No firm date, but Ottawa LRT should relaunch once fixes are made

·4 min read
An Ottawa light rail train runs along the tracks near Tremblay station on Oct. 27, the first day of testing following the Sept. 19 derailment. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
An Ottawa light rail train runs along the tracks near Tremblay station on Oct. 27, the first day of testing following the Sept. 19 derailment. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

The independent firm hired to approve the return-to-service plan for Ottawa's light rail network says it's confident LRT can safely relaunch once their recommendations are met, but there's still no specific date when that will happen.

Philadelphia-based consultants Transportation Resource Associates (TRA) outlined the work that's been done and still needs to be done by the Confederation Line's builder, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), at a lengthy technical briefing Friday.

The line has been shut down since Sept. 19 when a train derailed near Tremblay Station. While no one was injured, it was also the second derailment in six weeks.

TRA gave councillors and members of the transit commission a rundown Friday of both the short-term and long-term "mitigations" that would need to be fulfilled by RTG before the line partially resumes service — something the city hopes will happen by mid-November.

Mayor Jim Watson said at the start of the briefing the specific relaunch date would only be announced one or two days before it actually happened.

Since the September derailment was a result of improper maintenance leading to incorrectly torqued bolts, one short-term fix involves a train-by-train inspection of "all critical connections from the roof all the way down through the wheels," said TRA vice-president Daniel Hauber.

That had already been done for all trains set to re-enter service, Hauber said.

Another fix involved retraining operators to give them "situational awareness" of a potential derailment, Hauber said in his presentation.

How long has Ottawa's LRT line been off the rails?

Problems during testing

Since the shutdown, sometimes-crowded replacement buses have carried passengers who'd normally be taking the Confederation Line.

Maintenance crews began to test the trains on the line again on Oct. 27, with regular service simulated this week. Full service with 15 trains would return in mid-December under the city's timeline.

While crews detected problems with several trains during the mock runs and removed them, TRA representatives stressed this was a normal part of any testing process.

"We want everyone to err on the side of caution," said president and CEO Kenneth Korach.

"This is the time … to really focus on the little things," Korach said. "Perhaps in other situations or in other environments you'd say, 'well, it's a minor thing.' In this case, we're saying take [the trains] out of service, let's examine it thoroughly."

New OC Transpo head Renée Amilcar said those problems were connected to "vibrations," and more investigation would be needed.

City of Ottawa
City of Ottawa

Might be the 'wake-up call'

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has already said staff at the Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) facility failed to properly document their work following the first derailment in August.

That led to the train that derailed in September being put back into service with loose bolts connecting the gearbox to the bogie, which holds the axles and wheels.

TRA said Friday its overall goal is to forge a comprehensive, industry-standard "safety management system" for the Confederation Line that would ensure procedures are rigourously followed and not modified on the fly.

While it may not feel that way to Ottawa transit riders, derailments are actually quite uncommon, TRA's representatives said. That's why addressing those sorts of structural problems is more useful than adding something like derailment detection technology, they said, which can be unreliable and cause unnecessary evacuations.

"If a system is properly resourced and maintained, it's not going to derail. If it's properly inspected, it's just not going to derail," said vice-president Christopher Wallgren.

Still, several councillors and commissioners remain unconvinced — given the long history of problems with the Confederation Line — RTG would continue following the plan once the firm left town, with Coun. Jeff Leiper calling RTG a "recalcitrant service provider" that was prone to "backsliding."

Perhaps they do recognize this is a critical point in their relationship with the city, and that this is the time to really focus. - Kenneth Korach, CEO of TRA

Korach said while the LRT's builder and its maintenance arm could improve their "candour and transparency" and work more cohesively, it did appear they were focusing on the current problems "like a laser beam."

Maintaining that razor-sharp focus in the long run, however, would depend on the city's willingness to enforce its contract with the consortium, he said.

"Perhaps they do recognize this is a critical point in their relationship with the city, and that this is the time to really focus," Korach said.

"I can't speak to [whether it's just] a huge focus to get us over this hurdle ... or do they truly say 'no, we've gotten the wake-up call, and we're going to be different.'"

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