Trainmaker Alstom says Ottawa knew LRT wasn’t ready, launched anyway

Testimony filed with province’s inquiry points to slew of charges over troubled $2.2 billion light rail system

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French train maker Alstom told the province’s LRT inquiry that the City of Ottawa and contractor Rideau Transit Group knew the $2.2 billion Confederation Line was not ready to be fully launched, but the city continued anyway.

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In an opening statement filed with the commission of inquiry, Alstom, a subcontractor of RTG, said: “Rather than further delay the start of commercial service, the city preferred to start the system by September 14. 2019, no matter what.

“Furthermore, the city declined to increase service revenue through a soft launch, an industry-standard operational approach to allow a new system to address operational and maintenance issues before taking full traffic capacity.

The result was predictable, says Alstom; the city sued RTG for shortcomings.

Alstom has not directly addressed the issues with the LRT system so far. The company’s most public response was when Mayor Jim Watson summoned the CEO to Ottawa City Hall in June 2019 for assurances on when the trains would be ready.

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Jim Watson, far left, met with Alstom and RTG executives in 2019. Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge is far right.
Jim Watson, far left, met with Alstom and RTG executives in 2019. Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge is far right. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia News

The Board of Inquiry, created by the provincial government, is tasked with investigating the SLR Stage 1 failures and the city’s selection of Rideau Transit Group (RTG) as the contractor. Judge William Hourigan is the commissioner who will preside over the hearings which are scheduled to begin on Monday. Piles of evidence collected by commission attorneys through witness interviews and document submissions foreshadows the kind of finger pointing that could result from the investigative hearings.

Alstom designed the Citadis Spirit train for the Ottawa LRT project, the first time the train builder has supplied ‘rolling stock’ for a Canadian rail system. Alstom is also the main contractor to Rideau Transit Maintenance, affiliated with RTG, under the 30-year maintenance contract with the city.

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In its opening statement to the committee, Alstom explains why some of the train problems occurred.

“Initial results of the investigation indicate that a non-compliant track design contributed to excessive stress on the vehicles which led to this accelerated rate of axle failure,” Alstom said of the August 2021 derailment near from Tunney’s Pasture.

According to Alstom, “the track design generates too high transverse forces on the vehicles during operation, especially in certain curves, which causes excessive friction under the axle bearing”.

The 12.5 kilometer track between the east portal of the downtown tunnel and the Tremblay station has tight curves.

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Alstom also reveals how it became involved in RTG’s bid.

Originally, Alstom attempted to be part of a different bid which did not progress beyond the qualification phase. Alstom then asked to be part of two of the qualified consortia, but the consortia refused.

In June 2012, with time running out in the city’s LRT procurement process, RTG approached Alstom to be its train supplier after RTG’s original supplier CAF was disqualified by the city, according to Alstom.

Alstom says it only had three months to write its bid for RTG’s proposal to the city, but the industry standard for this type of work is between nine and 18 months.

Alstom had to reconfigure its Citadis train, used in other parts of the world, to meet the needs of the city. The city’s vehicle design requirements were “at the absolute limit of what an LRV (light rail vehicle) can do”, explains Alstom.

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After RTG won the competition, the city took 12 months to finalize the design choices, delaying train production and validation testing, Alstom explains, and all parties, including the city and RTG, decided to build and test the trains at the same time. to avoid delays.

“The risk, known and accepted by all parties, was that engineering issues identified during validation testing would lead to retrofits on vehicles already produced,” Alstom’s opening statement said.

“As you might expect, that’s exactly what happened on this project.”

On September 19, 2021, an SLR train suffered a derailment west of Tremblay station which paralyzed the system for a month and 23 days.
On September 19, 2021, an SLR train suffered a derailment west of Tremblay station which paralyzed the system for a month and 23 days. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

The team of engineers hired by construction contractor RTG to design most of the tracks and stations filed their own opening statement to the commission last week.

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RTG Engineering Joint Venture, a partnership between SNC-Lavalin and WSP Canada, states that “the provision of engineering services did not cause or contribute to the maintenance issues, breakdowns or derailments which are the primary subjects of this investigation. “.

In its own opening statement to the inquest filed Monday, the City of Ottawa said it was in no rush to open the LRT system.

“The city’s focus was and still is on public safety, reliability and customer experience for light rail in Ottawa,” the city’s statement read.

Around the trial period, the city agreed to reduce the number of two-vehicle trains required for peak periods, from 15 to 13, after finding that ridership was not reaching contracted levels . The city thought it would also give RTM some breathing room with more spare vehicles.

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While RTG argues that a soft launch is “best practice”, the city says there was no “soft start” required as part of the contract.

“The city had every right to expect that once the system was handed over, it would be ready to go into service,” the city’s opening statement said.

The city noted that it “remains concerned about the ability and commitment of RTG and its contractors to properly maintain the system.”

Meanwhile, RTG blames the city for failing to properly manage public expectations for a new transit system.

“The city has exacerbated these challenges by not educating users about the possibility and normalcy of service interruptions. Instead, the city presented the system to Ottawa commuters as a “turnkey” system, while an experienced transit operator knows that any new transit system of this complexity has ” growing pains,” according to RTG’s opening statement also filed Monday.

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RTG says it has been “let down” by Alstom due to late delivery of trains and slowness in building up a maintenance workforce.

“Given Alstom’s vast resources, market power and global scale of operations and expertise, the RTG parties expected more from Alstom,” RTG said.

Inquiry hearings are expected to last four weeks. They will take place at the University of Ottawa, where the public will be able to watch them via a live stream which will also appear on the committee’s website. The hearings will also be broadcast on Rogers TV. A witness schedule, subject to change, is available here.

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