New LRT wheel defects reduce operating fleet size, add to list of problems

Ottawa’s LRT trains haven’t been all as they’re cracked up to be, with yet another problem discovered with the vehicles.

Train technicians are trying to find the root cause for faulty wheels after they discovered a crack on a steel wheel, prompting a fleet-wide inspection under a safety order.

City of Ottawa transportation general manager John Manconi reported Saturday that three wheels on three separate Alstom LRT vehicles (two vehicles make up one complete train) had evidence of defects. Alstom was replacing the wheels.

Now all vehicles must be inspected after each use under the safety order, potentially further gumming up a maintenance regime that has struggled to keep up with repairs on the $2.1-billion Confederation Line while the city’s LRT contractor overhauls its management.

Rideau Transit Group (RTG) and its affiliate Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) are in the middle of leadership changes with Peter Lauch, the CEO for both companies, leaving those positions on July 10. Coming into the CEO jobs are Nicolas Truchon at RTG and Mario Guerra at RTM.

A historic day in the capital Saturday as the public finally got to ride the LRT system. Ashley Fraser/Postmedia
A file photo from the first day of Ottawa LRT operations last September. Ashley Fraser/Postmedia

For transit customers at LRT stations, the latest train problems could mean longer wait times of up to eight minutes since the city is allowing the contractors to only run seven trains on the 12.5-kilometre line while they solve the wheel mystery. An eighth train will be available as a “hot spare” in case one of the seven in-service trains malfunctions.

Ridership is still low because of COVID-19 closures, which is why the city authorized the smaller train count for daily service while the contractor investigates the wheel defects.

This is occurring at a time when the city is also pushing RTG and RTM to make available 15 reliable trains to run on the line by Aug. 4. The LRT system should currently have a maximum of 13 trains running at once.

RTG is operating under a notice of contract default the city issued in March after problems piled up with the LRT system, which hasn’t even been in service for a year. The Confederation Line launched on Sept. 14.

There were 34 Alstom Citadis Spirit vehicles purchased as part of Stage 1. The city gave RTG the contract to produce an additional 38 vehicles as part of the Stage 2 LRT expansion, and those trains are being built and added to the current fleet. At last month’s transit commission meeting, the operating fleet was nearing 38 single vehicles.

While RTG has made progress to improve train software, the overhead wire system and track conditions, it hasn’t provided a timeline for all the fixes that would satisfy city management.

The latest cracked-wheels mess isn’t the first problem with the train wheels.

Earlier this year, the city was confused about why so many trains were getting flat spots on wheels, prompting another root-cause investigation as the contractor was having trouble keeping up with general wheel maintenance.

According to Manconi’s statement on Saturday, the city retained expertise to review findings and assess the next steps when it comes to the cracked-wheels mystery.

There was no information about when the LRT system would resume regular operations.

Train service on Saturday afternoon was further impacted by what OC Transpo called a “track issue” east of Tremblay Station, forcing all customers to use the eastbound station platform.

Alstom is RTG’s main contractor for Ottawa LRT. The city doesn’t have a direct contractual relationship with Alstom.

As a penalty for poor performance, the city hasn’t made monthly maintenance payments to RTG since making one initial payment last fall.

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