Ottawa’s little trains that couldn’t: How LRT left residents of Canada’s capital angry and wanting answers

When Ottawa opened its light rail transit system in the fall of 2019, it seemed as though everyone in this town was hopeful.

We had watched the shiny red trains running around town for a year of testing, and now we’d finally be able to ride them.

They were faster and quieter than all those diesel buses. No traffic. And they just made us feel a bit more modern — as though the future of commuting in the nation’s capital had arrived.

The future had come with a price: $2.1 billion, including $600 million each from the province and the feds.

People were thrilled on that Monday that full service started.

Come Tuesday, parts of our city’s new LRT broke down.

Then, again Wednesday and again Thursday.

Parts would keep breaking down in the weeks and months that followed.

Two years and nine months later, a public reckoning is set to begin in a city where our happy anticipation so quickly gave way to frustration and anger.

The Ottawa Light Rail Transit Commission under Justice William Hourigan will look into the many problems of this system, which culminated in two derailments last summer with passengers aboard.

There are several key players: Ottawa and its transit system, OC Transpo; Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the construction consortium; Alstom SA, the French company that built the Citadis Spirit trains; Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), which earns $5 million a year for 30 years for maintenance; and, of course, lots and lots of transit riders.

There have been myriad problems with the system: from sensors that wouldn’t let the train move if someone held a door open; to an overhead wire supplying power to an east-end stretch of track that fell down. There were issues of the train’s computer and the computer at head office not talking to each other; there were switches on tracks that froze and refused to budge. There were heaters, but they weren’t powerful enough for Ottawa winters (pretty frustrating after we were assured that this train was built for the coldest winter).

The electrical connections on the trains’ roofs, where power from the overhead line enters the train, broke down in winter. Wheels wore prematurely, developing flat spots that made a distinctive thump-thump noise captured on many passengers’ cellphones. Yes, trains get flat tires, too.

All these breakdowns kept stranding passengers, sometimes on open platforms in winter.

Some wheels also cracked, for heaven’s sake. Finally there were two derailments, one caused by an axle severed from its wheel and one by bolts that no one tightened.

The result? A gnawing sense that something had gone wrong, that we somehow hadn’t received what we were promised. That we’d been let down. Betrayed.

Meanwhile, there is an abiding lack of confidence in Phase 2 of the project, stretching into the suburbs. (Like Phase 1, it’s running late.)

“My hope for this inquiry is that the disinfectant of sunshine, of light, is brought into this situation,” says Sarah Wright-Gilbert, a citizen member of the transit commission and early-fan-turned-critic of LRT.

“Who made the final decision to launch (full service)?”

The city partnered with private companies to build the LRT, and those companies have extensive rights to block inquiries about their business.

We have, as residents, been stonewalled when we try to find out about our own public property. Passengers left in the dark on stalled trains. Transit users who can’t get information about why stuff breaks, or even what the manufacturer’s warranty includes. A cold-weather analysis that’s secret. Reporters who file freedom-of-information requests and get no answers.

Instead of clarity, there’s been finger-pointing. The city and the consortium have traded blame (and civil claims for hundreds of millions of dollars). And, last week, Alstom, the French company that built the trains, finally broke its silence, accusing the city of forcing it to launch full service before the trains had a chance to shake out the early bugs.

“It’s going to be every human for themselves at this inquiry,” says Wright-Gilbert.

But all the lawyers and witnesses in town aren’t likely to make a single train run more dependably.

And deep down, that’s the only result we who live here actually care about.

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