Time To Fold This Failed LRT Project? GRAY

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So where do we stand now on fixing light rail now that Alstom blew up Mayor Mark Sutcliffe’s plan to redesign the troublesome wheel-hub assemblies which broke in derailments:

Back to Square 1. Sutcliffe’s plan with Alstom was to fix the aforementioned wheel hubs. However, Alstom maintains track problems are breaking the hubs such as low quality rails and tight turns. Perhaps but the fly in the ointment of the city plan with the hubs is that these parts meet specifications, so maybe they’re not the problem. Now two years into Sutcliffe’s mandate, he doesn’t have a plan to go forward. We’re stuck;

The repair plan was rushed. The city has yet to find a root cause of LRT woes but Sutcliffe went forward with his plan to fix the hubs. This is like approving the controversial $1-billion e-bus project when OC Transpo was only halfway through testing the vehicles;

The city needs to find the root cause of the delay in finding the root cause of the train woes. It has been years now and no one has found the root cause. What’s the problem? The Transportation Safety Board investigating an LRT derailment didn’t find a root cause and that organization is one of the best in the world at probing the causes of transportation crashes … especially plane crashes which is not an easy task. The TSB listed a number of factors that could be causing the derailments and excess part wear … one or a combination of a few. That said, it didn’t know what the problem was. If the TSB doesn’t know, it’s doubtful Sutcliffe or OC Transpo or city council know. And that was foolishness of the wheel-hub redesign. What the city did was like having your mechanic not knowing what the problem is with your car but goes ahead with a repair that might or might not solve the problem. That’s not good;


Are we too late for light rail? Have we reached the end of conventional mass transit in cities? Work-at-home is better than spending hours on buses from Barrhaven then transferring to the wonky train. Self-driving electric cars aren’t far off. They could no doubt be designed to try to avoid major traffic jams when possible; GPS in cars already crudely does this.

Maybe this is just a lemon. This is $6.4 billion for something that is not working properly and is woefully late. Should we cut this very expensive project and make plans for using something other than this light rail?

LRT fatigue. Many people have given up on unreliable light rail and bought beaters instead. Commuters swallow high downtown parking costs which is cheaper than losing your job. That is likely if you take the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t LRT (or buses for that matter). Your boss tires of you being late until he or she doesn’t put up with it anymore;

Five years of problems. OC Transpo is bleeding money to the tune of a $1 million a month. How long can that go on? The hyper-expensive light-rail experiment … maybe it just doesn’t work. Hundreds of cities have rail transit and it functions efficiently. Ottawa’s doesn’t. Maybe it won’t ever work. Maybe the City of Ottawa just can’t do it. A half-decade of repairs is a long time to try to make something run well. When you stop beating your head against a wall, you find it doesn’t hurt anymore;

What replaces light rail? Who knows? A stripped-down bus service for those people who absolutely need transit? What do we do with the giant holes in the ground? What do Alstom and Rideau Transit Group do if the city pulls the plug? Lawyer up? How much would that cost to make them go away? Would it be too much? The city has a long history of being generous when it is sued. Not being in court is easy for city staff. And after all, it’s your money, not their money. Open the vault (where have we heard that before?). Make a million mistakes at the city, but unlike in private business, that revenue (taxes) just keeps rolling in;

Taxpayers haven’t got their money’s worth. If you set a hard cap of $2.1 billion for the line but the costs exceed that, what’s a business to do? It has salaries to pay, capital costs and, perish the thought, taxes to cover. Here’s what you do if you have a $2.1-billion cap. You give your client $1.6 billion of product. Businesses aren’t charities. They’ve got to pay the bills. So what we have with the grandiose stations and unnecessary tunnel is a Maserati plan that has been converted into an unreliable used car. You’ve got a lot of mechanic’s bills. Maybe you’d be better off buying a new car … or a new pair of shoes.

Many of the same people who created this mess are trying to fix it. How is that likely to work out? Try five years but the train still doesn’t work well.

The sad reality is that after half a decade, the city now has no plan to fix this train. It is a complicated mess … all these people and organizations are baffled about the cause(s): The TSB, RTG, Alstom, city staff, the mayor, council, OC Transpo, and an army of experts and consultants. These people haven’t been able to make this thing work. They haven’t been able to find the cause of the rail woes beyond that the fact that the occasional wheel falls off. After that reality, crickets.

And now the principals are back to bickering again after a short recess following the damning provincial LRT inquiry. Furthermore, the city started ignoring some of the big lessons from the inquiry as soon as the probe broke camp.

Can the city fix this problem? Not the auditor general. She won’t take an audit of the stinky Trillium Line contract which just screams audit.

Our governments and their contractors have badly let the people of this community down in what might be the biggest and most frustrating cock-up in municipal history. That said, perhaps we can take solace in the fact that we might be No. 1 in futility.

Five years. No solutions. No plan on how to deal with problems. No idea what the problems are. No people in place politically or administratively able to conjure a solution. No province willing to find a competent person or persons to take on this problem the city cannot handle. The contractors are arguing.

I say this sadly having waited since 1998 to ride good light-rail system in this city. Perhaps we’re at the point where we must cut bait.

Taxpayers should start coming to terms with the cold multi-billion-dollar reality that after half a decade, this project in an absolute failure.

The next step might be find the easiest and least-expensive way of extricating the City of Ottawa from this light-rail fiscal, environmental and transportation disaster. Find what can be salvaged from a lost $6.4 billion and start deciding what all this failed infrastructure can be converted into. Even getting out of this mess will cost billions.

Ottawa needs a miracle. Residents are in deep and dark trouble.

We need someone who can fix or dispose of this LRT project but unfortunately the miracle consultant who walked on water and created a buffet from a few fishes and loaves isn’t available.

We’re on our own with brutally bad alternatives.

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

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3 Responses

  1. Peter Jan Karwacki says:

    On time and on budget not.

  2. The Voter says:

    In addition to the money already thrown away on LRT, they continue to spend even more on building the extensions using the same materials and technology. This completely baffles me. Why would you continue to do the same thing over and over again when it quite clearly doesn’t work? Any normal individual or business would stop the process until they knew why it was, literally, going off the rails. But not Ottawa. Oh no sirree!

    They should have immediately put a stop to all the work on the extensions as soon as the problems started and, when they didn’t, the province should have ordered it stopped. So far, the province seems to be able to avoid any fallout and somebody needs to tell people across Ontario how much of their money has been thrown to the wind. There are lots of communities where transit service is only a dream. How would they feel if they knew there’s no money available to provide basic service to them because our failed Cadillac has sucked up all the money.

  3. sisco farraro says:

    The outstanding bills, the interest that has to be paid, etc, etc. When private corporations reach the point that a badly-conceived project hurts too much, they close up shop and go out of business. The city of Ottawa obviously needs a lot of help. It’s probably time to close up shop, get rid of senior management, move the councilors out, and start over (since closing up shop completely is not an option for a public organization; garbage still needs to be collected, roads still need to be plowed in the winter, etc). Maybe Mike Patton’s friend Mr Ford has an answer. The people currently running the local organization sure don’t.

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