The consortium contracted by the City of Ottawa to maintain the new LRT system for 30 years is going to pay an outside team of rail experts to review the operations and maintenance of the Confederation Line because it needs more rail expertise to improve train service, the city’s transit commission heard Thursday.
The news comes as the LRT hit day four of a train shortage during the morning and afternoon rush hours because of “a rash” of wheel flats.
It’s the latest debacle for the four-month-old rail service, which, since launching, has also suffered repeated computer glitches, door faults and rail switch issues, as well as a downed overhead power cable last week.
All of these problems have disrupted service to varying degrees, with January being a particularly rough month, the head of OC Transpo conceded during a special meeting called this week to discuss the LRT issues.
Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) — the maintenance division of Rideau Transit Group (RTG), which designed and built the LRT system — has acknowledged they have to do better and admitted they “require additional and enhanced rail expertise if things are to improve,” OC Transpo boss John Manconi told transit commissioners.
RTG has agreed to hire consultancy company JBA Corporation to review what they’re doing and to help implement changes to operations and maintenance, Manconi said.
JBA has “a proven track record of helping railroad operations become reliable and are recognized as industry experts in this field,” Manconi said.
The transportation manager said he’s “confident” that if the consortium follows JBA’s advice and “immediately implements recommendations,” the city will see “significant improvements over time.”
Peter Lauch, CEO of RTG and RTM, later told reporters that “it’s not unusual in the industry to bring in a few other people.”
“Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees,” Lauch said. “We’re having some additional insight and we’re quite confident they’ll be able to help us.”
While he said his team expected some issues with a brand-new LRT system, Lauch said his team didn’t “anticipate” the volume and frequency of the problems.
Neither Lauch, nor Manconi could say when train service will be stabilized or reliable.
During the meeting, Lauch tried to assure councillors that the consortium is “working day and night” to fix the current problems and also “keep ahead of future issues.” He apologized once again to Ottawans who depend on the train.
“I know it’s cold comfort to transit riders, but we are very sorry for the recent spate of service disruptions and I can assure you we are striving to do better,” Lauch said.
“We aren’t taking our foot off the gas. We are adamant to get the trains running as soon as possible. We’re doing everything in our power to keep the train, the track and the switches fully operational.”
Officials offer up few answers to varied LRT issues
During the meeting, OC Transpo officials went through the different issues plaguing the LRT system in detail but didn’t offer up many answers about what’s causing them.
On a positive note, staff said one of the train computers — the train control monitoring system, or TCMS — that had caused many problems in the fall has been running smoothly all January after technicians deployed a software update in December.
OC Transpo and RTM are still trying to figure out the “root cause” of those computer problems, though.
There was also a lengthy back-and-forth over rail switches, which allow trains to move from one section of the track to another throughout the LRT line. Those switches essentially get stuck when there’s a build-up of ice and snow, the transit commission heard.
Commissioners grilled Lauch over whether the consortium didn’t install an adequate heating system to keep those switches clear. RTM is still investigating whether the heating system is to blame, Lauch said.
RTM is also still investigating what caused a pantograph to yank down an overhead wire supplying power to a train at St-Laurent station last week. That train has been repaired and is back in service, the transit commission heard.
Then, trains were taken out of service this week because many — up to 13 at one point, according to Lauch — developed “flat spots” on the wheels and RTM had trouble dealing with them in a timely manner.
Commissioners heard that wheel flats do happen on rail lines; they can be caused by sudden and repeated heavy braking, for example. But why the flat spots cropped up so frequently this week is “concerning” and still under investigation, Manconi said.
As the meeting continued, OC Transpo reported that the Confederation Line would once again be short two trains for the afternoon rush hour and would continue offering “special” bus service to riders travelling out of downtown to Hurdman and Tunney’s Pasture stations between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
There were 12 trains in service for Thursday morning’s rush hour, according to OC Transpo. According to the agency, there needs to be 13 trains running during the morning and afternoon peak hours to handle the volume of riders.
While Lauch said 13 trains should be back in service on Friday morning and that 14 trains would be “available for service” on Saturday, OC Transpo officials said they will continue to run the supplementary bus service until Jan. 31.
City manager defends OC Transpo management
Before the meeting kicked off, City Manager Steve Kanellakos addressed calls for Manconi’s resignation that have circulated amidst the escalating LRT problems.
Kanellakos defended the transportation manager’s performance, saying he has “worked tirelessly” to accomplish the massive bus-to-rail transition in Ottawa and is “committed” to improving the LRT system.
“No one could anticipate that we would have to literally throw our plan into the waste can and come up with a new plan to be able to deliver services,” he said.
“And that could not have happened without the skill and leadership of John and the skill and leadership of the people on John’s management team.”
Kanellakos said he also doesn’t fully blame RTG for the situation and stated the city isn’t ready to rip up the maintenance contract with the consortium at this time.
“Blowing it up is not going to fix it. Taking out leadership is not going to fix it,” Kanellakos said. “You take out leadership, you take out me. I’m ultimately accountable.
“Don’t take out the people that are killing themselves every day to try and fix this system and make it better.”