The city’s own advisers are concerned about the ‘wisdom’ of the LRT’s opening date, research hears

The City of Ottawa’s own advisers on the massive LRT project questioned whether it would be wise to open the Confederation Line to the public in mid-September 2019, the light rail public inquiry learned Wednesday.

A team of Parsons consultants, hired by the city from 2015 to 2019, testified Wednesday afternoon that they felt the trains were not reliable enough and that maintenance personnel were too overwhelmed.

While scoring the trains and advising on the LRT’s launch date wasn’t technically what the Parsons team had been hired to do, they told the committee they were sharing their thoughts with the city.

In an email dated August 21, 2019, Mike Palmer told his Parsons colleagues that he understood that the trial run of the trains would end the following day.

“Not sure how many days it ended up being – but definitely not 12!” he wrote, referring to the much-repeated promise that the Confederation Line would have to operate near perfect for twelve consecutive days before the city would be given the keys.

Some of us doubt whether there is wisdom in view of the fragility of the equipment and the signalling.– Mike Palmer, advisor

“It is planned that there will be four weeks of training for OC Transpo. I think that may be reduced and so I think it will be on or around September 17,” Palmer wrote.

“Some of us aren’t sure if there’s any wisdom given the fragility of the rolling stock and signage, but others may be able to comment on that.”

VIEW | Mayor accepts LRT symbolic key:

The city has set September 14 as the launch date for the Confederation Line?

The Confederation Line was officially launched on September 14, 2019.

The email also states that the equipment to measure train journeys and miles traveled during the trial was down the week before.

When asked by investigation co-lead counsel Kate McGrann if he had shared his views on the LRT’s readiness with the city, Palmer said he had.

Two other Parsons consultants — Jonathan Hulse and Thomas Fodor — also testified that they also shared Palmer’s skepticism about the launch target for the LRT.

Maintenance staff ‘overwhelmed’

The investigation has heard from a number of witnesses that many participants in the LRT project were well aware that the light rail system, while considered safe, had reliability issues before it was opened to the public.

For example, Fodor told McGrann that maintenance personnel were “overwhelmed” during the trial period and unable to keep up with multiple issues — a concern Fodor communicated to the city.

He told the commission of inquiry that Rideau Transit Group and its partners failed to keep the entire fleet of trains running at full throttle during most days of the sea trials.

“I saw trains coming to the handed over platform gave way and had to be removed, preventing other trains from entering. I also saw train disruptions on the main line,” he said.

“Basically, the fleet that was supposed to be there for the full time was rarely, if ever, reached.”

Passengers wait for the next train during delays after the Confederation Line fully launches in late 2019. (@danavaughan001/Twitter)

Ottawa’s own attorney Peter Wardle pointed out that none of the advisers were actually involved in scoring the trial.

Wardle also produced two daily reports submitted to the city by Fodor during the trial period, which showed that the consultant confirmed that the planned number of trains were “ready to run”.

But Fodor held out.

“These are two days outside the time I was there,” he told the commission.

“As far as I can remember, most days they couldn’t reach the fleet they needed. And when they did initially, there were a lot of moves and attempts to replace them with [other] trains.”

Fodor also testified that trains that should not have been allowed to run during public service were used for trial runs.

Earlier on Wednesday, the committee saw a chart showing that at least half a dozen “key events” were still happening daily in the final test week of August 2019. Another chart indicated that there were 211 main events in the week from September 2 to September 7, 2019 — just a week before the Confederation Line opened.

Many of the events related to the cameras and videos on the trains and platform, or the information boards, but others related to braking and power issues.

It was known to all parties.– Bertrand Bouteloup, Alstom . Project Director

Another co-lead counsel of the commission, Christine Mainville, asked alstom project director Bertrand Bouteloup if it was common knowledge that the tax authorities would not be perfect and that there would be incidents.

“Yes, it was known to all parties,” he said.

Mayor and Manconi make ‘calculated guess’

In an earlier email dated July 26, 2019, Palmer wrote to his colleagues that he understood that the Confederation Line would be declared largely complete within days.

“My guess is that the city (read mayor and JM) is taking a calculated guess that the remaining issues can be solved by the 12+ days of trial run and the 28 days of OC Transpo playing trains,” he wrote.

The “JM” in the emails is former OC Transpo head John Manconi.

Downtown Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson rides the Confederation Line with a number of other city officials, including former GM of transportation John Manconi, who left days before the city took possession of the LRT. (Joanne Chianello / CBC)

Palmer – who was a TTC executive among other things – went on to say he would likely do the same if he had “absolute clarity” from RTG about the state of the project, but said he feared information was being withheld from the city.

He makes it clear that the message is his personal opinion and that he “would appreciate that this email is not shared outside Parsons.”

Palmer also jokes that he won a $100 bet he had with some colleagues and fellow townspeople about when the Confederation Line would be completed, but only because he had the latest date.

Wardle, the city’s attorney, suggested the email was just a casual note, but Palmer disagreed.

“The style may be casual, but it’s a serious message” about the state of the system, he said.

On Thursday morning, the committee will hear from Richard Holder, a manager of the city rail office who was also part of the sea trial.

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