Metro Line Update

To say the Metro Line situation is frustrating for Council and for the city is putting it lightly. The train line was supposed to open April 2014, but now it looks like the system will only be opened with reduced service next month. We still don’t know how long it will be until it’s opened for full service. We have retained the services of an additional independent rail safety consultant to get us the answers we need.

We received a report from the Transportation department today detailing the deficiencies with the project and the steps required to open the line. It seems that there are two major deficiencies in the project. The first is accountability, and this has a couple of different levels.

Project Deficiencies

The first is accountability by Thales, the contractor hired to develop the signalling system. Administration explained that by dividing the contract for the NAIT line between the physical building and the signalling system, we lost the incentives that were built into the original contract to motivate the signalling contractors to deliver the project on time. We started withholding funds from Thales in February 2012, and have withheld $26 million of their contract funds.

The next piece of accountability that was lacking was by the City. Thales was brought on as the contractor for the signalling system in May 2011, and missed their first deadline by August 2011, but Council and the City Manager weren’t made aware of the issues with Thales and the signalling system until we were too far down the road to make significant changes. Thales was given the contract in May 2011 and missed their first major milestone in August of the same year. It is unclear when anyone above the project team in senior management was aware of these failings. This is stunning to me. Fortunately the City Manager assured Council this afternoon the reporting expectations for City staff overseeing performance by contractors have been changed to respond to this failure and other notable and related failures.

The other major problem, as reported by the Rail Safety Consulting group that we’ve brought on, is that Thales didn’t follow their own processes. The independent engineer that was brought in says that Thales has successfully delivered projects similar to this one in other jurisdictions, but failed to follow their due processes in this contract. This brings us back to the accountability piece, where Thales didn’t have enough incentive to properly monitor their people. That lack of incentive due to a fault in the structuring of their contract.

Both the contractor and the City bear responsibility here. It doesn’t really matter whether it was this Council, the last Council, the City Manager, or the contractor that should have made sure this didn’t happen, because it has. Now, we need to figure out how we can move forward with the NAIT line and with our major infrastructure projects with confidence that a situation like this one will never happen again.

Next Steps

The first step is opening the line with reduced, line-of-sight service on September 6th. Trains will be running from NAIT to Churchill every 15 minutes, and the journey will take 14 minutes. This is slow. The express bus takes 16 minutes. It will also mean a 17% reduction in the number of seats going to Clareview station from Churchill, which Transportation assures us will still leave adequate capacity for the existing ridership. So no, the opening is not ideal. But it is something, which after 16 months, is long past due.

The second step is not doing this again. With the upcoming Valley Line, we have assurances that the P3 funding model for the project will help us to avoid these problems in the future. The P3 funding model is such that there is enough financial accountability to get all of the participants to remain fully engaged and communicating to prevent a failure, which wasn’t the case with the Metro Line contract.

Filling in the Gaps

Bottom line, this whole situation is disappointing for everyone. The stop gap measure of running line-of-sight trains is not great, but at least it means that MacEwan University and NAIT students will have access to trains when school starts this year.

Looking ahead, the Rail Safety Consulting (RSC) group expects it will take up to 6 months to fill in the gaps in the safety documentation that has been left by Thales. This means the line might be operating fully at the end of that 6 months. There might be a light at the end of this train tunnel, but it will take 6 weeks of investigation from the RSC before we’ll know for this certain.

Regardless of when we get the train line fully operational, it’s going to take much longer to rebuild public trust in the City’s ability to handle large infrastructure projects. Further information on the City’s role in this will be released with the City Auditor’s report this week, which looks like it will be illuminating to say the least.