Once again derailed: bothersome Ottawa trains keep jumping off tracks


OTTAWA – Gravel strewn across the bike path was the first sign of trouble. Steven Grant, a resident of Ottawa, was out on September 19 when he noticed a light rail train had stopped in the middle of the tracks.

OTTAWA – Gravel strewn across the bike path was the first sign of trouble.

Steven Grant, a resident of Ottawa, was out for a walk on September 19 when he noticed a light rail train had stopped in the middle of the tracks. The gravel from the bed under the rails had been strewn on the nearby path.

“The second and third cars in this train were clearly derailed,” Grant said in an interview Thursday. “You could see that the side panel, the kind of hood on the wheels, is totally, totally damaged.”

Subsequent investigations revealed that the train was already in a state of derailment when it left the station with 12 people on board and crossed a railway bridge over a major six-track carriageway before colliding with a signal mast. and a switch heater.

The driver applied the emergency brake and stopped just on the other side of the bridge.

In any other city, Grant said he would have been surprised to stumble upon a sight like this, but it’s Ottawa’s Confederation Line, and the derailment was the second in as many. of months.

The $ 2 billion line, a major infrastructure project in Canada’s capital that had been in the works for more than a decade, opened just two years ago. He has been plagued by calamities large and small.

A sinkhole engulfed a main thoroughfare in the city center during construction. Door jams delayed the queue for hours. The wheels have developed flats. The stations smelled of raw sewage for a while. Salt spray from Ottawa’s roads has fouled electrical work. Showers of sparks sometimes cascaded past the windows because the arm that connects the train to the power lines was constantly losing contact. These are just a few of the things.

A growing chorus of local transit riders, lawyers and politicians are demanding answers.

“My biggest fear is that there will be an accident where there are injuries or loss of life. You can’t help but feel it today, ”said the Ottawa Council. Catherine McKenney said in an interview. “What else we don’t know about this system that could make it dangerous? “

The Federal Transportation Safety Board says Ottawa’s light rail system has derailed five times in the past two years. Three of these derailments occurred off the main tracks, probably en route to the maintenance site.

McKenney has called for a judicial inquiry into how the city ended up in this mess and what else might go wrong.

“I believe that it is only if we are considered serious in addressing the root cause of all the problems in this system that we will be able, in good faith, to go to the federal government and ask for more funding to continue.” to expand our lines, ”McKenney said. “This is what I hope a judicial inquiry will help do.”

Mayor Jim Watson opposes the idea of ​​judicial review, fearing it will slow progress in later phases of the project.

Compared to the sprawling systems of other cities, the Confederation Line of Ottawa is fairly straightforward. Literally, this is a 12.5 kilometer straight twin track with 13 stops that goes partially underground.

It serves as the backbone of Ottawa’s entire transit system, having replaced rapid transit routes to and from downtown. Without it, the whole system stops until replacement buses can be mobilized to take passengers to busy streets that are not intended for heavy use of public transport.

Construction is already underway on phase 2, which would extend the line east and west.

The federal Liberals’ re-election campaign vowed to speed up major transit projects, and new Ottawa Liberal MP Jenna Sudds, who has served as a city councilor since 2018, has vowed the party will extend the Confederation line. struggling even further into the suburbs a top priority.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single train in operation for weeks, and there won’t be until repairs are made and the system is deemed safe. It is not known how long it will take.

“At this point, we don’t know,” Watson said Friday. “We’re not going to open it until it’s completely secure to our standards, and we’ve had it signed by our independent security checker.”

In 2019, shortly after the line opened, train doors got stuck, blocking the system for long periods of time. The crowds piled up to the point that hordes of commuters instead chose to walk the 3.5-kilometer trip downtown.

It was then that Matthew Roberts, a software developer who lives in Ottawa, created LRTdown.ca to track outages and delays. An automated Twitter account lets runners know how many days have passed since the last delay. The one-page website says, “Is the LRT down? YES.”

“It seemed like there were constant issues so I thought it would be funny,” Roberts said in an interview.

He had no idea that the joke would still be relevant two years later. The website isn’t perfect, it just picks up tweets from the OC Transpo service, so it will sometimes miss an outage if the transit service doesn’t tweet it.

Longest sequence of actual service ever recorded according to the schedule? Thirty-two days.

“It tells me there are issues,” said Roberts. “It’s just a problem after the next one, and honestly, I think it’s embarrassing.”

David Jeanes has been advocating for better rail options as a member of Transport Action Canada since 1976, and he said he has never seen the kind of problems Ottawa has.

“Any problem that happened in Ottawa can occasionally arise elsewhere. But there is no new problem every week, ”he said.

One project is not enough to shatter Canada’s confidence in light rail, Jeanes said, but other cities will be closely monitoring the situation in Ottawa to see if they can avoid the same crashes.

It’s too late to tear up the rails, he said, so fixing it is now the only option.

“I still hope the Ottawa system will work because we can’t live without it,” he said.

Although no one really knows what it will take to get the project back on track.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 3, 2021.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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