Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson reaffirmed his confidence in the city’s light-rail transit system Wednesday as councillors push for more accountability and transparency surrounding recent derailments on the Confederation Line.
Speaking to media after city council on Wednesday, Watson acknowledged that there have been shortcomings with the LRT, but maintained the city had not bought a “lemon” — a charge recently lobbed at the line by Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans over dissatisfaction with the two-year-old system’s performance.
“Obviously, in our case, it’s not world-class. It’s far from it,” Watson conceded Wednesday.
“While it may get a headline to name-call and make fun of the system, the fact is, the system, fundamentally, is a very good system,” he said, citing the many months of strong performance from the line during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watson said the LRT system is lacking “consistency,” which the city’s transit partners will need to demonstrate to win riders back.
“We have to regain their confidence because, obviously, by and large, we’ve lost it,” he said.
“I still have confidence it was the right decision,” he said of the choice to build the system.
His defences come after an initial Transportation Safety Board report was made public Tuesday stating that the train involved in Sunday’s incident had “derailed as it entered Tremblay Station” and continued to travel well past the station with passengers on board before coming to a final stop, damaging rail infrastructure as it went.
Ottawa transit boss John Manconi again cautioned Wednesday that such findings are only preliminary, and encouraged councillors and members of the media and public to be patient while the TSB’s investigation plays out.
But the lack of details into the disturbance has prompted calls for more regular updates from city staff and Rideau Transit Group, the consortium tasked with building and maintaining the Confederation Line.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper attempted to get a last-minute motion on the floor at Wednesday’s council meeting calling for biweekly meetings of the transit commission, rather than monthly, until such a time that rail service is adequately restored.
While 16 councillors backed his call to debate the matter on Wednesday, Watson encouraged his colleagues to vote against it. With seven nays on the motion, Leiper failed to secure the three-quarters support he needed from councillors at the meeting to bring the motion to the proceedings.
The proposal also called for an emergency council meeting held Friday to debate LRT issues and a request that all documentation sent to the city from the TSB to date on the derailment.
When asked by media after the council meeting why he didn’t support Leiper’s motion, Watson said: “The number one priority I have is to fix the system, stabilize the system and grow the system. I believe the best use of our staff’s time is not preparing for a meeting every two weeks, but actually getting to the root cause of the problems so that we can bring a reliable system to the people of Ottawa.”
“I don’t support never-ending meetings, which, quite frankly, might be good political theatre, but … our staff need to spend their scarce time resources on fixing the problem first and foremost.”
He added that he is “quite satisfied” with the level of communications from Manconi to councillors and members of the media and public between meetings.
Other councillors gave notice of motions to be considered at their next meeting, including a call for a judicial inquiry into the LRT system from Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney and Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan.
Watson and Ottawa transit chair Allan Hubley also gave notice of a motion to potentially provide a month of free transit service for all Ottawa residents in December.
Members of city council will receive an in-camera briefing at the next finance and economic development committee meeting about the city’s legal options in potentially terminating its contract with RTG.
Derailed train back in the maintenance yard
The derailed train was moved back to the maintenance and storage facility on Wednesday after it was inspected by technicians from Alstom, the train-maker.
R1 replacement bus service remains in place and “all buses that can be made available are being used,” according to the latest updates from Manconi.
The R1 service is being prioritized right now, Manconi said, which is having knock-on effects elsewhere in Ottawa’s transit system. Some routes not along the LRT spine are seeing longer wait times or are being staffed by 40-foot buses rather than high-capacity articulated or double-decker options, he said.
Mario Guerra, the CEO of Rideau Transit Maintenance, told media on Monday that it could take three weeks before full service is back on the Confederation Line.
Manconi told reporters Wednesday that the onus for restoring service is on Alstom’s back.
“It’s Alstom, Alstom, Alstom. They need to step up and they need to get into Ottawa. They need to bring an army of engineers,” he said.
“If they step up, this can get fixed very quickly.”