Kelly: What a twisted rail we laid

Kelly: What a twisted rail we laid
Posted on August 5, 2022 | Justin Kelly | Written on August 5, 2022
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Author's Note:

Author's Note:

I am Justin Kelly of Occasional Transport. I was granted partial standing to deliver remarks directly to the Ottawa Light Rail Commission before deliberation, due to my involvement of tracking the Ottawa LRT since November 2019. The size of this letter as well as the tone and direction is because of the format of the commission process. Titles and formatting was added for the website's readablity.

To the Ottawa LRT Commission,

Firstly, thank you from all of us in Ottawa. I appreciate the opportunity to submit my comments to the commission and participate in democracy. To speak to the benefit of tens of thousands of Ottawa transit users, a city of over a million and indirectly for taxpayers in Ontario. 

I have spent many weeks thinking about what I would write here. So much was uncovered during the commission, so much which was suspected, so much which was blocked for years by politics and people deciding what is important for us to know - what is important to act on, so much was buried under the threat of job loss, lawyers, paperwork and the shell game of marrying internal politics, money and bureaucracy. Most importantly, so much which was already known, but not within the power of the public to investigate or even attempt to pursue into the light.

What you gave us was a platform with the attention, skill, resources, time and authority to drag out an understanding of what transpired from the shadows. Something more importantly couldn’t be ignored. For all this, I feel, the citizens of Ottawa owe a resounding thank you. 

You, collectively, illuminated that the quest for truth wasn’t just against corporations and the confluence of issues surrounding their internal problems, business practices, trustworthiness and complex interdependent project webs of major capital projects. It was against City Hall and the people that supposedly were working on behalf of the public. We saw protectionism, we saw secrecy and we saw a concerted effort to keep information from the public.

It is with that in mind, I realised that my role is to speak to the human element. I have a responsibility to tens of thousands of people who were harmed by this fiasco. I must ensure the pain, grief and loss that I witnessed isn't trivialised - in a hope that if it goes silent, it goes away. I have a responsibility to the people that sacrificed time and livelihood to get us to a commission. To the whistleblowers, the activists, advocates, my supporters and the public. 

This isn’t a story of entitled people complaining about being inconvenienced commuting. This is a story about people from all walks of life being failed by governance. It is about a city that loved public transit, relied on public transit and took pride in its public transit - now held hostage - scarred, fearful, forcefully paralyzed and pushed into conditions that, by luck, avoided deaths. 

It is a story that was neither on track or on time. It is a tragedy of intentional choices, that needlessly hurt people, tortured life, put lives at risk and incurred personal costs, cost business, ended employment, stranded people, forced marches, created multi hour commutes and created some very hard choices of people of all forms of physical and psychological health. All this, elevated by a government that, in part, got tired of seeking and communicating solutions.

City Hall allowed an atmosphere of questionable private corporation dealings run amok. Hoping like many errors before, that time would abate the problem. They made concessions, blurred lines and did what needed to be done to smooth out the public outcry - to move the project along. They decided that less is more for both the public and council. That trust, and not questions, was the order of the day. That it will be done when it is done. An atmosphere as common and refreshing to the commuters, as the daily gassing in the LRT tunnels  - a smell which, at a time was once suggested, that only a woman could smell. All this was to be our reality and our future until something changed.

And by luck, effort, sweat and tears - this is the role you the commission played. Brought forth to illustrate and speak to the confluence, to cut though the finger pointing and untangle the web. To seek an understanding of how we got here. To which I feel, from my experience, the stories heard, intelligence gathered, and through the following of the commission, you have done an admirable job. 

You did what the public needed but could not do, what our governance in part did not want and thus could not do, and you gave us insight that would likely never be aired by a corporation, outside of a trial. It shined a very bright light on policy and practice at city hall. A process built on power, time and monetary inequality, one built to delay, draw out and win via attrition.

As you deliberate, I would like you to keep the public in mind. Be mindful that it was deliberate choices that led us down this road. Choices that could have been mitigated, like station design, R1 planning, any form of communication forethought. Choices about how one conducts business, what actions one takes, how chooses to behave, what level of effort and diligence one gives, and what level of responsibility or follow-up one puts into their actions. It is easy to explain away the problems, we had 4 weeks of hearings, but at the end of the day - choices were made, people signed off on things and, depending on the testimony, it was not always in the best interest of the public.

A Timeline

Our story starts in earnest in 2012 to a train to be delivered in 2018. A year later, after numerous issues that include: delays, sinkholes, heaters, switches, doors, cameras, and software failures. A train facetiously allergic to sunlight and the slightest breeze, with duct taped panels, cracked wheels, then gearboxes. Riding on poorly reprofiled and then damaged rails, with a host of other questionable engineering blunders or oversights which lead to corrugation, incredible noise, us not operating at the speed or car amount we paid for, an automated system being run manually, frequent multi day shutdowns and then a long 54 day shutdown, a roof fire, power cable destruction, hostage taking, and later, business infighting, departures, investigations, media and message squelching, appeasements, plots and now lawsuits.

It is now 2022, and while almost three years and a pandemic has transpired,  we have seen marked improvement. It becomes easy to forget that we had thousands of people suffering every rush hour, how close we were to violence in the stations, built small, given no communication - tempers high - a fire, a push, a weapon and it would have been loss of life or grievous physical injury. 

It gets easier to overlook that the train was massaged though its trial period. That the committees that were to serve the public, did anything but that - still to this date. It becomes easy to overlook that the city squelched Rideau Transit Group (RTG) from talking to the media, that things had to be “discovered” or leaked by whistleblowers. That a person had to create an organisation, learn skills and dedicate his time to perform the mandated role that multi-million dollar a month organisations had no will or ability to do.

It gets easy to forgive choices, all levels of leadership and a sea of issues that will be covered in the final report, that I feel, in my non-expert view, could have led to death if the derailment at Hurdman played out differently. It gets easy to forget the people pressed inches apart, struggling to catch connecting busses, being forced to taxi/uber home frequently because the last bus is missed in a unusable station, being trapped on a train for hours on new years eve because of little planning, the people being injured by falling on slick tiled stairs in high traffic area known to get wet, the platitudes, the distrust and the apathy for the public because there was no recourse.

The human cost

And this, doesn’t even start to speak to those differently abled or suffering from afflictions of the mind and or body - let alone all those that suffered under these tremendous events and now developed or discovered conditions of the mind and or body. I won’t speak to them in depth here, but I want for everyone who may read this to understand. People are not made of iron. We would be doing a grave dishonour, if we did not acknowledge those that suffered and continue to suffer because of the LRT and by extension the choices made on our behalf, 

It must be understood that not everyone is able to stand for hours, navigate tight crowds, deal with the random entrapments, deal with sudden change, have the flexibility of walking or taking paid services. There were, and still are, people dealing with anxiety, panic, fear and a host of personal battles. Not aided by the gamble of, if they will make it to their destination; if elevators or escalators will work, if they can navigate and fight to make it home. It is not to say the LRT would kill them, but their conditions are not being helped by being trapped, unable to seek help, unable to use stations, knowing that this 20-40 minute commute may now be upwards to 3 hours. This destroys accessibility, the mandate of a government serving its people and causes needless intense suffering.

When time passes and people's needs are ignored, it only compounds the impact. More unknowns with an already uncertain future only adds to chronic stress that only drives us all to our breaking points. For many feeling unheard, having no choices, being forced into unavoidable unyielding poor conditions, can be traumatic. This trauma then ripples, crippling the ability for workers to get to their jobs, people to get to medical appointments, pick up their children, exacerbating issues - all hobbling a city at its very human core, because of the limits others have set on how much they will care.

This neglect for the care of the public is evident in design and duty of care, but was further illustrated when a citizen came to learn that the yellow security boxes were not working at some stations. Something to my knowledge was only communicated after the fact, after public outcry. This came to the dismay of a person trying to save a life, trying to rely on safety equipment in a crisis. I do not need to reiterate the faults and the disconnect from what was served to the public and what was happening on the ground. I just want to communicate that behind each shrug of responsibility given to this commission, are people that suffered, systems that only worked on paper and lifes hurt. I hope people have reached out with their stories, and if not, I hope I have given a glimmer of understanding of the tens of thousands of people affected and the hundreds of stories I have been exposed to.

Summation

While time may heal all wounds, it doesn't produce solutions. It has been years of strife and pain, to get us to this commission - one that we had to fight for. It was only by the determination of a city, to see justice for the severity of this fiasco - that it could no longer be hidden - and by some civic minded people, unknown to me, that got the ear of those who had the power to call for a commission, that we made it this far. The collective hope and healing of a city now rests on your deliberation. We want to make it clear that ignorance is not a solution and hope is not a method. Ottawa is a city of strong civic minded people, and deep down, I think all we want to understand is why it was necessary for the public to carry so much burden. 

The evidence is clear from the testimonies and the actions of the parties involved. From the Alstom techs required to be woken up, the sea of management and technical blunders, multiple yard derailments and impacts, maintenance overlooks, lacklustre responses, OC refusal to communicate, audits finding no formal safety plans. From exposed stations, frozen toilets and water fountains, and all the disconnected words from practice. From backroom dealings, minimal efforts and cost saving measures - that no matter how much benefit of the doubt was given, and no matter how many good people in this project tried to stem the tide or raise the alarm, at some point, the public well being hinged on luck and weighed against costs, and it came secondary.

Now the Ottawa public are living with the lasting and far reaching consequences of choices we neither had the political power, finances or ability to correct or curb. It isn’t by ignorance, incompetence or negligence that the public let this transpire. We stood our ground, we saw the problems, we knew things were suspicious, but we have lives to live and jobs to get to. We are not paid professional activists, lawyers, lobbyists, businesses, public servants or politicians. 

Worse, we had to fight in a system built on power, time and monetary inequality, one built to delay, draw out and win via attrition. A system that at one point was privately conspiring against public accountability and though its actions displayed an absolute lack of respect, and tolerance and condoned adversarial steps against public officials who try to promote transparency and accountability. A system purposely stripping the public of the ability to inform, inquire, research, interrogate or hold account corporations being fueled by tax dollars and then shielded by a process adversarial and to the public and media.

Again, it was by luck, sweat and tears we got here. To which I hope this letter conveys our thanks. We had a problem that would have been nearly impossible for the public to unite on our own. I hope that the testimony, the evidence and all the sea of departures from those involved with this project can speak for itself.

Closing

If this fiasco is to be a learning lesson about P3’s and light rail construction in Canada. I implore you to keep that first year in mind. Understand the daily punishments, the harm and the reactions and apathy given during that time. Contrasting, that while things have improved greatly since 2019-2020, don't let that exonerate the choices made then, and worse possibly again, on another project of this type. People must understand what transpired here is not inconvenienced commuters, or even a raw failure of a P3, but a city scarred by money, corporate choices, politics and apathy. A P3 is not just a marriage of corporations, governance and public and private money - but lives, people and futures.

Whatever the verdict will be for the twisted rails we have laid. The next steps will be on the public and in holding the next term of council to carry through. It is all too easy to pass the blame, see a rosy past or future, and move on to the next hot topic. I truly hope these deliberations - while not assigning guilt, clearly illustrate fault. We must learn from and act upon these recommendations, so we may ensure, that which transpired, doesn't rapidly repeat itself. For if we are to forget the past, we are doomed to dishonour ourselves and all the people that fought, sacrificed and suffered to get us this rare moment of accountability. Worst, we would be complicit in subscribing another generation to needless pain and suffering, when we had the opportunity to say never again.

 

Justin Kelly

Occasional Transport

Bayshore, Ottawa

About The Author

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Community Developer at heart, software developer by trade. Working towards government accountability. Lover of cats, dairy, technology, warfighting, psych, people.