I reluctantly took my first few trips aboard the new O-Trains on the city’s much-ballyhooed Confederation Line recently. To my surprise, I found the new system quite nice, with many small details well executed. There’s no doubt that people in the city are impressed with the new system. I think much of the excitement is centred around the fact that the line acts as a quasi subway through the downtown core, as it travels beneath the main parts of the core between the edge of the LeBreton Flats to the west and the University of Ottawa to the east.
Without getting into the politics behind the new line or the operational and bureaucratic miscues that have led us to this point, I thought I’d share a few observations on the trains themselves and the on-board experience.
1. My first impression of the train was that the ride was quite smooth and the trains remarkably spacious, considering how many people are hopping aboard at the end points of the line, which for me is Tunney’s Pasture. However, it is important to note that the old rapid bus transit system is still operating normally until Oct. 6, so these trains aren’t yet at full capacity just yet.
2. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I find these trains fairly ugly, especially the operator’s area at either end. I’ve seen other light rail sets in other citys that do not look like an insect’s head. Our trains look as though they have grotesque bug eyes on either end. I know they are probably designed this way to maximize safety and the sightlines for the train’s operators, but still. This is the light rail version of the P42. A small complaint.
3. The downtown underground stations are impressively laid out and quite functional. They are clean, although a bit sterile for my tastes. Most of the stations along the Confederation Line have a fair bit of artwork in them, but I found the actual platform areas at Rideau and Lyon Station to be a bit bland. Once you get into the areas with the stairs and pedestrian ramps that lead you away from the platforms, you begin to see more of the artistic flourishes. I suppose the platforms are no better worse than the subway station stops I can recall from my time taking transit in Montreal or Toronto.
4. The four-storey escalator that takes you from the deep underground Rideau Station to ground level is disorienting. It’s encased in a long, drab concrete tube. Unfortunately, there was no thought put into designing anything along the tube that is positioned at level. That means when you ride the escalator, you have a hard time judging whether you are standing at level. Think of the Crazy Kitchen at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and you will begin to understand. I have issues with vertigo and equilibrium and found the escalator a bit unsettling.
5. Pity the poor Trillium Line, the city’s first true light rail system. With all the hype and hoopla surrounding the launch of the Confederation Line, it’s somehow getting lost in the shuffle that this city has had a light rail system for more than a decade. The media coverage suggesting otherwise is just lazy.
6. The sound of the Citadis Spirit trainsets on the Confederation Line is more of a whirring rather than the sounds you typically associate with railways. I’ve been on subways in Toronto and Montreal and have to say that these LRT trainsets here sound much differently. There are no clanking sounds, just a high-pitched whirring.
7. The downtown rail tunnel is much louder than I thought it would be. As the trains makes their way through the core, the echoes of the train through the tunnel are quite noticeable inside the train cars. This is not a complaint. Just an observation.
8. The Tremblay Station that is right near the Via Rail central station has to be one of the more lightly used stations on the line. I am not an east-end commuter, so I can’t say this definitively. I took the train during off-peak hours but was still quite surprised at how empty this station was.
9. It’s interesting how the city links together two trainsets for the morning rush. The trains arrive every 3-5 minutes and are always in this configuration where two cabs are linked up together in the middle. I suppose this gives the operations people flexibility when they have reduced demand on the weekend and don’t need to use this two-trainset consist.
10. The new system has proven to get me to my workplace a few minutes quicker each morning, which was a pleasant surprise. Still, I’m not exactly thrilled that I have to make two connections just to get to work.
I guess I will reserve final judgment until this line operates in the winter. But, so far, so good.
Lucky for me I get off and stay off the bus when I get to Tunney's so I don't have to bother with these. For me, my biggest complaints are the noise (a lot of people I know think it's super loud) and the fact that there is a transfer involved (ultimately I'll have to transfer off a bus somewhere as the line expands which makes me question going back to driving in from the sheer annoyance).
I have to say that the rollout at Tunneys was a joke. People got off the bus in the morning to find the traditional openings in the fence padlocked and no real communication as to where to go. Same in the afternoon as the platforms have been completely re-jigged now. After a few days of frustration, they finally erected signs which alleviated much of the confusion. The OC Transpo attendants were helpful...when you spotted one. The vests helped, but as in plainclothes otherwise, they tended to blend in with the crowds. As well, for those working on the south and west ends of Tunney's, the walk to and from the building likely is doubled now depending on what platform you use to get on the bus which is pretty frustrating (and will be more so come February). My biggest peeve with things has to be the platforms - as everyone gets on/off here now, there are throngs of people crowding the platforms to get on the bus - so much so that at times you have to shove your way through crowds to get to your platform. Poorly designed with respect to the amount of people utilizing the platforms in my opinion. Ideally they should have a clear path behind the shelters to travel along which they sort of have, however I suspect come winter, it likely won't be plowed.
Oct 6th will be interesting to see. As a westbound commuter, I can say that half the bus empties out at Tunneys with a good chunk heading to the LRT. However the other half couldn't be bothered. So while things are smooth now, I expect that first week will be a true tell as to how well this system will work (followed by the first snowfall which is probably going to be another problem).
Considering the delays and issues surrounding the whole thing (and my bias towards replicating a heavy rail GO system instead and/or just making the bus service better), it appears to be reasonably meeting what its supposed to do over the first few weeks which is good and frankly, better than I expected.
All good points, AJ. If I may reiterate what I have already said that best describes my thoughts on the new service: We'll see.
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