Bugs disrupting LRT service declining but no sure-fire date for stable train: OC Transpo

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi speaks to reporters at Ottawa City Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

Two months after repeated service issues arose on Ottawa’s Confederation Line, the city says the number of incidents disrupting light-rail (LRT) service is on the decline, but the head of the public transit agency still can’t say when train service will be stable.

“I don’t have that answer for you, councillor,” OC Transpo boss John Manconi said when asked by Coun. Jeff Leiper on Tuesday when the persistent LRT issues will be fixed.

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The City of Ottawa’s finance and economic development committee received an update on the LRT’s performance at city hall, a month after councillors learned that the four main technical issues plaguing train service since early October are the train doors, two computers and the rail switches.

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The number of incidents causing LRT disruptions – particularly during the morning and afternoon rush hours – has been “trending downwards” since then, Manconi told councillors on Tuesday.

But, he said, stabilizing the $2.1-billion LRT line largely depends on diagnosing the root cause of the issues with the train control and monitoring system (TCMS) – one of the two computers that has been referred to as “the brain of the train.”

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

Speaking with reporters after his presentation, Manconi said the consortium hired to build and maintain the east-west Confederation Line, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), hasn’t yet given OC Transpo a date for when train service will be stable.

“When I ask someone for a date, if they can’t guarantee that date, then I don’t want to hear about it. I want to see the evidence to demonstrate to me they can achieve that date,” he said.

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“I had a very frank discussion with their entire executive committee yesterday with the city manager. And I asked: ‘Do you have a firm date as to when you can fix the TCMS by? And the answer was: ‘No, we do not.’ They wish they do.”

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Asked about the lack of an end date, Mayor Jim Watson suggested it’s more important to focus on finding permanent solutions, instead of a “quick fix,” because the LRT is “a complex system.”

“What we have to do is get it right and make sure we get it right, not just for two or three days and celebrate, but make sure it’s several weeks on end,” the mayor told reporters.

Even though engineers haven’t determined the root cause of the TCMS issues, Manconi told the committee that a few recently-implemented measures have helped reduce the number of TCMS-related incidents and their impact on service.

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The train fleet now has software that minimizes the impact of those computer problems and collects “critical” data for train engineers, he said. OC Transpo has also made some operational changes that have helped crews reset the system faster when issues arise, according to Manconi.

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As for the door issues, those are subsiding too, but the train cars aren’t to blame for all those incidents, Manconi said. Three train service delays last week were “a direct result of customers forcing open or prying open the doors,” he told councillors.

“The customers need to leave the doors alone,” he underscored.

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Some rail switch issues continue and OC Transpo has asked RTG’s maintenance arm, Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) to have more staff monitoring the switches at Tunney’s Pasture and Blair stations during peak periods and during bad weather. In general, RTM has “significantly increased resources on the ground” to deal with train issues.

“I will give credit when credit is due,” Manconi told councillors. “That’s a very positive sign and they’re definitely listening to us.”

After Kitchener-Waterloo’s LRT system was disrupted over the weekend due to freezing rain, Watson asked Manconi what OC Transpo is doing to ensure that doesn’t happen on the Confederation Line, given Ottawa’s train also has overhead wires.

Manconi said the city has a “winter plan” for different weather conditions and, in icy conditions, OC Transpo would continue to run “limited service” end-to-end “to eliminate ice build-up on the overhead catenary system.”

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City to conduct ‘operational review’, expand monitoring of RTG’s work

The city’s position is that RTG “has not fulfilled the contractual obligations” for maintaining the Confederation Line, councillors heard Tuesday.

In response to what it claims is “consistently poor performance” by RTG, the city plans to immediately begin “an operational review” of RTG and RTM’s work and expand its oversight of train car maintenance to all maintenance activities along the line, with help from “an external team of highly-qualified rail experts.”

Manconi said increasing oversight should hopefully boost the likelihood of resolving the TCMS issues faster.

Click to play video: 'Councillor calls to postpone LRT construction in favour of bus service' Councillor calls to postpone LRT construction in favour of bus service
Councillor calls to postpone LRT construction in favour of bus service – Nov 25, 2019

The city is also hitting RTG in the pocketbook and is “applying deductions to the monthly service payments based on system and maintenance performance,” Manconi’s presentation said.

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The municipality withheld its October and November payments to RTG, Manconi told reporters.

“I’ve given very clear instruction until we’re satisfied with the service that they’re to provide us, we’re not going to go and pay them,” Watson said. “They’re hurting financially and as a result, I’ve seen them pick their game up for sure.”

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The city also plans to bill RTG for the cost of keeping a fleet of 20 buses on standby for replacement service when LRT service is down or disrupted during the morning and afternoon rush hours. That backup fleet is costing OC Transpo $95,000 a week, councillors heard Tuesday.

Amidst concerns there aren’t enough drivers for the city’s level of bus service, Manconi insisted OC Transpo has enough operators right now for current routes, as well as for the 40 buses put back on the roads, the backup bus fleet and 19 new buses coming in January. But the agency needs more “spare” drivers available to call in when necessary.

Manconi said the agency is screening 160 operators and hopes to hire and train more than 100 new drivers between now and early next year.

READ MORE: Trial of OC Transpo driver charged in fatal Ottawa bus crash set for 2021

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Coun. Riley Brockington asked Manconi what’s keeping him up at night right now.

“I want our customers happy. All of them,” Manconi replied. “They’ve been through a lot. I’m concerned about our operators and our staff … our customers want consistently reliable service.”

Global News has contacted RTG for comment and will update this article if a response is received.

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