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Inquiry begins hearing testimony on Ottawa's off-the-rails transit system

Justice William Hourigan, Commissioner of the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Commission, takes his seat before the start of the first day of proceedings at the inquiry into the troubled LRT system, in Ottawa, on Monday, June 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — Hundreds of public servants and downtown workers trudged shoulder to shoulder down the sidewalk on the outskirts of Ottawa's core on a dreary October 2019 morning, making an unexpected march to work.

Laptop bags slung over their shoulders, the crowd followed the route of the newly opened Confederation LRT line where trains had come to a sudden standstill. The public later found a rider at University of Ottawa station had tried to hold the door open in a dash to make the train, which somehow caused a system-wide shutdown. 

It wasn't the first mishap to strike Ottawa's $2-billion system, or even the most dramatic, but it was the first time the transit-going public felt the full force of just how troubled their commutes would be on the line.

A provincially imposed public inquiry heard testimony Monday from city staff and the consortium that built the line in an effort to find out how the capital's largest transit project went so far off the rails. 

The line has been beset with problems since the first few weeks it opened, from service delays, overcrowded platforms and stations that inexplicably smelled of sewage to derailments and showers of sparks flying off the train cars.  

City council initially voted against the idea of having a judge look into the long string of breakdowns and derailments on the line, but in late 2021 the Ontario government made the decision for them.

Ontario Appeal Court Justice William Hourigan was appointed commissioner with a mandate to investigate what went wrong.

The commission's counsel grilled the witnesses about the pressure from city council, Mayor Jim Watson and staff to deliver the project quickly and within the budget that was set in the very early days of the project's planning phase.

"We believed that delivering the project within the budget that they had available was of primary importance to the city," said Riccardo Cosentino, who served as the vice-president of investments for SNC-Lavalin, one of the construction consortium's parent companies. 

Questioned by counsel Christine Mainville, Cosentino described the increasing financial pressure facing the construction consortium as delays dragged on, motivating them to get the job done quickly.

There were penalties in place to prevent the companies from overrunning their timelines, but Cosentino said penalties can't correct underlying problems — especially if paying the penalty is cheaper than fixing the issues. 

The project, which was supposed to be handed over to the city on May 24, 2018, was delivered 456 days behind schedule. 

One of the earliest ill omens appeared in 2016, when a major downtown street opened up and swallowed an unoccupied van above the tunnel for the underground track.

At one point RTM, the consortium responsible for maintaining the line, reported the wheels were no longer round, prompting a train shortage.

The city's former director of rail implementation John Jensen, who was responsible for the procurement of the project, was also questioned about how the city and the contractor settled on the train model that is thought to have been the source of many of the technical issues with the line.

The city had asked for a vehicle that could operate in -38 C, snow, ice, salt and all the hard elements that Ottawa has to offer in the winter, as well as withstand the capital’s muggy, humid summers. 

Jensen told the commission that the city wanted a "service-proven" train car — in other words, one that had been used in similar conditions elsewhere so the city didn't act as "guinea pig" for a new product.

What the city got was what the manufacturer, Alstom, referred to in a sworn interview with the commission as a "development project" to bring low-floor technology to North America. 

Hourigan and his team have already listened intently to two full days of public meetings, where residents were invited to air their grievances with the system.

The formal hearings, which are expected to happen daily for the next three weeks, will feature testimony from 41 witnesses, including city staff, elected officials and representatives from the companies that built and maintain the line.

The commission has until Aug. 31 to deliver a final report on its findings to the Ontario transportation minister with recommendations to prevent future projects from suffering a similarly bumpy ride. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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