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Ottawa blames P3 partner as train shortage bedevils new transit line

By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press   


The city’s new LRT opened last fall, but has been beset with issues. PHOTO: OCTranspo/YouTube

OTTAWA—Riders on Ottawa’s problem-plagued light-rail system faced yet another day of turmoil Jan. 21, with trains out of service because their wheels weren’t round enough the latest in a string of problems that has delayed or shut down service.

The city blamed the company it hired to design, build and maintain the line, which opened last fall.

Since then, the $2.1-billion system — funded by local, provincial and federal dollars — has been repeatedly brought to a halt by problems with stuck doors on the fleet of trains as well as onboard computers that have failed.

Trains have also been taken out of service because the wheels have flat spots. That happens when metal wheels grind on metal rails but it’s supposed to be addressed through regular maintenance.


Just in the last week, parts of the line were shut down by a vital cable apparently snapped by a train it was powering, and switches that didn’t work in a weekend snowstorm.

A citizen member of the city’s transit commission noted that many of the problem popping up in recent days, as snow and deep cold took hold in Ottawa for the first time this winter, were identified as deficiencies during winter testing last year.

“This system was not ready to be launched in September, it shouldn’t have been launched, and further testing should have been done to ensure that all of the deficiencies that had been identified were actually going to be remedied and rectified for this coming winter,” Sarah Wright-Gilbert said.

“As we see now, it’s clear that we’re having some serious issues with the same things.”

The city’s transit commission oversees the operations Ottawa’s rail and bus services but a separate city council committee handled the contract for building and maintaining the rail line. That went to a consortium whose lead partners are ACS Infrastructure and Dragados, both based in Spain, and Canada’s EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin.

Transit riders awoke Tuesday to the news that only eight of the usual 13 trains on the downtown line were available for the morning commute. That led to extra-crowded platforms and longer-than-usual waits for trains. In the lull between rush hours, an extra train was added to have nine out of the usual 11. And by the afternoon commute home, one more train got put into service, but the system was still short three.

The chair of Ottawa’s transit commission told two morning talk shows that the part of the private consortium that maintains the system, Rideau Transit Maintenance, has had problems with upkeep on the train wheels. Coun. Allan Hubley said in separate interviews aired Tuesday morning that the wheels have developed flat spots and need to be taken out of service.

The city’s transit agency, OC Transpo, said it is billing the maintenance company for replacement buses — but there aren’t enough of those to keep up with the need — and withholding payments on its maintenance contract until things improve.

Wright-Gilbert said she plans to ask about the maintenance contract at a hastily called transit commission meeting on Thursday, including whether the company is in breach of its contract, and options for the city to prod the company into living up to expectations.

The company has a 30-year maintenance contract with the city.

The contract should clearly and transparently detail who is responsible for service problems, including minimum standards for service and penalties for falling short of those benchmarks, said Murtaza Haider, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University who studies transportation and infrastructure.

Part of that work should also include an analysis of the expected breakdown rate of a train line, and who is responsible for the cost or providing any redundant bus service, he said.

“I think a lot of frustration among commuters is that they probably don’t know in some of these contract who is responsible for what, and therefore that is adding to the frustration because they don’t know who to blame and who to complain to.”


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