Fix OC Transpo Leadership to Fix LRT

There is an old adage that efficient government can make the trains run on time.

With yesterday’s announcement from Premier Doug Ford that there will be no funding for Stage Three of the LRT until the City of Ottawa sorts out the problems with the Confederation Line—and with Stage One out of service for the eighth straight day—it’s time to ask, why does this feel like a broken record?

It’s been two years, and the O-train has yet to run without technical issues. OC Transpo’s management and leadership and their hostility to accountability continue to allow the Confederation Line to run off the rails.

The City of Ottawa needs to hold OC Transpo responsible for substandard service delivery. At Ottawa Transit Commission meetings, transit boss Renee Amilcar and her staff regularly report on how the system works for both bus and O-Train service. The latest update included a delivery rate in the 90 percentiles. Staff often downplay transit problems as technical issues that are actively being resolved.

Amilcar habitually relays to Transit Commission board members that service is improving or returning to normal. Unfortunately, the service disruptions tell a different story. However, when she is faced with any serious questions, she becomes abrasive. The best example was when Councillor Wilson Lo brought a thoughtful list of 20 questions with various sub-sections on the state of the LRT to the committee.

After receiving the list, Amilcar was asked how long her office would take to respond; she snapped that any time spent responding to Lo would distract her staff from other projects. Ironically, Lo is perhaps the best person to grill the OC boss since he worked as a bus driver and a customer communications officer for the organisation.

A few tough questions and some collaboration is a good first step toward getting things back on track, but Amilcar does not seem interested and appears unaware that her job is to report to Council. During one transit commission meeting, Amilcar went as far as to say, “I am not paid to be told what to do.”

During the February 16, 2023, LRT subcommittee meeting Councillor Shawn Menard attempted to ensure there is oversite for the LRT by requesting that Council be briefed on design or technical changes relating to Stage Two, something that did not occur during the construction of Stage One. Amilcar responded to Menard, saying, “I can’t make decisions without authority.” She further argued that she is an engineer as if this somehow made her position infallible.

Amilcar’s obstinance was backed by Councillor Cathy Curry, who argued that Council is not made up of engineers and therefore has no place in getting technical briefings or advising on the LRT construction.

Amilcar continues to get a pass from Council because committees are too divided to hold her and her poor performance as the head of OC Transpo accountable. Amilcar has been president since October 2021, a disastrous tenure given the frequent problems with the Confederation Line.

Even if the city eliminates all the management at OC Transpo, it will not fix the problem. The city’s P3 contract is embarrassing. Rideau Transit Maintenance Group inspectors have been reported to have missed mandatory training, and the actual P3 contract is so heavily redacted that citizens of Ottawa cannot even read the contractual document regarding their transit system.

Although life has been “back to normal” for over a year, ridership at OC has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Ottawa residents are evidently dissuaded from using OC Transpo because they cannot rely on it to get them to work on time. Buses are available during train service outages, but redirected riders on the R1buses find them overcrowded and take too long.

If Ottawa had kept the 95-bus service while it worked out the kinks, residents wouldn’t have been forced to opt for alternatives like cycling, ridesharing, or buying a car. The city-wide retirement of routes in preparation for the O-Train left no solid backup.

While the latest service breakdown of LRT service may be due to another technical issue, it’s time to ask if these constant stoppages in service would be occurring if those in charge of OC Transpo were more competent.

A train isn’t on a highway or street full of drivers with free agency; it’s a tracked vehicle that can only go forwards and backwards. If a train runs on time, it’s a sign that the government at a municipal level can at least do the job of providing basic transit service.

Renee Amilcar may be an engineer, but not even she can ensure that the trains run on time. However, let’s hope she gives it high priority.

For now, Ottawa’s trains don’t run at all.