'Root cause' of LRT radio shutdown still unknown but won't affect launch date, OC Transpo says

OC Transpo still doesn’t know what caused three underground radio transmitters to trip and disrupt train service across nine of the Confederation Line stations for over nine hours on Wednesday, but the head of the transit agency says this episode won’t affect the LRT’s launch on Sept. 14.

To OC Transpo’s knowledge, the issue never occurred during testing and commissioning of the train and it’s not part of the “minor deficiencies” the city is tracking after officially getting the keys to the $2.1-billion light-rail line last week, according to the city’s transportation services manager John Manconi.

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In an update late on Thursday afternoon, Manconi said OC Transpo is still investigating the “root cause” of the “radio shutdown” — which stalled operations until around 2 p.m. — but insisted an answer is not necessary before the Confederation Line opens to riders in just over a week.

“We have all the answers that we need to continue with the 14th,” Manconi said during a question-and-answer session with reporters at city hall.

Manconi said it’s possible the issue may have been weather-related; there was a thunderstorm overnight on Tuesday. But it doesn’t appear the three radio units that “tripped to the off position” were damaged or hit by lightning, he said.

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The transportation manager said these radio transmitters are akin to “WiFi boxes.” They’re installed from end to end along the 12.5-km rail line and they send signals to the LRT’s “master computer” to transmit the trains’ exact locations, when they’re in operation.

Timeline of events

OC Transpo says the radio units tripped around 3 a.m. on Wednesday. At 4 a.m., OC Transpo began its weekday train launch, which involves sending out two “sweep trains.” These trains, travelling at a low speed, essentially test the waters out on the rail line before the rest of the fleet is deployed, Manconi explained.

The two sweep trains on Wednesday morning paused just west of the underground Rideau station downtown, Manconi said. When that happened, a third train was deployed to the same area to troubleshoot whether the problem was a train issue or a train-control issue, and then all three trains were intentionally moved — not towed — off the tracks.

Service shut down between Tunney’s Pasture, at the west end of the line, to Hurdman Station towards the east end.

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Engineers and technicians began troubleshooting as soon as OC Transpo became aware something wasn’t right, Manconi said. At around lunchtime, a technician examined a data logger that tracks alarms on the LRT system and noticed that three of the radio units were tripped, he said.

“So like a personal computer or Wi-Fi, they reset it and within minutes the system was back up and running,” the transportation manager said.

Asked why it took until lunchtime for the problem to be discovered, Manconi said the data logger had previously been checked, but not far enough back in time.

Manconi said OC Transpo has learned from the situation and, moving forward, will have that data logger monitored 24/7 instead of intermittently, Manconi said

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“You learn and grow from these situations and that’s why we’re doing these practice drills and that’s why we’re doing all of these exercises,” he said.

After the radio units rebooted, it then took another couple of hours to put the sweep trains back out, reposition the rest of the fleet and get the “all clear” to restore service.

“Safety always comes first,” Manconi said.

Trains, computer system worked ‘exactly’ as they should have, Manconi says

Manconi said the trains and the computer system “worked the way they’re intended to do” in this scenario.

“They default to stop whenever there’s any issue,” he said. “We used the opportunity to test all our protocols. We pushed out our customer-facing electronic signals, we pushed out our station announcements and we mobilized our bus-bridging operation … so we were simulating that we were going to deploy that and so forth.”

If the trains had been carrying passengers when the issue occurred, the system is designed to have the trains carry riders to the next stop and let them out on the platform, Manconi said.

“We would not leave people 10 hours stranded in a train,” he said.

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If there’s a “major outage” on the Confederation Line, Manconi said, “limited” bus service will be deployed to fill in.

“We don’t have thousands of buses waiting around and people will do what they do in other major metropolitan cities,” he explained. “They’re going to get up, figure out if it’s close enough to walk to where they need to get to, grab Uber, bike, walk, taxi, so forth.”

Manconi warned that “interruptions” will occur on the Confederation Line once it’s in service and OC Transpo has been practicing a number of drills and contingency plans in preparation for different scenarios.

“You’ve heard me say over and over again, there is no perfect system out there. These things will happen,” he said.

Train service on Wednesday remained unaffected between Hurdman and Blair stations.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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