Ottawa’s full LRT line may be down until Friday, but there’s a bigger question looming.

Why are the wheel components on the Alstom Citadis Spirit trains breaking down prematurely?

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LRT officials said Tuesday the full 12.5-kilometre LRT line might not be running until Friday as workers repair storm damage, but they could face bigger questions about the premature breakdowns of wheel components on the Alstom Citadis Spirit trains.

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Mario Guerra, the CEO of Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), said during a press briefing his “best estimate” was that the LRT system would be fully operational by Friday as workers replace about 900 metres of overhead wire damaged by a lightning strike on Sunday night between Lees and uOttawa stations.

A train carrying about 30 passengers safely stopped around uOttawa Station when the system lost power at 11:15 p.m. on Sunday during the thunderstorm. Transit staff transferred the passengers to another train.

According to Guerra, a video recording showed lightning hitting the overhead messenger wire, which holds up the power wires that deliver energy to the trains. The messenger wire broke, placing stress on the overhead catenary power wire, causing the power wire to fall. The cable fell on the stopped train, damaging the pantographs, which are the arms on top of the trains that receive energy from the overhead wires.

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The train will require a full inspection at the maintenance facility and officials hoped to send another train to tow it on Tuesday night. RTM cleared debris on the other track to get trains to the western leg of the railway.

As of Tuesday afternoon, LRT service was running between Tunney’s Pasture and Rideau stations and between St. Laurent and Blair stations. The R1 replacement bus service was running between Rideau and St. Laurent stations.

July 25, 2022 –R1 OC Transpo LRT bus replacement in Ottawa, July 25, 2022 on Albert St.
July 25, 2022 –R1 OC Transpo LRT bus replacement in Ottawa, July 25, 2022 on Albert St. Postmedia

The LRT system has “lightning arresters” to protect the power, but the direct lightning strike damaged infrastructure.

Guerra said lightning strikes happen on transit systems across the world, but this was the first time he’s seen a direct strike in his 40 years of experience.

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Guerra said RTM will check to make sure the LRT system responded appropriately to the power loss, but he said “there’s not much we can do” about a lightning strike.

More worrisome might be the unrelated, ongoing struggle with train wheels. On Saturday, the city announced RTM removed 20 train cars from service after finding a fractured wheel hub on a vehicle that was flagged by an operator who noticed vibrations.

Guerra said there was about 0.1 inches of “free play,” or the movement of components, in the wheel hub. The normal play is 0.004 inches, he said. The train had about 300,000 kilometres of service and the problematic axle had about 211,000 kilometres of service.

Guerra said RTM decided to pull any vehicle with over 175,000 kilometres of service for inspections. The hubs will be replaced with new ones and the old hubs will go through non-destructive testing, he said. In total, RTM is changing hubs on four axles per vehicle. Guerra estimated that two vehicles per day could be processed.

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As of Tuesday afternoon, RTM had completed inspections on two of the 20 vehicles and Guerra anticipated having another two vehicles done on Wednesday morning. Guerra said a lab analysis would help determine the cause of the fractured hub.

The Transportation Safety Board is also investigating.

The most recent information provided to the transit commission in June on the LRT fleet size indicated there were 36 vehicles available for service. Rideau Transit Group (RTG) has been adding trains to the fleet as it prepares for Stage 2.

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RTM and the city have said the latest wheel problem isn’t linked to the wheel bearing assembly breakdown in the August 2021 derailment near Tunney’s Pasture Station.

“It’s a different failure. We believe it may be fatigue-related, but we’re not 100 per cent sure yet until we have further testing through the lab,” Guerra said.

After the derailment in August 2021, it took Alstom until May 2022 to complete a root-cause analysis on the wheel problem. Guerra said he doesn’t believe it will take nine months for a similar analysis on the latest wheel problem.

“This issue will be a lot easier to determine,” Guerra said.

The latest wheel mystery is so concerning that Alstom summoned experts from Europe to help with the investigation in Ottawa.

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“It does worry me,” Guerra said. “We obviously have experienced a couple of incidents with the axles now, so we need to get to the bottom of it. We’re being overly cautious, as cautious as we can be, because safety is paramount here, but we need to get to the bottom of the root cause so we can put this behind us and put some long-term mitigations in place.”

RTM doesn’t know yet if it’s simply a bad batch of hubs, or if it’s a larger issue.

Transpo general manager Renée Amilcar said the root-cause analysis of the latest wheel problem will lead to a final resolution.

“We want to make sure the service is safe. When we do believe there’s a risk, we’re simply removing the cars and trains from service,” Amilcar said.

On September 19, 2021, an LRT train suffered a derailment west of Tremblay Station that shut down the system for one month, 23 days.
On September 19, 2021, an LRT train suffered a derailment west of Tremblay Station that shut down the system for one month, 23 days. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

One of the key allegations made by Alstom during the ongoing provincial LRT inquiry was that the rail infrastructure wasn’t built to the specifications it expected, placing extra loads on the train wheel components.

RTG — which contracted Alstom to supply the Citadis Spirit trains and the RTG-affiliated company Ottawa Light Trail Transit Constructors to build the LRT system — has denied Alstom’s claims.

The LRT inquiry commission is paying attention to what has been happening in Ottawa this week, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be asked to testify about this week’s partial shutdown of the system or the wheel inspections.

A spokesperson for the commission said on Tuesday that it doesn’t expect to call further evidence.

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