Key providers behind Ottawa LRT uncoordinated, investigation heard

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The group that built Ottawa’s Confederation Line didn’t do a great job connecting Ottawa’s new light rail trains to the computer system that controls them, a public inquiry has found.

That lack of integration could even have led to the gate issues experienced by passengers after the rail system was launched, a witness to the commission investigating the Ottawa LRT outages suggested on Monday.

Alstom manufactured the trains for the Ottawa LRT, while Thales Canada Inc. provided the computerized signaling system that controls braking and propulsion, doors, sensors along the tracks and more.

It was up to Rideau Transit Group’s construction arm, OLRT Constructors, to do the critical work of merging the two companies’ systems. The Confederation Line was the first time a Thales communications-based train control system was integrated into a low-floor light rail vehicle, commission lawyers said.

During public hearings into Ottawa’s light rail system outages, however, Thales project manager Michael Burns said he tried to get the train builder’s attention early on. about how his company and Alstom should solve problems in silos rather than in collaboration.

“They had difficulty fulfilling that role,” he said of OLRT Constructors.

Bad “health check” before launch

The commission investigating Ottawa’s light rail system heard a similar finding last Friday from Rupert Holloway, SNC-Lavalin’s vice-president and civil engineer who oversaw construction of the rail system at OLRT Constructors from May 2018 to May 2019.

He testified that Ottawa’s rail system includes thousands of complex digital devices and that the integration of Confederation Line systems was “crucial”.

Holloway gave the example of how multiple systems should work together if there was a fire on a train in the tunnel. The train’s computers are expected to detect the fire and advise the Belfast Road control room that fresh air should be circulated to passengers as they are evacuated and that lifts should be switched off to prevent other passengers from descending into the tunnel.

Looking back, Holloway said RTG’s construction arm had spent a lot of time focusing on building the tunnel – “a world-class piece of civil engineering” – but lost focus when it came to “the integration challenge.

“We certainly failed to meet this challenge as effectively as we could have,” Holloway told the commission.

Rideau Station pictured in September 2020. Rupert Holloway said the integration of multiple complex systems was ‘crucial’ and used the example of the number of systems relied on in an emergency, such as a fire on a train in the tunnel. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ottawa’s LRT even received a poor rating six months before the original date in 2018, when the system was due to be handed over to the City of Ottawa.

OLRT Constructors had hired the consultant SEMP Ltd. to perform a “health check” to determine if Ottawa’s system was on track to be operational and safe.

“The system engineering level of the project to date is considered to be significantly below the minimum acceptable level for a project of this size and complexity,” the consultant summarized in November 2017.

“It was a real catalyst moment for us,” Holloway said. OLRT Constructors then spent more than $20 million bringing in experts from the UK to help fill in the gaps, he said.

Passenger caught in the door

Burns described a few cases in which Alstom changed the behavior of trains, without Thales’s knowledge.

During pre-launch testing, he said Thales discovered Alstom had changed the software so that a train would stop if the emergency brake was applied too many times, for safety reasons. Meanwhile, Thales had its own test for emergency brakes.

Then, after residents started taking the train in 2019, Burns said there was a case where a woman was startled when a train door closed prematurely.

Burns explained that Thales would have expected the door to reopen if something prevented it from closing. Upon investigation, he discovered that Alstom had assigned a different command to this signal. Thales then had to modify the software to avoid this door problem.

The inquest also heard that Thales had still not completed work on the first leg of the Confederation Line. Under the contract, Thales was to install its control system at the Belfast Road maintenance and storage facility, but did not complete.

Burns said the non-automated system in the yard slows the launch of the LRT system in the morning.

The issue of integrating various systems is expected to be discussed further Tuesday morning, when Alstom’s Lowell Goudge is due to testify. Goudge oversaw rail system integration and was the safety certifier for Alstom.

In the afternoon, the committee will hear Jacques Bergeron, responsible for the integration of Thales and Alstom systems from 2014 to 2018.

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