‘The mayor is losing his mind’: A trove of WhatsApp messages reveals the city’s LRT anguish

“He tells me he’s keeping you posted. I told him I don’t care, they need to execute.”

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An irate mayor who was “losing (sic) his mind” over LRT problems, flattened train wheels, frozen switches, nosy councilmen, an axe-wielding vandal, and a spilled crate of cranberries – these are just some of the headaches that plagued Ottawa’s troubled Confederation Line’s first year of service.

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The behind-the-scenes warts of LRT operations were revealed Tuesday in a trove of WhatsApp messages entered into evidence by the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Commission.

Thousands of messages in more than 600 pages of documents included conversations between key players such as Mayor Jim Watson, City Manager Steve Kanellakos, former Transit General Manager John Manconi, Transit Directors Pat Scrimgeour and Troy Charter, the president of the transit committee Allan Hubley and others. They covered the period from testing and launch in the summer of 2019 to winter operations in February 2020.

In an exchange on November 1, 2019, less than two months into its full operation, a frustrated Watson demanded that the parallel bus service be resumed to ease the strain on the struggling LRT.

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“We need parallel service to come back,” Watson messaged. “Mondays. How do we make this work? Our reputation is in tatters. Please tell me how we get it back. I’m not worried about cost right now. I need reasons on how to bring it back rather than why we can’t.” .

In addition to detailed questions about service times and train availability, Watson also sent messages about his own experiences on the train.

“Train 1110 has the wrong message. We are heading west and it says destination Blair,” the mayor sent a message on November 4.

At one point, Manconi pleaded for some relief:

“Mr. Mayor, I am begging you please, I am receiving so many messages from you on multiple channels and from your staff,” Manconi sent a message on October 28. “I will respond to all of them. The service is working well… All it’s on. We’re drowning in message overload.”

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In February, when trains were brought to a standstill by flattened wheels, Manconi texted Scrimgeour to tell him the mayor was “losing his mind.”

“Pat help me. The mayor is upset. Post the following tweet immediately. The full service has been running all day. A train stopped when a customer sounded the emergency alarm. The service continued to work. Without delay.”

Later that day, Manconi texted Charter: “…The mayor is losing his mind. Troy, what’s going on?

“Mayor’s quote: ‘I don’t want us to eat it.’ Pat send a message,” Manconi wrote.

On January 19, 2020, a furious Manconi complained about frozen track changes delaying trains during a winter storm and urged staff to hold Rideau Transit Group CEO Peter Lauch to account.

“I’m hitting Peter right now,” he texted Charter.

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“Troy, don’t let him win the ‘Sorry’ BS game. They should have listened to us, flood the line with staff. They didn’t and now we are being destroyed in the media and social networks. Do not cut him any rest. He is telling me that he keeps you informed. I told him I don’t care, they need to execute,” Manconi texted.

“I can tell you from personal experience that I would rather talk to auditors ‘after the fact’ and bean counters about overtime expenses than elected officials and the media about the lack of reliable service during storms. If Peter had any pride or sense of professional responsibility, he would resign now.”

In one text, Manconi described how an axe-wielding vandal broke into the Tunney Pasture Station, vandalizing a ticket kiosk and causing other damage. The man was arrested by Ottawa police. In a minor problem, Hubley noticed that someone spilled blueberries on the long escalator at Rideau Station. “It’s going to be messy!” he sent a message.

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The first day of LRT service on September 14, 2019 was an enjoyable day for OC Transpo General Manager John Manconi, left, Councilman and Transit Commission Chief Allan Hubley, middle, and Mayor Jim Watson.
The first day of LRT service on September 14, 2019 was an enjoyable day for OC Transpo General Manager John Manconi, left, Councilman and Transit Commission Chief Allan Hubley, middle, and Mayor Jim Watson. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia News

Citizen Transit Commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert also drew the ire of senior management and Watson when she appeared on a CFRA call-in show.

“Why doesn’t someone take that public commissioner off the air?” Manconi messaged the group on Oct. 26, 2019. “She’s live on CFRA. A call asking people to complain about OC Transpo? She is destroying us with disinformation. Destroying the brand and accusing us of misrepresenting the facts. Also speaking of congestion. How is this appropriate or fair?”

“Should he, you, Allan and the clerk meet with her when Allan comes back and tell her that if the attacks don’t stop, they’re going to get her out?” Watson replied.

“I’m furious with her too. Best advice. She turns off the radio and shuts her nonsense.

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In an exchange on New Year’s Eve 2019, STV consultant Tom Prendergast referred to train manufacturer Alstom.

“I have NEVER seen a series of vehicles experience so many different failure modes from different systems, assemblies and components going through the launch of a new fleet as these Alstom vehicles are. Unfriggin believable to say the least and something that is giving Alstom a ‘black eye’. Although going back in memory, we’ve had power issues come and go with no clear understanding of the cause, so it’s been a game of ‘cat and mouse’…”

Periodically through the pages and pages of messages thrown, Manconi sought to provide encouragement to his team.

“Folks, transformative change is hard,” he messaged on New Year’s Day 2020. “What we’re doing in Ottawa has never been done before and we lose track of it. Be proud and strong and keep pushing, we will get through this. None of this is easy and no one but us will know how well we did on so many fronts. Be proud! Keep your heads up and thank you for everything you’ve done.”

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