In the hours and days after two separate incidents where Edmonton LRT trains heading in opposite directions ended up on the same track, city staff and spokespeople scrambled to respond to the situation, expressed frustration at the episodes and emphasized internally and to the media how safety was not at risk.
Documents obtained by Global News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the City of Edmonton reacted to the situation affecting the problem-plagued Metro Line back in November.
Global News received 323 pages of internal and external emails for the week following the Nov. 11, 2017 events.
The first incident happened at around 6:30 a.m. when a southbound train entered a northbound track at the NAIT LRT station. The southbound train ultimately stopped approximately 56 metres from the other train.
In the hours immediately following, there was a rapid-fire exchange of emails between city staff and Thales, the signalling contractor. Then, more managers and directors were looped into the conversation. The emails revealed city staff discussing that there had been a problem with the trains, that Thales may want to collect information and the city receiving confirmation that the trains were in fact deadlocked on the track.
“It has been determined that the train routing… was unusual and incorrect,” said a Thales vice-president.
Roughly two hours later, the documents show some frustration among city staff as they learned a second train entered the wrong track at the same LRT station.
“Eddie [Robar, ETS branch manager] just called me. Apparently it just happened again at 2 p.m. Same scenario. Train had to be backed up…Pfffttt,” wrote a branch manager for LRT delivery.
That feeling appeared to worsen as staff learned that there had been a third incident, which was not disclosed to the media that day.
The emails reveal that, later that same day, the gates at 106 Avenue would not activate when a train attempted to leave the NAIT LRT station and it is not clear what caused this to happen. This was the second incident of its kind in less than two weeks.
“Apparently two more incidents on top of the one early this morning. This is absolutely unacceptable… media is gonna be all over us,” a branch manager wrote.
Furthermore, the documents reveal how city and Thales staff wanted to emphasize how safety was not affected during the incidents and how there were no delays as a result of these incidents.
“To be clear, although this is a disruptive train routing lockup issue, it is not a safety issue,” wrote the Thales vice-president in another email.
Global News learned about both incidents at around 3 p.m. and sent the first media inquiry to the city communications team. The city sent a response to Global News with an emphasis on lack of delays and how it was not a safety issue.
“I relayed the information I had from ETS Control and stressed that the trains were back on schedule,” wrote city spokesperson Katherine Sweet to a team of city staffers.
However, the following day, the emails reveal disagreement between the official stance of the city and Thales and the opinion of some city staffers.
“Strange that trains being routed onto the same track isn’t being called a critical safety failure,” a general supervisor mused in an emailed response.
By Nov. 13, the situation appeared to escalate as the possibility of city action on the Metro Line loomed.
“There is a very high potential of council dealing with a motion tomorrow to shut down the Metro Line. We are not able to explain a system that we rely on Thales to get right,” wrote a branch manager to Thales.
“We are looking to find an expert to try to explain your system and the issue to council for tomorrow. From my perspective, all that we have to calm the issue in the public realm is the fact that we have human operators on the trains.”
That same day, the documents reveal confusion over whether what happened on the tracks was a human or system error. There are several emails spanning the course of two days showing city staff, outside consultants and Thales representatives trying to clarify who or what may be held responsible for the errors that weekend.
The emails show outside consultants stating it was a “scheduling or routing error,” city staff attempting to better understand how to explain whether Thales or the city was responsible and communications staff being looped in to include specific wording in mayoral messaging. It is only on Nov. 14 that there is further clarification that the routing error was caused by the system.
Later that morning, the communications team again internally emphasized the same talking points that had been distributed on the weekend.
“The messaging is the same as was supplied last week. The temporary Metro Line slow down is not impacting the train schedule… These deficiencies are quality issues, not safety issues,” wrote communications advisor Tarra Kongsrude.
The Nov. 11 incidents ultimately triggered a chain of events at city hall. First, city councillors started to question the Thales signalling system, then there was a bombshell revelation when city staff disclosed that the Thales signalling system is best suited for above or below-ground mass transit, not ground-level like the Metro Line.
In December 2017, council directed Thales to fix all issues by April 30, 2018, a deadline that has come and gone. Last week, the city served Thales with a notice of default under the contract; the company responded Wednesday, saying it is disappointed with the city’s notice and comments made while speaking to the media.
Global News asked the city to comment on the emails that were released and received a statement, which reads in part:
“Our challenges with Metro Line are well documented… There are many layers built into the LRT system including operators, the control room and signalling systems. Operating a safe and efficient LRT system is a top priority for the City of Edmonton.”
Global News also asked Thales for a response to the story and received a statement reiterating how safety could not have been compromised.
“By definition, this is not considered a safety incident,” the statement reads, in part. “As provided in our report to the City, the investigation and examination of the recorded data confirmed that the safety envelope between the trains was not, and could not have been, compromised. This recorded data confirms that the system operated in a safe manner and therefore there was no risk to safety and at no time was passenger safety compromised as a result of these routing errors.”
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