Expect blame, new details as light rail public hearings begin

The long-awaited public hearings into Ottawa’s light rail transit (LRT) system begin Monday morning, and documents filed by the key players reveal new details about the atypical design of the city’s trains and strained behind-the-scenes relationships.

The decade since city council decided to take bids for a new east-west line and tunnel has not turned out as expected.

A sinkhole opened during tunnelling, the train opened more than 15 months late and myriad technical issues stranded passengers before two trains derailed last summer.

Now, lawyers for the main parties — including the City of Ottawa, Rideau Transit Group, and train maker Alstom — have laid out their versions of who and what is to blame in opening statements for four weeks of hearings.

Mayor Jim Watson might watch some of the proceedings and has been called to testify June 30, but said last week the public inquiry was a decision made by the province that the city has to “live with” and he hoped it wouldn’t take away from the Confederation Line’s recent reliability.

On the other hand, the system’s builder and maintainer Rideau Transit Group — a consortium made up of ACS Infrastructure, SNC-Lavalin and Ellis Don — sees the light rail commission’s work as its chance for frustrated riders to get the “full picture” because under its contract “the city controls what information can be made public.”

Here’s what the opening statements have to say on some key issues.

The train design

The city and Rideau Transit Group (RTG) both point the finger at Alstom. The city sees it as a subcontractor RTG hasn’t been managing properly to do maintenance on the trains it supplied.

RTG said it didn’t want Alstom trains, but went with them because the city “left no doubt that it wanted the Alstom vehicle” during the bid process for the $2.1 billion contract.

The fact an Alstom train part caused a derailment last August should lead the commissioner to look at why Alstom trains were chosen a decade ago, RTG’s lawyers say.

A worker surveys the sinkhole in June 2016 as concrete is poured in to stabilize the area and protect the foundations of nearby buildings on Rideau Street. (Patrick Pilon/Radio-Canada)

CBC News had reported in 2019 that Ottawa was not getting Alstom’s proven Citadis train as expected, but a brand-new model called the Citadis Spirit.

Alstom now explains that no train maker in the world had an existing “off the shelf” train to provide Ottawa. It joined RTG’s bid team late, back in 2012, and tried to meet the city’s price and technical demands under tight timelines.

The City of Ottawa wanted a train to fit unusually long 120-metre platforms, with capacity for 24,000 passengers each hour. That was more than double the 10,000 passengers a light rail vehicle usually carries and akin to a subway car, Alstom explains.

“To this day, the Citadis vehicles operating on the Ottawa Confederation line are the longest [light rail vehicles] operating in North America.”

Why the LRT launched late

Residents watched as Rideau Transit Group failed to meet the original May 2018 handover date for the new Confederation Line, and then missed several others before finally opening to passengers in September 2019.

The City of Ottawa’s external lawyers pin the delay on RTG not co-ordinating the schedules of its subcontractors, especially train maker Alstom and Thales, which built the computer control system — but not the 2016 sinkhole that engulfed part of Rideau Street.

The city was supposed to have a “limited role” as the owner in a public-private partnership and only realized the handover date was no longer “realistic” in 2017, they say.

Crowds of light passengers wait for a train to arrive at Tunney’s Pasture station Oct. 10, 2019. An on-board computer failed, causing delays on Ottawa’s LRT line for a third straight day not long after the system opened. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

For Rideau Transit Group, however, the sinkhole had “a significant cascading impact” that set work behind by at least nine months. Plus, it alleges “faulty municipal watermain infrastructure in the soil may have caused the sinkhole.”

Alstom, however, said the delay began long before the sinkhole, when the city was “more than a year late finalizing its design choices” for the train cars, putting its development of a prototype back by a year.

Alstom’s lawyers go on to say Ottawa’s LRT was deemed fit for service too soon.

“All the parties were aware that the system was not ready for revenue service but the city and RTG pressed ahead anyway,” they argue. 

“Rather than further delay the start of revenue service, the city preferred to start the system by Sept. 14, 2019, no matter what.”

“The result was predictable,” add Alstom’s lawyers, who argue it made financial sense for RTG to get its final construction payment and to enter the maintenance period when it could pass along costs to Alstom.

Miss the day’s proceedings? Watch them here: 

The fraught relationship 

It’s no secret that the City of Ottawa and Rideau Transit Group have been fighting for months — they have multimillion-dollar lawsuits before the courts.

In the inquiry documents the city blames the consortium, which has a $1 billion 30-year maintenance contract, for responding to the LRT’s many operational issues in a “short-sighted and ad hoc” way.

“Essentially, RTG expects to receive the full monthly service payment while providing skeletal maintenance services,” write the city’s lawyers. “When RTG exerts itself, performance improves.”

Rideau Transit Group, however, casts the City of Ottawa as an “adversarial” and “inflexible” micromanager. The consortium alleges the city sought a $500,000 maintenance deduction over a broken washroom mirror. 

When the LRT developed problems in the fall of 2019 that stranded riders — something RTG said could have spared residents if it had had a “soft launch” — RTG lawyers suggest “the city bowed to political pressures to act ‘tough.'”

“The success of a [public-private partnership] project depends on the parties being true partners,” RTG writes. “At present, the RTG parties’ relationship with the City is in a challenging state, and it needs to be reset for the residents of Ottawa.”

The commission begins hearings on Monday and the public can attend and watch online at 9 a.m. They continue to July 8, and will hear from dozens of witnesses, including high-profile city and corporate officials.

The City of Ottawa is being represented by Singleton Urquhart Reynolds Vogel LLP. Rideau Transit Group’s lawyers are from Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP, and Alstom’s are with Glaholt Bowles LLP. All are Toronto-based firms.

It all will be overseen by commissioner William Hourigan, an Ontario appeal court justice.

Ottawa Morning7:32Public inquiry begins into LRT

Documents released ahead of a long-awaited public inquiry into Ottawa’s light rail system reveal new details about the atypical design of this city’s trains and strained behind-the-scenes relationships.

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