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Ottawa city hall exploring ‘all options’ as LRT woes spark calls for restored bus routes

A screen capture of a set of coupled LRT train cars being tested in the snow.
A screen capture of a set of coupled LRT train cars being tested in the snow. Screen capture / OC Transpo YouTube

After issues along Ottawa’s new Confederation Line delayed riders’ rush-hour commute for the second time in 24 hours, the mayor and councillors say they’re working with city staff to find solutions — and reinstating some cancelled bus routes are among those considerations.

Passengers reported on Wednesday morning that light-rail (LRT) service was significantly delayed, posting photos and videos on social media of large crowds waiting on packed platforms in sub-zero temperatures.

Tuesday’s frigid afternoon commute was also disrupted by a stopped train, forcing passengers to move onto replacement bus service and prompting three councillors to call for some bus routes to be reinstated until the train service is stable.

READ MORE: Ottawa LRT maintenance group announces new CEO as train faces first snow day with riders

“We don’t want anybody freezing in a snow bank or unsure if they can get to work in the morning,” transit commission chair Allan Hubley told reporters on Wednesday.

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“I’m hearing personal stories about people getting late for work and starting to get in trouble [for] being late too many times or missing job interviews. We don’t want that.

“That’s not the system we asked for. And so that’s why we’re saying we need to get every possible resource at that.”

Coun. Allan Hubley is pictured at Ottawa city hall on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.
Coun. Allan Hubley is pictured at Ottawa city hall on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Watson confirmed via email the mayor is working with city staff “to explore all possible options to help improve transit service and reliability, including the reinstatement of certain bus routes.”

The city yanked about 180 buses and cancelled several routes that took commuters from the suburbs in the downtown core in a planned, major service change in early October, after the $2.1-billion Confederation Line launched mid-September.

Some local routes have since faced chronic issues and the repeated LRT problems and delays over the last month have had a “ripple effect across the entire [transit] system,” Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper argued on Wednesday.
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“We need to provide [transit users] with an option for those times when the train breaks down,” said Leiper, who was one of the three councillors who called for restored bus service on Tuesday evening.
Coun. Jeff Leiper says OC Transpo users need “an option for those times when the train breaks down.”
Coun. Jeff Leiper says OC Transpo users need “an option for those times when the train breaks down.”. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

Leiper said he envisioned bringing back some of the 200 series routes that carried commuters directly from the suburbs to downtown Ottawa, but added that the city does have to be “pragmatic” about its resources.

While the main OC Transpo Twitter account has typically posted about delays on the Confederation Line, the account was silent about the problems on Wednesday morning. Asked later what caused the Wednesday morning delay, Hubley told reporters he didn’t have that information confirmed.

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“We’re still looking into that,” he said in the early afternoon. “There seems to be some confusion around it.”

Click to play video 'Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city' Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city
Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city – Aug 23, 2019

Video footage posted to social media on Wednesday morning suggested that platform signs were telling riders to expect more than 20 minutes in between trains, when the trains are supposed to arrive every five minutes or less at peak times.

The city’s draft budget for 2020, tabled on Nov. 6, already earmarked an extra $7.5 million in transit spending to improve bus service and reliability amid the ongoing LRT issues. As part of that, the city has already brought back 40 buses it retired in the major service change at the beginning of October.

But some councillors and members of the transit commission don’t think that’s enough to compensate for the persistent service disruptions on the Confederation Line.

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READ MORE: OC Transpo can’t say when Ottawa’s LRT will be stable: ‘The system isn’t good enough yet’

Hubley suggested that city staff will have to rewrite some of the draft budget and perhaps take money from other departments to accommodate whatever additional emergency transit measures council decides to pursue.

“The transit budget can’t afford that on its own,” Hubley told reporters. “We’re gonna have to take from other things in that budget to fund that if that’s what we’re going to do, and I’m open to that discussion. It’s not going to be a popular statement because an awful lot of people put good work into that budget.

“But we are dealing with an unknown situation here,” he continued. “I can’t turn to you and say I know those trains are going to work every day going forward.

“I don’t have that confidence.”

LRT performance is ‘beyond disappointing’, says former transit commission chair

Asked what he thinks about the calls for bus routes to be reinstated, Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais said he thinks “all options are on the table at the moment” — but cautioned that any relief can’t “happen overnight.”

“There are any number of things that need to be considered,” said Blais, who chaired the transit commission during the 2014-18 council term.

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“The highway detours need to be put in place. The ramps need to be closed again. We need the availability of additional buses. We need the availability of additional drivers. And then we need to pay for it all.

“I can assure everyone those discussions are happening.”

Click to play video 'Exciting and ‘emotional’: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson describes how LRT launch day feels' Exciting and ‘emotional’: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson describes how LRT launch day feels
Exciting and ‘emotional’: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson describes how LRT launch day feels – Sep 14, 2019
The east-end councillor, who now chairs the city’s transportation committee, told reporters “the [LRT system’s] failure rate is beyond what is acceptable” and that it’s “frustrating” the city now has to sink more money into backpedaling some service changes.
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“Disappointing isn’t a strong enough word to use. It’s beyond disappointing.”

“We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and when it doesn’t come close to meeting expectations, that’s hard. It’s very hard,” Blais said.

Coun. Stephen Blais, who formerly chaired the transit commission, argued that the LRT system’s “failure rate” is “beyond what is acceptable.”
Coun. Stephen Blais, who formerly chaired the transit commission, argued that the LRT system’s “failure rate” is “beyond what is acceptable.”. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

During a marathon transit commission meeting last week, the head of OC Transpo couldn’t say when LRT service would be stable, but said the city is pressing the group contracted to maintain the Confederation Line to give them a timeline on fixing the biggest issues plaguing the trains: the doors, the rail switches and two different computers.

READ MORE: Ottawa transit commission chair says public confidence and morale at ‘all time low’: memo

Asked whether the city accepted the system too quickly, Blais suggested that is “a perfectly fair question” that’s best debated at a later time.

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“Right now, we need to get people to work and we need to get them home again,” Blais said.

“It can’t be a roll-the-dice situation on whether or not someone’s going to be able to do that in the morning and again in the afternoon.”