City knowingly accepted defects with LRT and lowered trial run criteria

·5 min read
Richard Holder, an engineer and rail manager with the city, testified by video at the Ottawa LRT public inquiry on Thursday. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)
Richard Holder, an engineer and rail manager with the city, testified by video at the Ottawa LRT public inquiry on Thursday. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)

The evidence heard Thursday on the ninth day of public inquiry into the Confederation Line was the most damning for the city so far.

The City of Ottawa willingly accepted a light rail system it knew was likely unreliable and changed criteria to make it easier for Rideau Transit Group to pass the final testing of the Confederation Line.

Testimony from city engineer and rail manager Richard Holder confirmed that the city accepted the LRT — and put it into service — while making a calculation it would fix problems after passengers began riding.

"I'm going to suggest to you that the city knew that there were reliability issues with the system at the time that it decided to launch public service," commission co-lead counsel Kate McGrann said to Holder in one particularly illuminating exchange.

"We knew that there would be some reliability issues," he responded. "Yes, we did. We didn't anticipate that there would be reliability issues to the extent that we would have derailments."

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

McGrann persisted: "The city knew that the reliability issues could interfere with the provision of reliable service to the public?"

Holder responded that train-maker Alstom, which is also the company in charge of maintenance, had been reporting improvements.

"That is not an answer to my question, sir," said McGrann. "My question was, the city knew that there were reliability issues that could interfere with the provision of reliable service to the public."

"That's correct," Holder replied.

Miss Day 10 of the inquiry? Watch it here: 

City agreed LRT was done while all 34 cars had issues 

In late April of 2019, when the LRT was a year late, Rideau Transit Group (RTG) told the city the LRT was substantially complete.

It was an important last step in the process of handing over the Confederation Line to the city — and one that came with a $59-million payday.

But the city rebuffed RTG's substantial completion claim and the project's independent certifier sided with the city. In a May 2, 2019 letter to RTG, the city said 25 vehicles had defects that were "extensive and ongoing and result in a lack of access to the complete fleet.

"The vehicles have not been shown to be reliable."

On July 26, 2019, RTG reapplied for substantial completion, and this time the city — and the independent certifier — accepted.

But it turns out the city agreed the LRT was basically finished — and paid out $59 million — even though there was a long list of outstanding problems it decided to waive and defer.

System-wide failure to meet fleet requirements due to ongoing defects/deficiencies. - One of the defects the city waived

These were not so-called minor deficiencies, which are allowed under the contract, but items that "could be considered to be quite significant, [a] key one being the number of vehicles that would be available at revenue service availability," testified Holder.

The unresolved items included the light rail vehicles — all 34 of them. There wasn't a single rail car that didn't have an open issue.

Another outstanding problem the city waived? A system-wide "failure to meet fleet requirements due to ongoing defects/deficiencies."

Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada
Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada

It's unclear why the city would agree the Confederation Line was substantially complete while aware of these details, but Holder testified that the city believed the train defects would improve between substantial completion and before RTG handed it over to the city, which turned out to be just a month later.

As well, the Confederation Line had to go through a period of trial running before the city accepted it, which Holder said added another layer of protection for the city.

Test scoring made easier during trial run

Although the light rail contract called for a 12-day trial test period, the requirements for what constituted a pass were vague — so the city and RTG agreed between them on the specific criteria in 2017.

But in the lead-up to the 2019 trial run, the city and RTG's construction arm agreed on a generally tougher version of the scorecard. The inquiry heard that the LRT performance called for in 2019 better mirrored what the city was expecting in a light rail system, as per the contract.

But within days of the start of the trial running, Holder got called in to speak with senior city leadership to discuss the criteria.

And when the independent certifier from Altus Group sent the city its validation statement of the trial running dated  Aug. 23, 2019, it described how the criteria was changed back to the 2017 version during the trial run period.

First, the requirement to run 15 trains during morning and afternoon rush hours was reduced to 13.

"They were having challenges to get 15 trains in the morning," Holder told the commission.

As well, the performance measure that indicates how many trains are out on the track for customer service and for how long — called the aggregate vehicle kilometre availability ratio, or the AVKR — was lowered to 96 per cent from 98 percent.

And that bar of 96 per cent would only have to be met on nine of the trial test days — not each of the 12 days. So the system could experience three terrible service days in less that two weeks, and those days wouldn't be counted.

Finally, there was a requirement that the train reliability (again, the AVKR) not fall below 90 per cent on any day of the trial testing.

But that was changed to a requirement that no three consecutive days see train availability below 94 per cent, meaning RTG could have — in McGrann's words — "two very bad days" and still pass.

RTG successfully completed the trial run on Aug. 22, 2019, and the next day Mayor Jim Watson announced the city would officially take over the Confederation Line — and that the city would open it to the public on Sept. 14.

Holder said the system was safe and that he never received any specific advice not to launch it. RTG felt it was ready and would incur significant penalties if the system didn't work, he pointed out.

McGrann asked Holder if there continued to be reliability issues after both substantial completion and after the LRT was launched, and Holder agreed.

He said the city "was aware the reliability of the system would improve" but that at the start of public launch "there may be issues that would impact availability."

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