Confederation Line (iii) – Baby it’s cold inside

citalis in snow


Dashing thru the snow ….

The RTG literature for the new Confederation Line assures us repeatedly that their equipment runs in cold and snowy climates. Given those frequent winter stories in the mass media that we live in the coldest (capital) city in the world, I’d feel much better knowing that our model of trains were running flawlessly in Edmonton, or Winnipeg or Moscow.

Instead we are assured they run in “northern cities”. Copenhagen may well be north of us, but it has a maritime climate. The 100% low floor trains currently run in AdelaideLyonBordeauxParis T2ValenciennesRotterdamBuenos Aires,MadridMelbourneNiceMurciaBarcelonaJerusalemLe Havre and Grenoble. With the exception of Grenoble, none of these strike me as having a severe continental climate. Is it too much to have the supplier provide a chart showing the winter conditions in a couple of cities running the same equipment for the same run lengths proposed for Ottawa? And could staff then phone those cities to see if the equipment runs in mid-winter?

The last time we had street-cars in Ottawa, they were notorious for breaking down in the snow, which packed underneath them and lifted the vehicle off the tracks, paralyzing the system.

Deep Frozen Storage

We also propose storing our train-sets outdoors. After they have been washed and cleaned, we’ll roll them outside into the minus 40 and leave them for several hours, before sending them out at 6am to collect passengers. I’d be a lot more confident that they would be warm and unfrozen if they were stored indoors, even if the storage yard was just minimally heated to above freezing.

Ottawa storage yard is outdoors, covered from the snow but not heated
Ottawa storage yard is outdoors, covered from the snow but not heated


Maintenance facility in Catalonia
Maintenance facility in Catalonia

The characteristic Ottawa foot-stomp

The trains aren’t the only things we are leaving out in the cold. The passengers will be, too.

Unlike the current Transitway system, which has several heated stations (eg, Lincoln Fields,  the former Baseline Station, Hurdman, Place D’Orleans) the new surface stations apparently will not have any heated passenger waiting areas.

Earlier in the planning process, I asked city engineers why not. The wait, I was told, was only 3 1/2 minutes for a train. But that’s at rush hour, what about 9.30 Sunday night, there might be a train at Baseline every fifteen minutes? So, the answer went, you get dropped off and might have a ten minute wait, that’s really not long. Dropped off? what if I just walked through the snow for 20 minutes with an 8 year old to get there, and now we have ten or fifteen minutes standing in the cold?

Really, I thought the planning staff had a hard time seeing beyond rush hour commuters and lacked understanding for those who use the system as their primary form of medium and long haul transit, who are thus on the system at all hours of the day and night, when service is not nearly as frequent.

These new surface stations will probably function great at rush hour, when train service really is every 3 or 5 minutes. But outside of rush hour, when trains are less frequent, waits will be longer. And thus far OC Transpo hasn’t guaranteed that all the connecting bus services will run at 5 minute headways, which means there will be lots of passengers waiting for longer periods. The lucky ones will be in unheated stations.

Some of the current transitway stations are little more than a collection of bus shelters. Despite all the pictures of grand glass-enclosed stations trotted out to sell the RTG Confederation scheme, a closer look shows that the stations have miraculously shrunk to a fraction of the size they were proposed as just a few months ago.

Look at Tunney’s, for example. Previous stations enclosed the bus passenger waiting areas on the Holland Avenue side. Then the NCC axed these, as the roof lines violated their precious view lines toward the Claxton Building. Instead, transit users freezing their butts off waiting for the bus will be warmed by their inspirational views of a 60’s office tower.Iconic modernism warms the heart and and feet. Other people waiting for the bus will have modest glass wind and rain shelters, but no heat.

Ironically, the train users which are likely to have the shortest waits get the grand stations, while the bus users with the longer waits get shoved outdoors. I’d love to see our Councillors asking a few questions about why there are no heated waiting areas, the success or failure of the current transitway heated shelters, and maybe even hear from some transit users as how they rate unheated stations. As it is now, I feel Council is sleepwalking into a design choice that is not well understood.

Stairway to Heaven

A number of those unheated stations will have escalators in them. For reasons of economy of space and funds, there will not be two way escalators (one up, one down). Instead, the single escalator will run in the preferred rush hour direction, sometimes up, sometimes down. People won’t be confused by this reversing flow because the stations are so well designed users will just intuitively know whether they should head for the escalator or the manual staircase, which may be in different locations in our new stations.

Our stations will be closed during the wee hours. So those escalators will carry people with snowy boots and collect moisture and salt and grit all day, then shut down at midnight for a six hour nap in the minus 30. At six am someone out on Belfast road will push a button and the escalators will silently begin rolling again. I have repeatedly asked the city engineers planning this system to identify some locations with outdoor escalators in a continental climate, but never got an answer. RTG was no better, simply assuring me that the contract calls for heavy duty escalators and there are penalty clauses of they don’t work. Yeah, fine, but where are there escalators running unheated in a winter like ours? It’s not like we can tear them out later if they don’t work, since we are depending on the volume of passengers they carry (more, apparently, than a manual staircase can) for the stations to work.

I get the feeling that Council is rushing too much on the Confederation Line. It takes time to absorb just what is being offered. Thus far, staff are giving a good sales pitch, pointing out the nifty neat stuff. The glamour. The sizzle.

But I haven’t seen an itemization of what compromises where made to get here. Councillors and the public may still have memories of earlier PR extolling planned features that have in fact disappeared.

It was a bit of a challenge to get citizen and user input at the earlier planning stages, when there were so many options being considered. But now that there is a plan, is it too much to  set up various users groups to run through the details? When our Community Association asked to meet with staff to run through the station designs in our neighborhood, we were told that might occur in February, after the contract is signed. You know, when it’s too late.




15 thoughts on “Confederation Line (iii) – Baby it’s cold inside

  1. It is quite clear to me that the city (council or staff) has no interest in the concerns of those of us who actually use the transit system at all hours of the day and night. Nor does it want to hear any of these very practical concerns that you and others raise. None of the sketches or words address the type of conditions that Ottawa faces half the year. The ‘sessions’ offered this past week were a sham.

  2. While you raise some good points, you also lose a lot of credibility with hyperbole like “minus 40”. How often does Ottawa hit -40C? Our coldest month, January, has an average low of -14.8C.

    1. The system needs to work better than on average. It must be dependable, and that means working at temperature extremes, even if we get those only for a few days every few years.

      1. Absolutely correct. You don’t engineer for averages. You engineer for the extremes then add a margin for error.
        Even working with these averages we can see that the Alstom train isn’t operating in anywhere that has anything like Ottawa’s climate yet. Its northernmost install is in Gdansk, where the average low for January is -5C and they boast that it sometimes gets as cold as -15!
        It may only get to -30 a few days every winter but if trains are out of service on the coldest days of the year, there are going to be lots of unhappy train users.

        1. Well let’s not get overboard on this, either.

          While the Alstom Citadis doesn’t have an installation in a climate any worse than Poland, light rail systems do operate in environments worse than Ottawa’s, notably Calgary, Edmonton and Minneapolis. Electricity doesn’t really care too much how cold it is; batteries can lose their charge, yes, but electricity and electrical devices should keep running.

          We have also run a diesel light rail system for a decade so we have a decent amount of experience in how to keep a rail line running in winter conditions.

          Remember too that it’s not like our bus system performs all that well in the winter. Indeed, in snow – which we get a lot more of than super cold days – our buses perform so abysmally it’s stunning that anyone thought that running a BRT system here was a good idea at all.

          1. The Otrain, calgary, and edmonton are all high level trains which clear the snow drifts; do low level trains perform as well? I dont question the Alstom trains thru particular knowledge that they dont work, i just find it curious that I dont get definite answers from the LRT folks when I do raise these points. And speaking of Edmonton and Calgary, do they store their trains outdoors in the winter? If they do, then I presume the Ottawa ones will survive just fine.

          2. The Calgary and Edmonton trains are high-floor, but it’s not like the space is clear. They’ll have about the same actual clearance as would low-floor vehicles.

            The O-Train definitely doesn’t “clear” the snow drifts in the sense of going over them; it “clears” them in the sense of plowing them out of the way with the built-in snow plow. Also, the O-Train is more properly a mid-height train – it is considerably lower than Calgary and Edmonton’s vehicles.

            The best way to keep tracks clear is to keep running trains reasonably frequently. Evidently ~12 minutes (the time between consecutive trains near the ends of the O-Train line) is enough.

            As for storage, Calgary certainly keeps a lot of its trains indoors. They have a new facility in the northeast though that looks like it has a lot of outdoor storage, but I haven’t been there recently enough to tell for sure. It looks like Edmonton also keeps its trains indoors.

            To my mind, the bigger problem with keeping them outdoors in the winter is the need to clean them off of snow and ice and to keep the yard clear of snow while they’re in service. An outdoor covered facility or unheated indoor facility (green roof anyone?) would seem a reasonable compromise.

  3. Winter, schminter. Will there be shade in the summer? That’s the real planning failure, as far as climate considerations are concerned, in the design of Ottawa’s current transit system. Brutal sun-drenched plains without any hope of relief.

  4. I think you raise excellent points.

    My first though when looking at the image of the proposed St.Laurent station was “what happened to the enclosed, somewhat heated, waiting area??” I hadn’t noticed that the other stations were also loosing heated waiting areas.

    I also don’t know why we don’t look more at Edmonton’s LRT system, both for reasons of climate and lessons learned. Edmonton had to extend the length of their new southern platforms as soon as they built them due to the need for longer cars to accomodate riders. Luckily these are all exterior platforms and it was possible. Our tunnel platform lengths are seriously short sighted!!

  5. Good points Eric. I had a nasty fall last winter on the Tunney’s eastbound platform. The OC maintenance guy told me it’s an ongoing problem because of the design. Water drips onto the platform where passengers board and then freezes. Salt doesn’t work well because it’s in the shade all day. I was hoping Ottawa would cover the station area so at least this wouldn’t happen (a bit like San Francisco’s BART stations). I don’t need to have it heated, but covered would have been preferred.

    As for escalators…. in Germany both Nuremberg and Munich have multiple underground passageways as part of their public transit systems and to avoid pedestrians crossing busy roads. It was cold and snowy when we were there and the escalators functioned fine. In fact while skiing in Austria, we’ve used outdoor escalators that are partially covered, but exposed to snow and these worked well too.

  6. In Chicago, the El has heat on demand buttons on their outdoor stations. Press a button and a glorified heat lamp turns on. Maybe something like this could be considered? But I agree that we were expecting more – this is something of a (predictable) bait and switch.
    The rush to get this decided (finally!) after so many years of planning seems to be making city council penny wise but pound foolish. No NAC station, closed-in designs that ignore good design principles. A really stupid-sounding plan with the escalator (they have this in many Toronto stations, and it’s annoying).
    Also, just goes to prove how out of touch the NCC is on this. Wind chill? At Tunney’s Pasture? Who ever heard of such a thing…

  7. As any project manager will tell you, there are only 3 variables to any project: time, budget and scope (quality). When you have a Mayor who long ago declared that any flexilibility on the first two was off the table (“Will be delivered on time and on budget) then the only thing left to adjust (ie. sacrifice) is quality.

  8. Is the Alstom Citadis really in use in Copenhagen or was that just a “for instance”? I was in Copenhagen recently and a 5 cm dump of snow was considered a significant winter storm. Sure it made the cobbles of the Stroget slippery, but it was all gone the next day.
    I can however, that I rode an Alstom Citadis on the Paris T2 tram line last year and arrived at my destination intact, so all indications are good there.

    1. The Alstom Citadis Wiki page does not mention Copenhagen.

      The picture at the beginning of this post looks to be from Mulhouse in France.

      According to the Wiki page again, the Citadis does run in two Polish cities, Katowice in Silesia and Gdansk.

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