The ‘L’ In LRT Shouldn’t Stand For Laughingstock

By Wilson Lo, Barrhaven East Councillor

Our LRT has become exemplary for other Canadian cities of what not to do.

Calgary took our lessons from contract and project management for their Green Line LRT (which previous Council here interestingly ignored when approving the Stage 2 contract).

Montreal studied our challenges with ice on the overhead catenary system during freezing rain events for their soon-to-open REM.

Metrolinx and Québec City are paying close attention to our current experience with the Alstom trains, as they are also set to receive those trains for the Finch West LRT (Toronto), Hazel McCallion Line (Mississauga), and Québec City Tramway.

The Confederation Line has become a case study and a profile piece by schools of project management and media publications across the continent.

The only bright point has been General Manager Renée Amilcar’s leadership in navigating the hot mess inherited by her and the current Mayor and Council.

Responsibility for the construction and current maintenance of our LRT is through a public-private partnership (P3).

As we’re all aware, there were months of delays in construction of the LRT and the initial system testing continuously failed.

Political pressure applied by the former Mayor changed the pass/fail criteria of that testing, allowing the system to open prematurely, before thoroughly evaluating every element of the train.

But the issues started way before that.

Based on the findings of the public inquiry report, I’m of the opinion the situation we are in started before the signing of any contract—it started with the $2.1 billion price tag.

The report states the price, which became former Mayor Watson’s campaign promise in 2010, was based on a preliminary staff estimate with a margin of error of half a billion dollars and did not factor in inflation.

The firm price tag also meant elements of the project had to be costed out or cheapened.

We can continue blaming previous decision-makers and administrators, but I don’t think it does any good to look to the past. Wherever the blame may lie, the reality is we have inherited it and it’s now our job as your current city Council to fix it for good.

What’s most disheartening is that for the period preceding the July service suspension the LRT service was particularly good. Despite bad decisions on Canada Day, the LRT successfully transported thousands of Bluesfest attendees without issue.

That would have been worth celebrating and could have marked an inflection point in our relationship with the train, but it went the other way.

The issue that caused the latest service suspension is the same as the cause of the first derailment in 2021.

Earlier this year, RTG and Alstom proposed a plan to increase the frequency of inspections. OC Transpo rejected this plan, as it did not solve the problem.

Alstom agreed to redesign the axle assembly completely at their expense. Assuming the design, building, and testing goes smoothly, it should take 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, the frequency of axle inspections and replacements will increase.

The time until then, plus bespoke testing afterwards (standard practice for the manufacturer and the customer) means the fix won’t be quick, and could take years, but I believe the increased inspections and replacements will be good for the meantime.

Confidence in the system will not come back right away. Residents may have given up altogether and purchased vehicles and/or parking passes. In fact, my wife and I bought our first car after the second derailment.

I won’t sugar-coat it. Once we implement a permanent successful fix, winning back customers and the public will be an uphill battle with weights tied to our legs.

But for now, let’s focus on the fix.