Everyone but riders knew Ottawa’s LRT would face problems at start

“There was no secret between them and us.”

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Everyone knew Ottawa’s LRT system wasn’t going to work well out of the gate — everyone, it seems, except transit customers.

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There was more evidence entered at the LRT inquiry on Wednesday that hammered home an accepted reality inside the project: the $2.2-billion Confederation Line would have problems from the start.

Day 8 of the inquiry started with the Alstom project manager who oversaw the train maker’s role on the Ottawa LRT.

Until the end of 2021, Bertrand Bouteloup supervised Alstom’s LRT projects in Canada, including Ottawa’s.

The consequences of launching the LRT system in September 2019 were “well-known by everyone” and there was tension leading up to the system handover to the city, Bouteloup said.

According to Bouteloup’s evidence, Alstom confirmed that the trains met safety requirements to transport passengers, but it didn’t mean the LRT system would run perfectly in the start of operations, and it seemed all stakeholders knew it, including Rideau Transit Group (RTG) and the city.

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However, Bouteloup said the outstanding deficiencies didn’t need to block the LRT handover to the city.

Reports produced by Alstom tracked the number and type of main “events” on Citadis Spirit trains before the handover on Aug. 30, 2019.

During the pre-handover testing, between Aug. 3 and Aug. 26, there were 145 events, mostly related to communication systems, such as video recording and passenger information displays. One camera problem was solved by placing spotters on the station platforms.

There were also events related to mechanical brakes, voltage and traction and air supply.

Another report for the period between Sept. 2 and Sept. 7, just before the Sept. 14 opening of the LRT system, recorded 42 events.

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Bouteloup said ideally he would hope that a mature system would only generate a couple of events per day, but that week in September had between two and 10 daily events.

There were hesitations about the launch process more than a year before the Confederation Line opened to the public.

Bouteloup said Alstom was trying to convince its client in early 2018 to adopt a “progressive manner” for launching the LRT system by gradually increasing the number of trains on the line. Ottawa Light Rail Transit Constructors, RTG’s construction and design affiliate, wouldn’t have it.

“We would immediately go into full service. That was the answer we received,” Bouteloup said.

As project manager, Bouteloup tried to keep morale among workers high while letting managers absorb the stress generated by the contract and schedule requirements.

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Alstom had found itself at the centre of chatter about the LRT project as the public started speculating about the status of the trains.

“I didn’t want the team to get discouraged,” Bouteloup said.

RTG was contracted to have 15 trains available for peak-hour service on opening day, but the number was decreased to 13 trains during the testing period before the system handover to the city.

The demand on the LRT system posed immediate challenges, even with the reduction of required trains at the start of operations.

Bouteloup, who oversaw the vehicle supply to the project, said the company’s maintenance division knew the workload that was coming down the tracks after the handover. Alstom is the main maintenance subcontractor for the LRT system.

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“There was no secret between them and us,” Bouteloup said.

The inquiry commissioner, Justice William Hourigan, also heard evidence Wednesday from three transit experts who worked on the LRT project as city consultants.

Mike Palmer, Jonathan Hulse and Thomas Fodor of Parsons were contracted by the city for LRT advice, including in areas of operational readiness, maintenance preparation and safety.

All three consultants testified they knew there would be problems with reliability when the LRT system went into service.

Hulse said he believed the vehicles needed to go through a “reliability growth” period and the testing wasn’t thorough enough.

On the positive side, Palmer said OC Transpo staff learning the ropes of an LRT system under difficult circumstances were “impressive” and enthusiastic to begin the job.

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However, the consultants saw red flags with the work by RTG contractors, including in systems integration, which the inquiry commission has learned was a major challenge during the project.

Fodor recalled he was monitoring maintenance operations from the yard control centre during the trial run and it was clear that RTG had trouble keeping working trains on the main line. The maintenance team was overwhelmed by trains coming back for fixes.

“We realized, ‘We have a problem,’” Fodor said.

The public can watch LRT inquiry hearings on video screens set up at Fauteux Hall at the University of Ottawa, online at www.ottawalrtpublicinquiry.ca or on Rogers TV (channels 470 in English and 471 in French).

On Thursday, scheduled witnesses are Richard Holder, OC Transpo’s director of engineering, who was a manager in the city’s rail construction office, and Monica Sechiari, the LRT project’s independent certifier from Altus Group.

jwilling@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JonathanWilling

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