Light rail: Alstom was “pushing the limits” of what wagons could do

This partly explains the problems that occurred afterwards. So we were at the limits of the concept and encountered new problems that we don’t usually encountersaid Yves Declercq who, at the time of the tender, was the bid manager for the procurement phase for Alstom.

The City of Ottawa wanted to carry 24,000 passengers per hour in each direction, which was exceptional and closer to a traditional metro system than a light rail system, pointed out Yves Declercq. European light rail trains usually carry 10,000 passengers per hour.

The subways are more robust than light rail, Mr. Declercq explained, adding that the company even replaced the motor of the tram with the one used in the New York subway.

Alstom’s senior executive also made it clear that the City knew, as early as the summer of 2012, that the light rail it was asking for did not already exist.

A short notice

The Alstom company became a subcontractor of the Groupe de transport Rideau (GTR) in an unusual way, explained Mr. Declercq to the commission.

the GTR had previously tried to bid for the Confederation Line with a different consortium, but failed to qualify. The Request for Qualifications, in 2011, described that Ottawa wanted to fly 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction on opening day, with the option of doubling the number of passengers in the 2030s or beyond.

It was a surprise for Alstom that the GTR called him, in June 2012, to ask him to offer a train to Ottawa after the first choice of the GTRby the Spanish company CAF, was disqualified by the City.

It was very rare that a company joins a tendering process after having been eliminated, underlined Mr. Declercq to the members of the commission.

Within a few weeks, Alstom participated in a meeting with the GTR and the City – the one and only meeting Alstom attended with the City before signing the contract – to describe the train it could offer it.

Alstom’s Citadis Spirit, which currently runs on the Confederation Line, is based on the existing Citadis Dualis model, which is used in places like Nantes, France.

The Spirit model, developed for the North American market, is longer. It had to be adapted to American electric railway standards, but also to Canadian winters, since the Dualis only works in temperatures as low as -25°C.

During this presentation, in the summer of 2012, Alstom affirmed to the municipality that it was convinced that it could adapt its existing vehicle (for example, by using winter technology existing on other train models, used in Sweden and Russia), but that the vehicle sought by the City of Ottawa did not exist.

We never said the train was developed and ready to go […]. I think the presentation was very clear on what was there, how we were going to develop the model and how it differed from existing models. »

A quote from Yves Declercq, former tenders director for the procurement phase at Alstom

An outside lawyer for the City of Ottawa, Jesse Gardner, later pointed out that Yves Declercq had not told the municipality that his requirements were at the limit of what a light rail vehicle could do.

Mr. Gardner then asked Mr. Declercq whether Alstom had provided vehicles that complied with the requirements of the contract. Yves Declercq replied that it was.

Ottawa rails not compliant, says Alstom

The light rail cars were manufactured in Ottawa, although Alstom felt the workforce lacked the skills.

Alstom had no other choice, since the City required that there be 25% Canadian content, in order to obtain funds from other levels of government, explains Yves Declercq.

Since Canada had no parts to sell, Alstom had to call on Canadian labour.

However, there were other problems.

Mr. Declercq testified that there were problems particularly with the way his trains were assembled. The computer train control system automatically controlled acceleration and deceleration, and it was provided by another company.

Then there are the tracks themselves.

According to Alstom, the track on which Ottawa’s light rail trains run is improper and contributed to the August 2021 derailment, when a train axle broke.

Yves Declercq pointed out that Alstom had already seen such a problem on its Dualis model wagon with wheel hubs, but that the problem occurred much faster in Ottawa than before.

The company conducted an investigation and discovered other damaged axles. Alstom experts believe that the main cause is fretting or the way the rail exerted stress and wear on the wheels.

the GTR does not agree with what she calls the preliminary conclusions of Alstom, which it claims were carried out without the help of third-party experts.

Public hearings for the Commission of Inquiry into Light Rail resume on Friday with testimony from Antonio Estrada, who was the president and CEO of the GTRfrom 2013 to 2018.

With information from Frédéric Pepin, and Kate Porter and Joanne Chianello of CBC News

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