Sinkholes, winter-weary trains, and political upheaval have held the Confederation Line light-rail transit back from a seriously overdue opening.
Get ready for rail.â
At first the slogan for Ottawaâs new transit project felt like a command. Then it was a question mark, and now itâs a desperate pleaâas if the city could will into existence a light-rail plan that has been talked about for the better part of 20 years.
Ground broke in 2013 on Ottawaâs extension of its O-Train systemâthen, a five-station, diesel-powered light-rail line. The mission was to electrify the network and extend it to central, eastern, and southern parts of the city with two new add-ons, the brand-new Confederation Line and the Trillium Line addition.
But it hasnât gone so smoothly. After years of planning and waiting, some in Ottawa might feel like their rapid transit dreams are simply cursed. In 2014, two years after the CDN$2.1-billion project was officially approved by council, a sinkhole measuring 26 feet wide by 39 feet deep opened up near a tunneling site. Two years later on one of the cityâs busiest streets, a second LRT tunnel-related sinkholeâthis one 92 by 131 feet in area and 16 feet deepâswallowed a van.
And thatâs just the sinkholes. The 7.7-mile Stage 1, known as the Confederation Line, has been consistently bedeviled by problems. Originally due in May 2018, Itâs still not open yet. Instead, empty trains glide up and down the route for testing, taunting Ottawans who are most definitely #Ready4Rail. The new delivery date is âsometime before Canada Day,â on July 1.
The consortium tasked with building and delivering the LRT, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), needs 12 consecutive days of near-flawless testing on all 34 of its Alstom Citadis Spirit train cars before it can release them into the wild. Just one issue with a car, though, and the 12 days restart. RTG has been testing the trains for months.
This past winter, after a train got stuck in the snow during a trial run, CBC reporter Joanne Chianello obtained internal reports that said the trains may not be able to withstand Ottawaâs cold, snowy winters. âVehicles are currently unreliable to the point that it has not been demonstrated that operations can be sustained during a winter weather event,â one report read.
But thatâs next winterâs problem. The day after Chianelloâs CBC story, the cityâs transportation general manager John Manconi told city councilors at a public meeting that RTG was looking forward to the end of winter to finish testing: âBetter weather will certainly help.â
And then thereâs Stage 2, a CDN$4.7-billion project and the cityâs biggest procurement ever. A $1.6-billion slice of that project was awarded to SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction management firm currently facing charges of corruption and fraud. SNC-Lavalin is also a key member of the RTG consortium building the thrice-delayed Stage 1.
So, what the hell is happening with the LRT? â[Constituents] are exactly right to ask that question, because we donât know the answer,â says Ottawa city councilor Rick Chiarelli.
Contracts, bids kept secret
Chiarelli, who has been an Ottawa city councilor since 1988, says the people tasked with running the city have been largely kept in the dark on the LRT project. In March, he voted against approving the $4.7-billion budget on Stage 2, saying that proper oversight had not been done on the project.