Timing the OLRT

The was some good news on the LRT construction schedule last week. The City announced that the project could be finished a full year earlier than previously announced, ie spring 2018 instead of summer 2019.

This is sleight of hand.

The City attributes the shorter time line to various design factors. Instead of designing the system 100% in-house, they will do all the preliminary design and then outsource the detailed engineering to the winning bidder. This will allow the winning bidder, according to the city, to be more confident that the design is implementable and covers all the bases. They also have the experienced staff to do the work, whereas the City is pulling in staff from other projects and specialties to work on the LRT project in-house.

There are other reasons too. First, the City’s original outlined schedule was wa-a-a-a-y too slow. They were definitely not going to get pinned with accusations that they were ambitious. And nothing should ever be “late” given the generous schedule.

Second, Mayor Watson is carrying the can on the project. It is on his watch that it is being planned, implemented, paid for … yet it would officially open after his second term is over.

All work, no glory.

No sensible politician likes that. So now it will open whilst he still reigns at City Hall.

So will the City be able to open the system in 2018?

My answer is “No way”.

It will open in June 2017 for Canada’s sesquetennial.

Here’s why. The Mayor is managing good news. First he announces the good news of an earlier date. Then  he dangles the possibility of an even earlier date. Then he announces the earlier date. A steady stream of good news dribbles out, branding his administration as one good story after another. Image burnished. It’s the reverse of negative attack ads. It’s glory glory glory. Repeat*.

Why do I think they can open it in June 2017?

The key lies in one line in the City’s report ( http://www.ottawalightrail.ca/en/newsroom/2011/05/city-puts-light-rail-on-the-fast-track/ ) promising the OLRT will open a year earlier.  If you read the report carefully, it only promises faster movement in the planning stages. Planning is all very fine, but there is also a lengthly construction period.

So here is the key line in the report: It is anticipated that the successful private sector consortium may be able to further accelerate the construction schedule.

Q: Where do they accelerate the construction schedule?

Tunnel bore face. Photo from the internet.

A: the current boring schedule. As currently envisioned, the tunnel digging team shows up with ONE custom-built tunnel boring machine. They dig one tunnel for one track, starting at LeBreton and ending near Ottawa U. They then drag the machine back to LeBreton, and dig the parallel tunnel for the second track. The parallel tunnels join at the downtown stations in one big hollowed out void dug after the tunnels are bored.

During the construction period, the contractor supplies the bore construction team. Workers operate the boring equipment 24-7-365 days of the year. They cannot stop.  A team of technicians and supervisors and engineers stands by all the time.

It is much more economic for the contractor to supply TWO tunnel boring machines (about $20million a piece), operate them both, adding one operating crew but utilizing the same supervision and technician crew for both. Result: tunnel sections are bored in about half the time, at lower cost.

But wait, there’s more. Instead of digging out the tunnels and only then excavating out the downtown stations, it is feasible to throw an extra “pick and shovel” team into these locations and construct the stations while tunnelling continues elsewhere. I suspect they can easily save six to twelve months of construction time over the current time line. And the faster tunnelling means less overhead costs, which either falls into the contractor’s pocket or is used to cover for higher costs elsewhere.

Even after the cost of the additional boring machine is included, it is both more economical and faster to use two machines.

So, at the great Canada Sequetennial Party, I’ll see you on the rails on July 1, 2017.


Not to say “I told you so”, but I did. I’ve been saying here since 2009 that the LRT should and could open July 1st, 2017.

*The Mayor is good a managing good news. Dribbling out a long series of good news stories counteracts the steady stream of negative stories beloved by certain MSM who value controversy. The Mayor is NOT going to be branded as heading up a decade-long bad-news story. It’s a game of black vs white.

Now if our Mayor was really ambitious, and wants to go out in a blaze of glory, he will figure out a way to have the Bayview to Lincoln Fields section of the LRT open at the same time.

4 thoughts on “Timing the OLRT

  1. It would be great if your timeline came to be. I do recall a tunnel boring expert say that our short little tunnel could be dug in 8 months. Perhaps Claridge will have finished Phase II at Lebreton by then.

    1. Though the train will be underground downtown, so the view of the fireworks won’t be quite as good as from other vantage points.

  2. As much as I’d like to have the tunnel bored faster, there are a lot of unanswered questions: First and foremost would be whether duration of the actual tunnel boring is on the critical path of the project. That is, will boring the tunnels faster result in getting the complete project done sooner? For example, it took OC Transpo all summer to do simple modifications to four stations on Slater and Albert Streets. If the non-tunnel LRT stations can be created at two or three per construction season then that is three to five years; then there is the time required to do the track work between stations. More crews could be hired to speed up the work, but that money could be coming out of the profit of the company. Remember, of the 12.5 Km long, 13 station project, only about 2.5 Km and three stations will be in the tunnel.

    Then there is the question of how much the tunnel boring could be sped up if it did help the over all project timing: TBMs are generally purpose-built and take time to design and manufacture. The contract will not be signed until 2013 and it will likely take a year to 1.5 years to get a TBM in the ground and ready to begin boring; that takes us potentially to mid 2015 before we have one metre of tunnel. It might be possible to find a good used or reconditioned TBM to speed up the process a bit.

    The City is providing an incentive of less than 2% to speed the water main work down to Barrhaven. If such a bonus was offered to speed up the tunneling, it would amount to about $15M, which might be enough to buy a second TBM, but probably not to also hire a crew and run it for six months. But let’s say that used TBMs were available and running two TBMs was advantageous for the contractor; what other work could be done within the tunnel simultaneously?

    It is likely that both TBMs would be started at the LeBreton end of the tunnel. That means that all of the back-up for the TBMs will be based at the LeBreton end, as well. Because there will be a very active pathway in use from the TBMs to the portals, it is unlikely that there can be much work on enlarging the station caverns until the TBMs have finished their work.

    All that said, I sure hope that the project can be completed in time to provide rapid transit for the multitude enjoying the festivities of the Sesquicentennial.

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