The Two Billion Dollar Lemon


IMG_20190916_1737036.jpgCitizens of Ottawa can be forgiven for thinking their municipal government has squandered a couple of billion taxpayers dollars in exchange for some sour fruit, in this case a large lemon.

The train is running in Ottawa again, or at least it was Friday when I wrote this. No guarantees that will continue.

When Ottawa introduced its new light rail system (LRT) in September, I noted problems the first day. And those weren’t the ones that received all the publicity.

I decided in fairness though that I would wait before commenting and give those in charge at OC Transpo time to fix the bugs. Yet four months later we have the transit agency suggesting people might prefer to work from home while they fixed the latest problem that shut down the system.IMG_20190918_1110299

The LRT was billed as a big step forward for public transit in Ottawa. I’m not sure if you can find anyone among Ottawa’s million people who would say that today, except perhaps the mayor and those running the transit system – and they are paid to say that.

Given that the rail system was a year or two behind schedule (depending on which timeline to remember) I guess it is no surprise there have been problems. It is the variety that continues to astound.

What Ottawa appears to have is what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a person or thing, especially an automobile, regarded as unsatisfactory, disappointing, or feeble. Definitely a lemon.

For example, in the fall,when outdoor temperatures began dropping, management realized that the heating system in the trains was insufficient. And this is before winter started. I don’t know what it was like for the passengers, but the drivers reported the train cabs were seven degrees Celsius. That’s not really cold – but try sitting in it for eight hours and you might think otherwise. It is probably warmer for passengers – and they aren’t on the train as long.

That was just one of a number of problems that saw trains consistently delayed or not running at all. There were problems with the train doors, with the tracks and most recently with the power line. And that doesn’t include the problems at the stations, with floors too slippery to be safe and escalators constantly out of order.

The system is so unreliable that OC Transpo keeps buses on standby in rush hour, idling in a central parking lot, to be rushed into service when the train breaks down. The LRT was supposed to save money by taking buses off the road (which is also good for the environment). It hasn’t worked out that way.

Officials keep saying that the problems are temporary, but after four months of almost daily breakdowns it would be hard to find anyone who believes them. Everyone is waiting for the first big snowfall or a few days of really cold weather to see what that does to the trains. Will they even run at minus thirty?

If I was still in Ottawa I would be complaining about my daily commute. The LRT was supposed to speed things up, but where I live it takes longer now to get to the downtown core than it did in the pre-LRT days. I suspect that is true for a lot of people.

What really concerns me though is the next phase of the project. Construction will start soon on an expansion that is supposed to be completed in 2025 at a cost of another $4.6 billion.

Given that the people in charge at the moment don’t seem to be able to get the current LRT to run properly, why are they being trusted to get it right the next time? Or is that a question that shouldn’t be asked?


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