Axles, odours, fires: OC Transpo boss answers questions in memo amid Ottawa transit turbulence

Crews inspect the damaged Confederation Line train just east of Tunney’s Pasture station on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Ten trains have now ben found to have similar issues. Nick Westoll / Global News

Transit operations in Ottawa have been through a bumpy ride in recent weeks, with axles askew on light-rail trains and reports of possible fires on the line.

OC Transpo boss John Manconi attempted to answer a series of questions about the turbulence in a memo to council late Monday night, but a number of councillors aren’t satisfied with the written responses and are preparing a rally to demand public accountability.

Axle issues

Much of the recent disruption to transit service in Ottawa has surrounded axle bearing problems on a number of LRT trains.

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An axle derailed from a vehicle on Aug. 8, prompting a fleet-wide inspection that took the LRT system offline for five days and revealed similar issues in nine more trains.

Manconi said in his memo Monday that 12 trains were running on the Confederation Line that morning with service every four to five minutes, in line with “current ridership needs.” He added that OC Transpo is working with Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), the LRT builder now charged with maintaining the line, on increasing the frequency for an expected jump in demand come September.

In response to questions from councillors, Manconi said that of the 10 cars flagged for needing repairs to the axle bearings, all but one were delivered in the original batch of LRT vehicles. The tenth was put into service in the second quarter of 2020.

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No axle-bearing issues were identified in the testing phase before LRT launched in September 2019, he noted.

He also clarified that any repairs needed to the trains are done on RTM’s tab, at no cost to the city.

Councillors also requested to see copies of communications from the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), which dispatched a team of investigators to the site when the axle issues were first discovered.

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But Manconi said the “majority” of talks with TSB have been verbal with little available in writing.

The transportation watchdog told Global News that the LRT issue was assessed as a low-level investigation more focused on data gathering than something likely to advance wider rail safety efforts.

A report will not be produced at the end of this probe, the TSB told Global News.

The investigation into the axle issue is ongoing and does not appear to be related to the recent spate of hot weather in Ottawa, Manconi said.

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Fires on vehicles

The day before the axle issues began, Ottawa Fire Services were called about reports of smoke coming from one of the LRT trains.

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Fire crews removed a piece of cloth from the train located as the source of the smoke, but Manconi said in his memo that there was no fire or damage to the vehicle as a result.

The train was inspected afterwards but put back into service.

Councillors also questioned Manconi on bus fires, something he said in his memo happens “infrequently” at OC Transpo.

In the last year, one double-decker bus had an engine fire while it was out of service in a garage this past May.

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That fire, deemed the result of an electric short, prompted an inspection of the double-decker fleet.

“With a fleet of over 900 buses, travelling over 66 million kilometres per year, these types of incidents can occur,” Manconi wrote.

He noted that all OC Transpo double-decker buses had fire suppression systems installed in their engine areas in 2015.

Stop-and-start trains

A number of trains have had stop-and-start issues on the Confederation Line over the past week.

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On Aug. 18, a vehicle was held back from service before launching in the morning because an error code signalled a possible coupler issue between the cars on a double train.

Sensors that verify the two trains are correctly aligned needed to be adjusted before it could be launched, Manconi said.

He said the resulting delay for customers would have been “up to an additional minute of wait time.”

Two other issues cropped up two days later, however.

A train stopped near Hurdman Station because a connector had loosened in the vehicle’s braking system. The train came to an “immediate stop” due to the vehicle’s on-board safety system, which “functioned as designed,” according to Manconi.

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Customers were transferred to another train while the original was transported to the maintenance yard for repairs, with some riders reporting delays of up to an hour as a result.

Later that evening, a train travelling east at Tremblay Station experienced a “brief traction power issue.” Staff at the OC Transpo control centre decided to “proactively” remove it from service, Manconi wrote.

Riders faced delays of up to 10-15 minutes as a result of the power issue, which Manconi said was compounded by an operations drill taking place at the same time.

“We will be conducting a review of this event as well as our communications, which may not
have accurately conveyed the service delay to customers,” he wrote.

Lingering odours

One of the most persistent concerns plaguing Ottawa’s LRT since it launched nearly two years ago have been reports of foul odours coming from downtown transit stations.

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RTM has not been able to identify a “specific pattern” in terms of time or day or temperatures that could be contributing to the smells, Manconi said.

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The odour at Rideau Station specifically has been attributed to groundwater infiltration in the tunnels. RTM has been grouting up the leaks whenever they crop up, Ottawa’s transit boss assured, which he claimed should eventually take care of the problem.

Regular air quality monitoring in the station shows the air in the station is “well below any thresholds for concern,” he added, and testing from an environmental engineering firm confirmed the odours are not hazardous.

The investigation into odours at nearby Parliament Station have not yet yielded any source for the smells, but Manconi said he expected ongoing grouting will solve issues here as well.

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RTM is exploring other options to increase ventilation in the underground stations.

Public rally in lieu of transit commission meeting

Attempts to host an emergency transit commission meeting over these recent concerns have been rebuffed by chair Allan Hubley and Mayor Jim Watson, who have said they are satisfied with Manconi’s regular memos provided to council.

That’s not good enough for some city councillors and transit commissioners, who are planning a rally Wednesday at 11 a.m. in front of City Hall to demand more accountability from transit staff and the mayor’s office.

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Some, including Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans and transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert, have even accused the mayor of holding back information about the recent LRT woes in recent interviews and on social media.

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Global News reached out to the mayor on Tuesday for his response to the accusations.

“The mayor has no idea what the two councillors are talking about and encourages them to provide specifics of what information they claim is being withheld,” his press secretary said in an emailed response.

“Staff have been providing councillors with full briefings, detailing all aspects of resolving the problems. Councillors will have the opportunity to have a full discussion on transit at its next meeting,” Watson’s statement concluded.

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