Ottawa LRT is safe, but transit boss says extra precautions can’t be applied long-term

A light rail train approaches Ottawa's Lees Station on February 2, 2022.  (David Bates-Taillefer/Radio-Canada - photo credit)

A light rail train approaches Ottawa’s Lees Station on February 2, 2022. (David Bates-Taillefer/Radio-Canada – photo credit)

Ottawa’s light rail system is safe for passengers, but last-minute repairs may not be used for decades, the city’s public transit director-general said Thursday, a day after the Transportation Safety Board issued a warning about the light rail vehicles.

The Safety Board (TSB) has been investigating what caused an axle to break off a train wheel in August 2021, leading to a derailment, and a related vibration issue observed by an operator the following summer. In its most recent letter to the city, the TSB said some component failures could be due to the design of the Alstom Citadis Spirit vehicle, which was a new model made to the city’s specifications.

Transit general manager Renée Amilcar briefed councilors on the TSB letter on Thursday during the first-ever meeting of the newly formed light rail subcommittee. She also answered questions from reporters.

“It’s safe to take the train now,” Amilcar said. “I rode the train yesterday, and I will ride the train again and again.”

The risks outlined in the letter would be mitigated, she said.

The city’s private maintenance group — Rideau Transit Maintenance and its subcontractor Alstom — are conducting additional inspections, which require large numbers of staff, trains are running at slower speeds and many train axles are being replaced much earlier as a precaution, Amilcar said.

While she said these steps allow the city to “live with the risk,” the situation may not last long.

I’ll stick with Alstom trains

Amilcar would like the axle bearing issues to be resolved by the time the eastern section of the Confederation Line to Trim Station opens in late 2024 or early 2025.

That’s one of the reasons the City of Ottawa settled maintenance disputes with the Rideau Transit Group, she said. The deal includes a commitment from RTG to fix issues over the long term, though city officials have said the public will never know the terms of the settlement.

When asked if the city of Ottawa would consider changing train models or canceling its order for additional Alstom Citadis Spirit streetcars for the second stage east and west expansions, city officials said no.

All but about 20 of the 72 Stage 2 light rail vehicles have already arrived, Amilcar said. If the root cause analysis of the axle problem suggests a specific solution, then all Alstom vehicles need to be repaired, she said.

If this analysis includes suggestions for the tracks currently being laid by Phase 2 contractor, KEV, they can be repaired with a rail grinder, added the city’s railroad works director, Michael Morgan.

Menard movement

The role of the new light rail subcommittee is to oversee rail construction, but it also has responsibility for ensuring the City of Ottawa is following recommendations made in the public LRT investigation report released last November.

Of those 103 recommendations, 95 are directed to the city and the Rideau Transit Group. Amilcar promised to have a full action plan by the next meeting in March.

count. Shawn Menard filed a motion Thursday to address one of the key findings of the investigation: the decision-making authority that the council delegated to Phase 1 LRT staff.

The public inquiry found that former Transit boss John Manconi and former city manager Steve Kanellakos withheld details about the train’s final tests in the summer of 2019.

The subcommittee agreed that staff must be regularly informed of how they are using this power and that “significant changes” to light rail contracts would need to be submitted to council for approval.

Menard’s move to revoke the city manager’s authority to change the final trial criteria for Stage 2 LRTs, resulting in the city adopting those expansions, failed by a vote of 4 to 2.

“I am concerned about this ‘go/no go’ decision and I want to ensure that the Council is fully informed,” said Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, who endorsed Menard. “The council was burned once. Ottawa residents were burned.”

But count. Glen Gower, who is also chairman of the transit commission, said some decisions could be politicized if left only to the city council. Gower, Cathy Curry, Steve Desroches and Tim Tierney voted against revoking this power.

During the meeting, Amilcar had promised to email the council every day during the phase 2 trial.


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