's easy to make these conclusions.

The transitway should have been left the way it is/was, with busses on it only. The tunnel through downtown was a good idea, but could have been just as effective for bus use. The only thing I'd say they have done right is extending the Trillium line, but why not fix the POW bridge and extend service to Gatineau? I think it boils down to the city wanting to turn it into a bike/pedestrian path, which is unfortunate.

The easiest and probably most foolproof thing to start with should have used existing rights of way and put some kind of heavy rail, or RDC type vehicles that could share the track with VIA and what little freight traffic there is. Extend the M&O sub back out to Navan, lay tracks on the Carleton Place sub to service Bells Corners and Kanata, and maybe repurpose the track through to Arnprior, etc. Would have been simple enough.

I genuinely wonder who the city consulted before going ahead with this plan. Such a wasted opportunity!

Unknown said...

When you lay out all the problems together like this, it definitely paints a more complete picture.

For all of these problems, it comes down to , we get what we pay for. The overriding of the technical evaluation was most likely done because it was significantly cheaper, which is likely the root cause of many of these issues.

Adam A said...

They never should have put the LRT into service since it failed those 12 days, they should have made sure they got it right.
I agree with Keith implementing a commuter railroad in Ottawa would definitely be great. The original O-train was a pilot project back in 2001, the city could experiment with a pilot commuter railroad out to Arnprior on the existing line. Do some track upgrades for speed purposes and they could run trains from Arnprior with a couple stops like in carp, Kanata, and Bells Corners. Could help people in Kanata as they probably won't get LRT for at least another decade.
Assuming a shortline comes in to take over for CN, investing in better track out there could help to draw in a customer or two, as it would show long term commitment to rail in the region.

Steve Boyko said...

"Unqualified disaster" is definitely the right phrase for this. This is a failure of project management from start to finish.

Michael said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I won't get into it any more, other than to say this. I don't know how the city went from repurposing the old CP Ellwood Sub for a diesel O-Train line to what they did with the Confederation Line. One line works and didn't cost a king's ransom. The other does not work at all and will end up costing the city far more than it ever would have had they followed the original O-Train's blueprint.