Year-end interview: Ottawa mayor ‘very confident’ LRT is back on track after derailments

The following is the third of a three-part year-end interview with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. The first instalment covered his three-term tenure as mayor while the second part covered year two of COVID-19 in Ottawa. The interview was filmed in its entirety on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

Mayor Jim Watson says he has full confidence in Ottawa’s light-rail transit system after a rough string of months that saw two derailments and an extended shutdown on the Confederation Line.

Global News asked Watson whether he thought the city’s $2.1-billion LRT line was indeed “world class” in a year-end interview on Monday, given the multiple investigations into the turbulent system announced over the past few months, including a probe by the city’s auditor general and plans for a public inquiry from the Ontario government.

Read more: Ottawa auditor general proceeding with LRT probe despite ‘crickets’ from Ontario

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“Certainly, when it’s working, it is. When it’s not working, it’s frustrating, and it isn’t a world-class system. We paid for a world-class system,” Watson said.

Reviews from Ottawa’s independent rail safety advisers and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada following the derailments found failures on the maintenance and monitoring sides such as bolts not being properly tightened and an inability for the trains to detect when wheel axles were overheating.

In response, OC Transpo said it upped its oversight of the system and Rideau Transit Group has called in extra hands and swapped out managers to get the LRT back on track.

Since its partial relaunch in mid-November, service levels on the LRT line have averaged to 99.1 per cent, according to Ottawa’s new transit general manager Renée Amilcar.

“There’s no question it’s been fraught with a lot of problems. But I’m very confident that we have the right team in place now that can actually make sure that every train that goes out is 100 per cent safe and secure for our passengers, and for our employees and for the public,” Watson said.

Though the LRT line also struggled with door jams and other issues a few months into its initial launch in 2019, the mayor pointed to more than a year of reliable service, largely during the COVID-19 pandemic, as proof that Ottawa residents are getting a return on their investment.

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But it’s not just municipal tax dollars supporting the system, as future stages of expansion on the LRT line are contingent on funding commitments from the federal and provincial governments.

The Ontario government threatened to hold back $60 million in Stage 2 funding in November amid public calls for accountability over the system’s recent failures.

Read more: Ottawa’s troubled LRT trains are off the rails again. Advocates demand answers

Asked whether he thought the recent downtime on the line and concurrent investigations would make the feds or province think twice about pouring more money into Stage 2 and eventual Stage 3 expansions to the west end, Watson said he had “every confidence” that funding would continue to flow.

“The prime minister made a commitment during the campaign for Phase 3 funding … and we now have to work with the premier and his office to get the province on board for that 50-50 cost sharing,” he said.

The long-term confidence in LRT could be tested again on Friday morning as the city’s finance and economic development committee meets for a substantial update on the system, including in-camera legal briefings on disputes with RTG and an update on Stage 2 construction.

Read more: City of Ottawa taking dispute over recent LRT derailments to court

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City staff warned in early 2021 that construction on the Trillium Line extension to the south, currently slated for handover in August 2022, could be facing delays, but that they would have more clarity on schedule impacts before the end of the year.

Click to play video: 'Jim Watson defends how he’s run city council as mayor of Ottawa' Jim Watson defends how he’s run city council as mayor of Ottawa

Jim Watson defends how he’s run city council as mayor of Ottawa

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