No timeline to reopen Ottawa LRT, trains still stuck after freezing rain shutdown

A worker repairs overhead wires on a stalled LRT OC Transpo train near Lees Ave., station in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. A severe ice storm that hit Ottawa on Wednesday night has shutdown the light rail transit system due a power outage and has left passengers stuck aboard the train. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby. SC

There is no timeline in sight to get Ottawa’s light rail transit up and running again, city staff say, after a freezing rain storm on Wednesday shut down the system for the second time this year.

Five trains were still stuck on the tracks as of late afternoon, after what OC Transpo initially described as a “power issue” on social media earlier in the day.

The last time a freezing rain storm shut down the LRT, in January, commuters were out of luck along a stretch of the east-west corridor for six full days.

Renee Amilcar said earlier Wednesday in an emailed update to city councillors that because of the expected bad weather, 13 trains were kept running overnight, 10 of which have winter carbons to reduce ice buildup on overhead wires.

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But despite those precautions, five vehicles were immobilized and four of the stopped trains lost power on Wednesday morning, Amilcar said.

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One passenger had tweeted that after she and about 100 others spent more than an hour stuck on an eastbound train that had stopped moving, firefighters arrived and cut open a fence to free them.

Amilcar said all the trains were evacuated safely.

Mario Guerra, CEO and acting general manager of Rideau Transit Maintenance, later explained that ice buildup on the trains’ overhead wires caused a big fluctuation in voltage.

He said when the trains’ systems sense such irregular voltage, they automatically cut power in order to prevent potential damage.

“The vehicles are operating exactly as designed,” Guerra told reporters.

The city of Ottawa had issued a weather warning Tuesday night saying that freezing rain on Wednesday could cause “hazardous travelling conditions.”

After train service stopped, OC Transpo provided replacement bus service throughout the day.

But Coun. Ariel Troster suggested that the decision to switch to buses should come well in advance of freezing rain or other extreme weather events — rather than OC Transpo running the trains until they fail.

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“This is awful, what a waste of time (and a scary experience) for the people stuck on this train,” Troster said in a social media post.

After the shutdown in January, city officials told The Canadian Press that short- and long-term plans were in place to mitigate the issue if it arose again.

Those plans were to include using anti-freeze and heating overhead cables in certain areas.

There was also talk of procuring a non-electric recovery vehicle for future situations when trains don’t have power. It would run on diesel, similar to equipment used for heavy rail, and staff could use it to recover stuck trains during electrical outages.

Guerra said that they added more trains on the tracks after the freezing rain debacle in January, but said it wasn’t enough. He says they hope to implement some of the longer-term solutions by next winter.

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