OTTAWA LRT: The Wrong Everything: GRAY

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Here’s how the strategy for fixing light rail has unfolded.

The city, its mayor and council looked for the easiest way out.

Remember that the Transportation Safety Board couldn’t find one problem that was causing trains to leave the tracks. So there probably isn’t one solution to the rail mess.

It found a number of flaws that could be found in the track, the tight turns, leverage from the tops of the trains and others. One thing where the board could not find fault was the wheel-hub assembly. All those wheel hubs met industry standards but their failure was the result of unusual stress. The parts were up to specs.

So what did the city decide to do? Try to get Alstom to change the wheel-hub assemblies. Alstom, rightly, said no way. Why should Alstom fix the mistakes of others. The TSB said the hubs met proper standards. And Alstom is a private company that has clients, executives and shareholders to keep happy. It is no doubt busy.

So why should Alstom fix something that isn’t broken? But that’s what the city asked them to do. Fix the wheel-hub assemblies.


Because that’s the easy way out. You get one company to fix one thing and you’re all done. The other options are hideously expensive and cumbersome. One problem. The hubs aren’t faulty. The TSB said so. And maybe there’s no way to fix the hubs with the stress those parts are under. The hubs aren’t the problem but they break because of other faults.

Try to sue a company that makes wheel-hub assemblies correctly. That would never make it to court.

But if the city could sucker Alstom into making mega-strong wheel hubs, well all its problems would be solved. Except Alstom didn’t get that big playing the fool.

Alstom’s argument would be … get the people responsible for the problems to fix those problems. Don’t blame us. We didn’t do it. And we’re not paying for it. We’re a business, not a charity. We gave you a good product … it’s up to you to fix the difficulties that are breaking our solid product.

The city gambled on Alstom being so nice as to redesign its product so it could withstand all the stresses created by other faulty conditions. It did … for awhile. That said, maybe Alstom said we can’t design a wheel-hub assembly that can successfully meet those unusual stresses. Or maybe, after much head-scratching, Alstom said it’s not fixing something that’s not broken. One way or the other, the city and taxpayers are out of luck. Alstom isn’t changing the wheel-hub assemblies.

In other words, it’s up to the city and Rideau Transit Group to fix their mistakes.

So what are those mistakes? Curves in the tracks that are too tight. Maybe the steel in the tracks is not hard enough.

How do you fix a sharp turn in the tunnel? That’s why cities try to run their systems on the surface. Houston, the fourth largest urban conglomeration in the U.S. put its light rail down Main Street … on the surface. Why is Main Street called Main Street? Because it is Houston’s main street. But Ottawa City Hall wouldn’t do that on what is not the capital’s main street. Nice work.

And here’s something that Ottawans probably don’t want to hear. City hall gave us the wrong train.

If you have a dedicated right-of-way (no obstacles such as cross-streets in the way), you use heavier trains … something along the line of the Toronto Subway’s trains). Light rail is light because it needs to cross road bridges or must stop on a dime downtown (though you can fit it often using medians on busy city streets).

Light rail is light because it must be light. Subway cars have no such restriction on a dedicated right-of-way. They carry more people faster than light rail. If you have a surface lane downtown, use light rail. If you have a dedicated line, use heavier cars.

But the City of Ottawa, using all of its collected train expertise, did the exact opposite. The city put light rail on a dedicated line … underground repeatedly … making breakdowns harder to fix.

Furthermore during the provincial light-rail inquiry, it was discovered that the light-rail vehicles were being used often at the very high end of their limitations on speed and on sharp curves. If you have a Toyota Corolla and run it at extremely high speeds for a long time, even the very reliable Corolla will break. It’s not meant to do that. Machines, for the most part, are not meant to operated at the limits of their safety. Do it for long enough, fast enough and hard enough, something is bound to break … such as a wheel falls off.

So Ottawa went with the wrong train operating under the wrong conditions.

As well, how much of the line was designed to maximize developer profits from high-rises set near the line on expensive property such as Westboro. Most likely, the developers can charge more for units along a light-rail line in an expensive neighbourhood rather than along Carling Avenue, no doubt the best route. Now we know why city staff wouldn’t drive the line down Carling that would have maximized ridership and decreased costs by running the train on the surface. The city had to keep its developer buddies happy.

What do we have here? The wrong route on the wrong line with the wrong trains designed by the wrong people created with the wrong motives with the wrong repair plan with the wrong results. Other than that, everything’s fine.

And where are we? Back at the same point in making the train work as in 2019. Five wasted years.

It gets worse. Absolutely critical decisions must be made. Is it worth tearing up the tracks, straightening the tunnel, fixing the curves in the line, expropriating more land and buying new rolling stock? Is it cheaper to start over than to fix this mess using some of the infrastructure left behind by this LRT fiasco? Or should we drop this symphony of errors now before it costs taxpayers more billions?

Remember this is about not just LRT but the entire transit system because LRT is the vital spine of the bus operation. And with work-at-home are we entering the post-mass-transit era?

Have we designed a 20th-century transit system for the 21st century?

Bulldog editor Ken Gray has been a journalist at five major Canadian newspapers over a career that has spanned four decades. He wrote his first story on light in 1998.


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4 Responses

  1. The Voter says:

    You forgot to mention the idiocy of continuing to build the extensions of the LRT before the problem is correctly identified. They are installing the same tracks and other infrastructure there as that which already exists between Blair and Tunney’s Pasture. If it is determined that they need to do things differently, will we get to watch them tear up all that newly-laid track? Maybe redesign the route and/or the stops?

    Yes, putting things on hold will result in a delay in providing service to the east, west and south ends of the city. Think about it. Does it make more sense to wait until you can do it right and then give those areas dependable service? Or would you rather finish the current construction which could give you the same rotten and unreliable service that the north end has suffered and then, later on, have it torn up and rebuilt properly meaning you are again without service for a long period?

    Someone needs to remind them of the definition of insanity, i.e. doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.

  2. sisco farraro says:

    I have been thinking lately of the LRT in relation to a quote from Woody Allen’s 1977 movie “Annie Hall”. The quote was “Those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach teach gym”. Perhaps Woody would allow us to update this quote for the 21st century as follows “Those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach go into municipal politics”.

  3. Jake Morrison says:

    It might be worthwhile asking Alstom if it could design a stronger wheel assembly – for a price. If it solved the problem it might be the cheapest answer.

  4. The Voter says:


    I have to call you on that!

    Gord Hunter was an excellent municipal councillor at the city of Nepean, Regional Government and the amalgamated city of Ottawa. In addition, he was a teacher and, yes, he taught Phys Ed. From all reports, he also excelled as a teacher.

    He and I had some differences of opinion on various issues but, like most people, I respected him highly. Unfortunately, there are few around the Council table in recent years who could hold a candle to him.

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