OTTAWA — Hundreds of downtown civil servants and workers marched shoulder-to-shoulder along the sidewalk outside Ottawa’s core on a sad October 2019 morning, making an unexpected march to work.
Laptop bags slung over their shoulders, the crowd followed the route of the newly opened Confederacy’s LRT line, where trains came to a sudden stop. Later, the public discovered that a passenger at the University of Ottawa station had tried to keep the door open to get on the train, which somehow caused a system-wide shutdown.
It wasn’t the first setback to hit Ottawa’s $2 billion system, or even the most dramatic, but it was the first time the public on the move felt the full force of how troublesome their commutes would be on the line.
A provincially-imposed public inquiry begins on Monday to hear testimony from city officials and the consortium that built the line in an effort to find out how the capital’s biggest transit project went off the rails.
The line has had 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 from the train cars.
At one point, RTM, the consortium responsible for maintaining the line, reported that the wheels were no longer round, causing a lack of trains.
One of the first bad omens for the project appeared years earlier, in 2016, when a large downtown street opened up and swallowed an unoccupied van above the tunnel to the underground line.
The work, which was supposed to be delivered to the city hall on May 24, 2018, was delivered 456 days late.
The city council initially voted against the idea of a judge examining the long series of breakdowns and derailments on the line, but in late 2021 the Ontario government made the decision for them.
Ontario Court of Appeal Judge William Hourigan has been appointed commissioner with a mandate to investigate what went wrong.
Hourigan and his team have already listened carefully to two full days of public meetings, where residents were invited to air their grievances to the system.
The formal hearings, which are expected to take place daily for the next three weeks, will feature testimonies from 41 witnesses, including city officials, elected officials and representatives of the companies that built and maintain the line.
Hourigan and his attorney will first hear from the city’s former director of railway implementation, John Jensen, who was responsible for the project’s acquisition.
In an interview with the commission’s sworn attorney, Jensen said the acquisition was led by Infrastructure Ontario, a provincial agency of the Crown, and that the agency’s model became the basis of the project’s contract with the contractor.
Jensen was also asked how the city and the contractor settled on the model train that is believed to have been the source of many of the line’s technical problems.
In the late afternoon, they will hear from Riccardo Cosentino, who served as vice president of investments at SNC-Lavalin, one of the controllers of the construction consortium.
The commission has until August 31 to deliver a final report on its findings to the Ontario Minister of Transport with recommendations to prevent future projects from having an equally bumpy ride.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 13, 2022.