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LRT towing effort in Ottawa fails, further damaging overhead wire and extending closure

The partial closure of Ottawa’s LRT has stretched into Sunday as repair efforts Saturday morning caused further damage to the system, the third time that’s happened since the initial breakdown several days ago.

According to the latest update Sunday morning, Confederation Line trains continue to run on two loops: between Blair and Tremblay stations in the east and between Tunney’s Pasture and uOttawa stations in the west.

R1 bus service remains in place between St-Laurent and Rideau stations.

Sunday’s service is expected to be the same as Saturday, transit services general manager Renée Amilcar said in a memo Saturday evening to council.

Officials have not given any indication as to when they expect the line to fully reopen.

In an earlier update Saturday, Amilcar said crews successfully removed ice from the overhead wires Friday night.

But when Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) sent a train at low speed to tow one of the trains stuck near Lees station, it instead caused  additional damage to the overhead wire, Amilcar wrote.

3rd time repair attempts caused more damage

The wire was first damaged Thursday when crews tried to move one of the immobilized trains to a maintenance facility.

The towing attempt Saturday morning was the second time since then that RTM had sent a train into that section of the track, and the second time it resulted in damage to the wire.

The first time, RTM dispatched a train with a special attachment called a winter carbon strip to remove ice from the overhead wire. That didn’t work, and what’s more, it damaged a short section of the wire which Amilcar said would now need to be repaired.

“RTM is now conducting a thorough inspection of that entire section of the OCS [Overhead Catenary System] before further attempts are made to move any trains in and out of that area,” Amilcar wrote on Saturday.

Amilcar added OC Transpo is bringing in “additional external oversight” to closely monitor RTM’s work. The new oversight will supplement the existing oversight firm TRA Inc. that OC Transpo hired in Oct. 2021.

In her Saturday evening memo, Amilcar said RTM crews were on pace to complete their inspection of a 2.8-km stretch of the catenary system by later Saturday night.

So far, no additional damage had been found, she said.

The plan for Sunday is to have crews out early in the morning, carrying out one more sweep of that stretch before trying again to move the stuck trains. 

Throughout the day and into the evening, RTM would be inspecting other parts of the power system while also completing repairs to the section damaged earlier Saturday, Amilcar wrote.

“Should circumstances change, or if any step in the plan is unsuccessful, we will take immediate steps to inform council and to inform our customers via a media availability, as this will have a significant impact on Monday’s service,” Amilcar wrote.

‘Inordinate’ number of incidents

Stuart MacKay, a board member with transit advocacy group Ottawa Transit Riders, said he believes an “inordinate” number of incidents have occurred along the stretch between uOttawa and Tremblay stations. 

In addition to the current stoppage, service along that stretch has been disrupted by a lightning strike, a broken wire, and a derailment since September 2021.

“I think we have to start having some serious questions about that stretch of track,” MacKay said. “Are we doing everything in terms of preventative measures?”

Regular LRT passenger Gabriel White was forced to take an R1 replacement bus on his way to work Saturday. 

Gabriel White waits for an R1 replacement bus at platform B outside the Rideau Centre on Jan. 7, 2022.
Gabriel White waits for an R1 replacement bus outside the Rideau Centre on Saturday. (Guy Quenneville/CBC News)

Speaking to CBC at a bus stop outside the Rideau Centre, White said the train is an important part of his routine commute from Gatineau to the St. Laurent Shopping Centre.

“I depend very much on these trains,” he said. “They have to put the train back on service. It is more efficient, and it is more time-saving.”

Out of service since late Wednesday

Two out-of-service trains near Lees station have prevented any trains from running through the section of track between uOttawa and Hurdman stations since Wednesday night.

A sign outside the uOttawa LRT station warns passengers O-Train Line 1 service is not available due to a damaged overhead wire on Jan. 7, 2022.
A sign outside the uOttawa LRT station Saturday warns passengers that LRT service is not available due to a damaged overhead wire. (Guy Quenneville/CBC News)

The cascading set of problems have been outlined in a series of memos from Amilcar since then, as well as at a Friday afternoon news conference that included the CEO of RTM.

A freezing rain warning was issued Wednesday night by Environment Canada, and rain started to fall around 10 p.m. at the international airport, according to the agency.

Video tweeted just after 11 p.m. showed bright flashes and sparks around the system near Hurdman station. The city has said that can happen in challenging weather and isn’t necessarily a safety risk.

An overhead wire droops down toward a light rail train.
A broken wire on the overhead power system for Ottawa’s Confederation Line on Friday. (David Bates/Radio-Canada)

Two trains stopped around 11:45 p.m. Wednesday between Lees and Hurdman stations. Amilcar said at the time the stoppage was because of ice buildup on the power system.

RTM CEO Mario Guerra said once the trains were stopped, even more ice built up on the equipment to the point trains couldn’t get through. 

Guerra said Friday that after the ice was dealt with, the power system would need to be repaired, the two stopped trains removed, and the system tested to ensure trains can run safely.

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