Jordan: Big cities dream for years about actually completing huge infrastructure projects, like a downtown transit line. And listen, I live in Toronto, so I know a little bit about not completing transit projects, but some cities do. And about a month ago, our nation’s capital finished the first phase of a massive transit investment when it unveiled a brand spanking new light rail train that could shuttle thousands of commuters into the heart of the city from the eastern and western outskirts. And I mean, to me, that sounds too good to be true. And it was
News Clip: I’m not very impressed. It was working great over the trial period. And it’s been pretty disappointing since a little little frustrating, trying not to get bothered by it too much. So I came out because there’s no place to get out. There’s just the Hundreds and hundreds of people inside. The third day I’m late for work. Let’s just say a hat trick in hockey. That’s a great thing. A hat trick for the LRT. God says your great thing.
Jordan: This week is the first week that the new LRT has been operating without bus support. And this week, the morning commute in Ottawa became the rest of the country’s comic relief. They were posts and tweets and memes and real pictures of commuters hopping fences to escape stations rather than wait for the train. There are even parody songs. What the hell happened to the LRT. I would like to tell you that it was an extremely complex and difficult to anticipate problem that nobody could have seen coming, or I’d like to tell you that but I can’t.
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the big story. Mark Sutcliffe is the host of the mark Sutcliffe show on 1310 news in Ottawa where people are very angry. Mark, how’s it going?
Mark: Good. Jordan, how are you?
Jordan: Oh, I’m better here with the TTC and all its problems then then you guys are out there. So tell me first Just tell me about auto was new LRT. How long has it been in the works? Where does it go? That kind of stuff?
Mark: Yeah, well, it depends how far back you want to go, Jordan because this story actually began. I’m going to say 15 years ago, maybe even longer than that. We we did a pilot project for a light rail system on some existing track many years ago. And that’s still running today. So that that we had this this sort of short train line that was running that was a bit of a test of the concept. And then we went through a whole debate and discussion over where to go next we actually created a plan for a light rail system that would have brought people in from the south end of the city in into the downtown core and and approve that hired all the people to do it. And then there was an election that was run on that issue and, and we scrapped it and paid 10s of millions of dollars to do so. the reset button, then came up with this plan to build a tunnel under downtown Ottawa and have East West light rail, bringing people in from the east end and the west end of the city and, and then started building that. And of course, like many major infrastructure projects, it took longer than expected it was supposed to open in June of last year, and didn’t end up opening until about a month ago.
Jordan: So how was it? it open like a month ago, right? You got on? How was it?
Mark: It was good. You know, it gets you in and out of downtown very fast. I happen to live near one of the stops in fact, the furthest West. This is just the backbone of course of what will be a much bigger network of stops and trains going forward. They’re going to build phase two, starting almost right away, but I happened to live very close to the western end of the phase one. And, and I can get from an office in downtown to my house in about really 15 to 20 minutes. So it’s very fast. It’s very efficient when it’s running properly.
Jordan: Yeah, for Ottawa that is like a huge step into the future because for the last however many decades, this city mostly ran on buses, right?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of people feel it is a game changer. I’ve raised questions about it, in terms of whether it’s worth the money, it’s it is definitely better. It but it’s $2 billion. And by the time we build phase two and phase three, it’ll be 10 $15 billion. And we had a pretty good system before one that was reaching maximum capacity but I don’t know not being a transit expert whether there were other alternatives we could have pursued once we started down this path of the train. Everybody kind of jumped on board and and everyone on city council was it was not just a light rail supporter but a light rail promoter So that’s been the dynamic that we’ve had in our city. It’s been full steam ahead. And and now we’re now we’re a light rail city.
Jordan: When did people start realizing that something might be wrong with the train?
Mark: Well, first, we had, as I mentioned, the delays and getting it done. And we we knew during that time that there were issues with some of the trains that were being built for this system. We knew there were issues with digging the tunnel and all kinds of other things. So there, there was a sense that, okay, something’s going on. And it wasn’t just a thing of, Okay, this is going to take longer than expected, we would set a new deadline, then we’d miss that deadline. Then we’d set another new deadline, and we’d missed that deadline. And then finally, it was okay. The trains are going to start running on September the 14th. And in the meantime, for the first three weeks that they’re running, there’s going to be a parallel bus service that will still operate. So all the buses that were running before we had trains would keep running. And then as of this past Sunday, they got rid of those buses and And had everybody start taking the trains, that’s when the passenger volume really increased. And that’s when we started to have issues with the doors. So the last three days, we’ve had the doors getting jammed, too many people on the platforms and then the whole system, basically there’s a domino effect and the whole system shuts down for anywhere from five to 10 minutes to two, in one case, 45 minutes where the trains are just not running.
Jordan: How does an issue with one door? Stop the whole train?
Mark: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t fully get that myself. But basically, what we’re being told is somebody pried the doors open on a train to let it another passenger on or off the train. The train doors are set to open and close automatically, so they’re not even controlled by the conductor of the train. They just open and close at a fixed interval at each station to allow for people to get on and off and somebody pried them open. So obviously you shouldn’t do that, but at the same time, would imagine that this is not the first time this has happened on a public transit vehicle in the world that there are light rail systems all over this planet where people forced the doors open or try to hold them open longer than they’re supposed to. And they find ways around that either the doors reset or or are they close anyway or something there’s a solution that doesn’t lead to a 45 minute delay. What seems to have happened here is not only did the doors get forced open, but they took a long time to be fixed the problem they weren’t just able to reset the doors or or get that train out of the station and get another one in there to pick up the slack. It was just a standstill for 45 minutes and because of that you had thousands of people building up at some of the train stations hoping to take the train and discovering it wasn’t running and people climbing over fences to get out people trying to get Uber’s or lifts to get downtown and some people just walking to work from from the suburbs.
Jordan: You have a show you talk to a lot of people what has the reaction been amongst people who thought they were getting like a brand new toy to get to work in and now it’s just a mess like I ride the TTC and people pry doors open all the time and it doesn’t break because of one door and the same is true everywhere else. So how does it feel being a transit mean?
Mark: Yeah, I I think people are frustrated and they’re embarrassed. I think there’s You know, there there is a level of patience I think on on a, in the sense that look, it is day three, it’s day three, since we started having the full, you know, effect of canceling all these buses and relying purely on this train system in the downtown corridor. So, you know if if I think there’s still room for the officials in Ottawa to say, okay, we found the following solutions, we fixed it. And if we have a couple of weeks of, of not having these problems anymore, then I think full confidence will be restored. The other thing about this is no matter how frustrating it is, like you in Toronto, it’s not like there’s another way to do this, right? We’ve got the tunnel, Doug, we’ve got trains running, the buses are going to be gone and and you know, there are a bunch of people who just for whatever reason are not going to drive their cars downtown just because the train isn’t as reliable as they want it to be. So even after yesterday’s fiasco, there were thousands and thousands of people getting on the train. Today hoping that it would work. So we’re sort of stuck with it.
Jordan: Now, what has the city said in response to this or done, I guess, if they’ve done anything.
Mark: So a couple things that the city is looking at the technical aspects of this, they’re trying to find solutions for have maybe having the doors stay open longer. I’m not sure how big of an advantage that would be because there’s always another passenger, right? It’s not it’s it’s kind of like that old joke about baseball that you could eliminate all the close plays at first, by moving the bag, you know, another foot from home plate, right? It doesn’t work that way. There’s always going to be somebody else trying to get on the train, no matter how long the doors stay open. So they’re looking at technical solutions around that they’re also looking at at some form of a reset that can allow them to to just disable those doors that if they get jammed and carry on with with one fewer set of doors, or at least get out of the station and let another train come in. So they’re looking at their protocols for resolving this. And although other transit officials were saying we don’t want to blame our Passengers, the mayor did raise the idea of punitive measures against anybody who holds the doors open. I’m not sure that he wants to go there and make this the fault of the passengers. But that was a comment that was raised by the mayor. Obviously, if somebody willfully damages a train, then you’re going to want to take action against them. But I don’t know how you’re going to stop the instinct of people to you know, if they see somebody coming, who’s you know, an elderly person or someone living with a disability or if a family has been separated and the doors are closing, there’s, you know, there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to stick their hand out and and try to keep the door open.
Jordan: Yeah, they’re trying to help people like, again, I see it on the FTC every day. It’s instinct when you see the doors closing on someone to try to, like stop that from happening. What was the reaction to the mayor’s comments about punitive measures for passengers?
Mark: I don’t think that was very popular. You know, I think a lot of passengers feel like they shouldn’t be blamed for the system that they You know, I think it’s reasonable to expect for $2.1 billion, which is what this first phase cost taxpayers that we have a system that is that is robust enough that it can handle a little bit of door jostling by the passengers. And that it’s sophisticated enough that if there is a problem with one of the doors, it can be quickly dealt with. And you can move on without it having this domino effect, that four stations down the line, you’ve got thousands of people trapped on a platform, and some of them climbing over fences just to get out of there because there are no trains running anymore.
Jordan: In the bigger picture. I wanted to ask you about Ottawa in general, if it was really, really close to maximum capacity before this line, and the next line will start now but it’s obviously some time away is transit in the city built for the growth that Ottawa seeing right now.
Mark: We’re being told it is and that there’s more capacity that can be added to this so they apparently can increase the frequency of the trains. They do feel that things will sort themselves out. But what we have in the meantime is is a system where a lot of people are taking the train out of the downtown core to a stop where the train ends. And then they have to transfer to a bus that will take them deeper into the east and west ends of the city into the suburbs. They used to be able to take a bus all the way in one direction or the other. Now they’re transferring to and from the trains. That’s a temporary thing. When I say temporary three or four years, perhaps wait until the next phase of the rail is built in the tracks are laid all the way out into the suburbs, but that’s creating a lot of pressure on the system. So there are big lineups for the buses, after people get off the trains there. There’s, you know, the platforms for the buses that people transfer to in the afternoon on their way home are filling up pretty quickly. So they’re trying to find ways to mitigate all of that. And and obviously there are some things they will do to sort this out and they’ll learn from the early experience but it feel like we’re, you know, we’re bursting at the seams a little bit with this.
Jordan: Has anybody managed to get any kind of comment from the people who built these trains for the city or the people who organized this system? Because I, I wonder, like how nobody could have tested the doors and stuff like it just I’m asking stupid questions because it seems very basic to me.
Mark: Yeah, it does seem like it is at that level. We did hear that there were issues with the doors during the testing and and that may have been one of the reasons why the launch was delayed. The the mayor has had a bit of an A at sometimes angry kind of relationship with the company that built the trains. He sort of called them on the carpet a few months ago when another deadline was missed. And and that’s when, you know, the the the date of September 14 kind of emerged from that to say, Okay, once and for all we are going to set a date and we are going to stick to that date. So yeah, there’s been there’s been some anger about that. And I think I think the I think the the organizers, the the constructors of the system are feeling the heat, they’re also going to pay all kinds of financial penalties for being late and having Miss deadlines. And I imagine there’ll be some litigation between the city and the, the manufacturers of the train a consortium of companies that put this together because because of the delays, and the city is going to want to attach a whole bunch of costs that it incurred to those delays and expect the consortium to pay that cost. And I’m sure they will push back. But we don’t hear from them so much. It’s mostly just the transit officials who are now the holders of the keys to this brand new system.
Jordan: So obviously, I hope that people in Ottawa are listening to this on the weekend while they’re riding the train and everything goes really well. But if this keeps happening on the weekend or into next week’s commutes Do we know what options commuters will have? Does the city have a plan B. If this doesn’t get fixed,
Mark: I guess the the other solution is to go back to Having a parallel bus service and having the buses that used to run while the light rail system was being built, continue to take passengers downtown and doing that until you have full confidence in the train system. But I’m told that costs a million dollars a week to run those buses. And yeah, and so and and we will have, you know, to look at it from the other side. If we’re still running those buses, then what did we spend the $2 billion for?
Jordan: Yeah, no kidding. Thanks, Mark.
Mark: Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan: Mark Sutcliffe, host of the mark Sutcliffe show on 1310 news in Ottawa. And that was the big story. For more from us, including the one about Toronto’s equally bad transit problems, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca You can also share your crowded transit memes with us at @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter. And if you enjoyed this episode, if you laughed at Ottawa, you can go give us a five-star review and your favorite podcast player. We are in all of them Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Whatever. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of the big story Ryan Clarke, Stefanie Phillips both associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and be thankful if your trains on time. We’ll talk Tuesday.
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