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OC Transpo to use 20 new buses as ‘dedicated’ backup fleet when LRT service is down

An LRT train on OC Transpo's new O-Train Confederation Line heads towards Lees Station in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.
An LRT train on OC Transpo's new O-Train Confederation Line heads towards Lees Station in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OC Transpo says it will use 20 new buses it recently acquired to create a “dedicated” fleet of buses that will be deployed to pick up riders when service on Ottawa’s problem-plagued light-rail transit (LRT) system is disrupted during peak periods.

In the six weeks the Confederation Line has been experiencing repeated issues, the public transit agency has been pulling buses off other routes and deploying them on replacement bus service — known as R1 — when train service is interrupted or delayed significantly.

READ MORE: City of Ottawa ‘assessing’ province’s offer for help with troubled LRT system

On Wednesday, the chair of the city’s transit commission and the head of OC Transpo announced the city has secured 20 more Nova buses for its fleet, which will be ready to hit the roads sometime in the first week of December.

The city had ordered those buses for spring 2020 to use for bus detours as Stage 2 LRT work ramps up, but the city has managed to get them early, members of the transit commission heard during their latest meeting at city hall.

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Once they’re good to go, OC Transpo boss John Manconi said the 20 backup buses will be stationed at the baseball stadium and will cover the morning and evening rush hours.

The City of Ottawa has spent November searching for ways to bolster its stressed transit system, which has been strained by reduced bus capacity and unreliable service on the $2.1-billion Confederation Line since early October.

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

On Oct. 6, OC Transpo yanked about 180 buses off the roads and overhauled a number of routes in a major service change meant to align the buses with the train service.

The mayor called back 40 of those buses on Nov. 1 after issues along the Confederation Line amplified in the following weeks. OC Transpo has deployed them on routes that have faced “chronic issues” since early October.

Getting the 20 additional buses for early December means OC Transpo won’t have to draw on those 40 buses pulled out of retirement when it needs to activate R1 service, Manconi said.

The city’s draft budget has also earmarked money for 19 new buses to add to the OC Transpo fleet in early 2020. Wednesday’s announcement means that come January, there will be 79 extra buses serving riders.

Progress made on major LRT issues, ridership is up, OC Transpo boss says

Transit commission chair Allan Hubley apologized yet again on Wednesday for Ottawa’s ongoing transit challenges. The councillor insisted the city is “pulling out all the stops” to improve reliability of the LRT and bus systems.

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The Confederation Line has been “operating well with minimal disruptions doing peak periods” over the last week, Hubley added. Train service, however, was disrupted at the start of the morning rush hour on Wednesday due to a stopped train at Rideau station, according to OC Transpo.

READ MORE: City reveals where OC Transpo has deployed 40 extra buses amid LRT issues

Earlier this month, transit commission heard the majors issues plaguing the train were predominantly stemming from these four components: 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.

Progress is being made on all four fronts, Manconi said on Wednesday. Issues with the TCMS – referred to as “the brain of the train” – are trending down, he said. OC Transpo has adjusted the doors so they stay open longer at the stations and fewer door issues have been reported since, commissioners heard.

On the rail switches, additional staff have been brought in to deal with issues and winter switch covers that were causing some the problems have been removed, according to Manconi.

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

Coun. Rawlson King asked Manconi whether the city is “any closer to having a timeline on when the transit system will be reliable.”

“What I’ve given you today is where we’re trending,” Manconi replied. “I understand you want a date. I don’t have a date to give you.”

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“Moving in a positive direction does not constitute an action plan,” King said in return, arguing that his constituents want “clear answers.”

Despite ongoing challenges with the public transit system, overall ridership is up, Manconi reported on Wednesday.

Ridership was up 3.7 per cent in September compared to ridership in September 2018, transit commission heard. Preliminary numbers for October suggest ridership was up 3.2 per cent last month compared to one year ago, according to OC Transpo.

Transit commission to debate 2020 draft budget, vote on fare freeze

The transit commission on Wednesday is expected to debate the draft budget for 2020 and consider a motion proposing a three-month freeze on transit fares from January to March next year.

The city’s draft budget – tabled on Nov. 6, 2019 – accounted for a 2.5 per cent fare increase going into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Two days after the budget’s release, however, Mayor Jim Watson and Hubley asked city staff to budget for a three-month fare freeze as calls for a suspension amplified.

Hubley said he doesn’t support a full-year freeze at this time, but if the train’s problems persist into late March, the councillor said he’s committed to extending the freeze “until the service has improved.”

READ MORE: Ottawa mayor, transit chair call for transit fare freeze following LRT woes

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The last scheduled fare increase, delayed until the Confederation Line was carrying riders, came into effect on Oct. 1, 2019.

Manconi told commissioners the transit mitigation measures discussed Wednesday won’t affect proposed transit spending in the 2020 draft budget, nor will transit staff have to tap into other departmental budgets for cash.

The city said it plans to charge the builder of the Confederation Line and its maintenance division for the cost of operating the R1 fleet and the proposed fare freeze, Manconi said.