Maintenance company falling down on the job: Transit chair

The chair of Ottawa's transit commission, Coun. Allan Hubley, is laying blame for the train shortage that's wreaking havoc on morning and afternoon commutes squarely on the maintenance company hired to keep them in working order.

Riders endured more unreliable LRT service Monday and Tuesday, when there were as few as eight double trains in circulation. OC Transpo normally deploys 13 trains during rush hour.

Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), an offshoot of Confederation Line builder Rideau Transit Group (RTG), has been tasked with a host of responsibilities necessary to keep the trains — and the rest of the system — running smoothly.

But that work isn't getting done, and that's what's causing the problems, Hubley said in an interview with CBC on Tuesday. 

"If they do the maintenance ... we wouldn't be having these issues," he said.

Francis Ferland/CBC

Wheels losing roundness

One of RTM's task is making sure "wheel flats" — when train wheels lose their perfect roundness, causing them to grind on the tracks — don't occur. It hasn't been doing that to satisfaction, Hubley said.

"They're always supposed to be looking at [the wheels], grinding them," Hubley said. "They're supposed to be checking it and it looks to us at this point that they haven't been doing that."

OC Transpo employees can't do the maintenance work themselves, Hubley explained, leaving the city to rely on RTM.

Because of the numerous and ongoing maintenance issues, the city has been withholding payments to RTM since September's Confederation Line launch, an amount that fluctuates between about $4 million and $5 million per month. 

Ottawa is locked in a contract with the company for the next 30 years.

"I'd rather they do their job," Hubley said. "We'll pay them their money, everybody will be happier on the trains."

Reaching breaking point 

Out on the platforms, passengers have just about had it.

Claudia Desnoyers said she had high hopes for LRT, but after Tuesday's trip to work, her patience with the system has evaporated. 

"It was very terrible," Denoyers said. "[It] took me 15 minutes to just be able to board the train and it was jam-packed again. I had to let one through because there was no place on it, and the second one wasn't really any better."

David Jeanes of transit advocacy group Transport Action Canada said it seems like a new problem creeps up every day. 

"We need better maintenance, we need those trains in service, we need the trains to be properly cleaned," Jeanes said. "We need to solve these problems with brakes seizing and causing flat wheels."

Update Thursday

Hubley said he's fully aware of the frustration boiling over among passengers, and assured them he's feeling it himself.

"I don't know the word but I'm going to have to invent one because there is really no good description of how upset I am about this," he said.

Hubley added he's cautiously optimistic all the trains will be up and running soon.

"I'm hoping that today, tomorrow at the latest, and things will be better. But I can't promise you that," he said.

A meeting of the transit commission has been hastily called for Thursday, when representatives from RTM will be expected to provide some answers.