Quebec’s streetcar remains on the rails after defeating opponents who disputed its legality in the Supreme Court. Now that the project can move forward, the city must avoid the pitfalls and promises to learn from the mistakes of others, including Ottawa’s, documented in a recently released investigative report. The newspaper traces the most important lessons learned from the experiences of the federal capital.
• Also read: Lessons for the Quebec City Tramway
• Also read: Gatineau-Ottawa streetcar: the “most complex project in the country”
• Also read: The pitfalls Quebec must avoid: Pitfalls and nearly two-year delay in Edmonton
Photo archive, Taieb Moalla
Breakdowns and technical problems
The failures have accumulated in the network of the city of Ontario.
Collapse during construction, elevator failures, power supply problems, door failures, erratic operation, poor maintenance, partial ice disruptions and two derailments.
Users were disillusioned after the launch, which was a year late.
They repeatedly complained about various problems ranging from the lack of heating in the stations, to slippery and dangerous floors, to bad smells in the underground sections.
Three years after the O-Train went into service, the incidents prompted the province of Ontario to launch a public inquiry.
Among the 20 lessons the City of Quebec learned from Ottawa are “a clear vision of its functional and technical needs” and careful monitoring of testing.
Fixed and inflexible costs
The $2.1 billion amount granted to the project from the start was restrictive in Ottawa.
Mayor Jim Watson made a commitment to the community to meet the budget and deadlines, based on a previously prepared estimate by city officials.
“Although there is no evidence that the fixed price has deterred qualified builders from applying for the project, the Commission has gathered evidence that certain design decisions were made because of budget inflexibility,” the investigation notes.
For example, platform screen doors, those large automatic glass doors that are located at the edge of the platform in train stations, were excluded from the design as shown for budget reasons.
For Quebec, we still expect cost overruns due to inflation at nearly $4 billion. The three tiers of government have agreed to fund it in the same proportion as the original budget, namely 40% from the federal government, 51% from the state government and 8.9% from the city.
Choosing an unproven technology
Ottawa “has opted for an essentially new vehicle based on unproven technology,” Alstom’s Citadis Spirit model, identifies Commissioner William Hourigan in the public inquiry into the federal capital’s light rail network. This resulted in “inevitable starting problems”, compounded by the “city’s technical requirements that exceeded the limits of light rail”.
In addition, the Ottawa train also experienced failures related to its overhead power supply.
However, in Quebec City we have instead opted for overhead contact line (ACL) technology with thinner support poles and one wire per direction instead of two.
According to the City of Quebec, the LAC is “a globally proven system that will take into account Quebec’s topographical and climatic conditions. Keep in mind that the light rail is different from the tram: its trains are heavier and have more capacity, and it runs faster.
Miscommunication and hidden information
A lack of communication and transparency has hampered the realization of Ottawa’s light rail project, notes Commissioner William Hourigan.
In fact, the investigation found that former Mayor Jim Watson had information about the trial’s errors and did not share it with the city council. The report identifies a “clear attempt to retrospectively and dishonestly legitimize the unjustified withholding of information” on the part of the authorities concerned.
In Ottawa, governance is ill-defined and each party blames the other for the fiasco.
In Quebec the structure is different and the city is the project manager. “It is important to clearly define the risk sharing between the city and private partners,” emphasizes the municipality.
This week, Quebec Mayor Bruno Marchand recalled that representatives of the streetcar project office visited officials in Ottawa and received “extraordinary insights” from them that would allow pitfalls to be avoided.
Harmful political pressure
Ottawa’s O-Train project suffered from political pressures that led to a hasty and rushed launch of the train, the commissioner concludes.
The City of Ontario agreed to consider the network “compliant” although significant operational issues were known and persist.
It also lowered the criteria that measured the network’s readiness during the test phase. In addition, the consortium responsible for the infrastructure communicated unrealistic opening dates, which were nevertheless communicated to the citizens by the city. This causes delays in network deployment.
In the city of Québec, the project office has planned a start-up phase, which it will oversee.
“The implementation and supervision of the tests and commercial operations must be the responsibility of the public authority and must be carried out for a period of at least 12 months including a winter period,” states the City of Quebec.
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