Top city officials doled out apologies on Wednesday for Ottawa’s problem-plagued light-rail transit (LRT) system, but the head of OC Transpo could not provide timelines for when the biggest issues plaguing the $2.1-billion Confederation Line will be resolved.
The city’s transit commission convened a special meeting to get more detailed information about the causes of repeated breakdowns and delays along the east-west train line over the last month, as well as what’s being done to fix them.
The problems on the O-Train escalated after Oct. 6, the day OC Transpo flipped the switch on the biggest service change to the public transit system in Ottawa’s history.
Asked by Coun. Rawlson King whether OC Transpo has a timeline for when “the system will become reliable,” OC Transpo general manager John Manconi said he has pressed the group maintaining the Confederation Line for a date, to no avail.
OC Transpo says those four issues are: the computer that controls all systems on the train (TCMS); the on-board computer that controls the train’s movements (VOBC); the train doors; and the rail switches.
Those issues have frequently occurred during weekday rush hours, leading to stalled service and crowded stations when the largest numbers of commuters are on the move.
OC Transpo officials insisted the issues with the computers, the doors and switches did not come up during a critical testing period of the Confederation Line in the summer, nor during the first three weeks the train carried riders along the tracks, before OC Transpo pulled parallel bus service on Oct. 6.
Manconi promised on Wednesday that OC Transpo is listening to riders and is “100 per cent aware” of the issues they’re facing.
“We’re working relentlessly to make your journey a stress-free journey,” he said.
“The system isn’t good enough yet.”
City manager apologizes, blames RTG maintenance group
The manager of the City of Ottawa delivered a profuse apology for the LRT’s performance to the transit commission on Wednesday and did not mince words as he pointed his finger at the group contracted to maintain the Confederation Line for 30 years.
In short: Rideau Transit Maintenance has “failed” to address the LRT’s problems quickly enough, Steve Kanellakos argued.
“We have not received what we paid for, and I can say that categorically.”
Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) is the maintenance division of Rideau Transit Group, the consortium that built the Confederation Line.
Kanellakos challenged managerial oversight at RTM and accused the group of poor planning, under-resourcing and “a failure to anticipate predictable issues.”
The transit commission heard RTM is bringing in engineering experts to investigate the root causes of the computer issues. For the train doors, OC Transpo says dwell times have been adjusted, door sensitivity will be recalibrated and the agency is blasting commuters with messaging about not holding the doors open.
On the rail switches, Manconi insisted OC Transpo has asked RTM to proactively staff technicians at terminus stations during peak periods for the train and ordered a “complete inspection and review of all switches.”
With winter on the horizon, OC Transpo staff say RTM has been “clearly” advised that their winter plan has to be “robust” and “anticipatory of Ottawa’s winter climate.”
Snow-clearing equipment has been installed at the above-ground stations, according to Wednesday’s presentation.
The city is paying RTM between $4 million and $5 million a month for maintaining the Confederation Line, Manconi said. He clarified they city deducted $2.8 million from the consortium’s September maintenance payment as a penalty and will continue to withhold $4 million per month if it isn’t satisfied with RTM’s progress.
Meeting held as city promises extra cash for transit in 2020 budget
The transit commission meeting was held the same day the city tabled its draft 2020 budget, which pledged an extra $9.5 million on top of regular transit funding to improve Ottawa’s bus service, which has choked with the LRT’s bumpy rollout.
The train problems and delays have stressed the city’s bus service, which lost 180 buses in the major service switchover on Oct. 6. The top issues riders have reported are late or missed trips, overloaded buses or problematic connections with the Confederation Line.
The persistent LRT problems and cascading effects on the bus routes prompted a “furious” Mayor Jim Watson to apologize to transit users on Friday. He announced the city would bring back 40 buses that were retired this fall and deploy them on the routes “that have faced chronic issues since the October 6 service change.”
The money to pay for that is technically contained in the proposed 2020 budget, which earmarks an extra $7.5 million to improve bus service and reliability on OC Transpo and $2 million more for Para Transpo.
If the 2020 budget is approved, OC Transpo will also purchase 19 new buses for its fleet and implement a 2.5 per cent fare increase on Jan. 1, 2020.
Citizen transit commissioners Sarah Wright-Gilbert and Anthony Carricato said they would rather see fares frozen in January because of the ongoing LRT problems.
“I absolutely believe that fares should be frozen across the board,” Wright-Gilbert said. “I’m going to be spending my weekend looking for offsets in the budget to offset the $4.9 million dollars that they say that a fare increase will bring in.”