Various explanations for the system’s name have been suggested; however, it was first put forth by copywriter Tom Gerylo at an Ottawa advertising agency working for OC Transpo. The name O-Train was based on the classic Duke Ellington signature tune "Take the A Train". It survived an internal OC-Transpo naming competition and was adopted soon after.
As a pilot project, the O-Train system was built at the cost of $21 million, relatively little compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars usually required to build a new transit line. It runs on a pre-existing Canadian Pacific Railway track, so the only construction work necessary was to build the stations themselves and the passing tracks necessary to allow trains to operate in both directions. The downside to this, however, is that much ground pollution remains from the track’s previous use. This will become a liability one day when the city has to pay to clean it up, which it has thus far avoided by not digging into the ground under the tracks.
The current service frequency of a train every fifteen minutes makes it possible to run the line with a fleet of only three trains (of which only two are in service at any given time) and a single track apart from passing sidings at Carleton station; if service is to be increased significantly in the future, double tracks and more trains will be needed.
Ottawa’s three Talent units were built by Bombardier Transportation as part of a larger order for Deutsche Bahn’s regional network, and the only significant difference between them and the German units is that their on-board toilets have been decommissioned. As well, the luggage racks have been blocked, as Transport-Canada was concerned about the potential hazard of baggage falling on passengers, although this seemed not to be a problem with the train's operation in Germany. Deutsche Bahn’s red-and-white colour scheme was deemed similar enough to OC Transpo’s livery that the trains did not need to be repainted. The trains were purchased under an agreement under which they could be sold back to Bombardier if they were replaced or retired, but the agreement has since expired.
As of early 2006, the O-Train carried an average of approximately 10,000 riders each weekday.
Carleton is the only O-Train station with separate platforms for both directions; at Carling and Confederation one can tell where a train is headed by the direction from which it enters the station and by its electronic destination sign.
Ticketing on the O-Train works entirely on a proof-of-payment basis; there are no ticket barriers or turnstiles, and the driver does not check fares. Occasionally, OC-Transpo employees wait at stations and require proof of payment. Tickets can be purchased from a vending machine on the platform, and certain bus passes are also valid for the O-Train. O-Train tickets are exchanged for bus tranfers upon boarding a bus. Although bus transfers can be used to board the O-Train, prepaid bus tickets cannot.
Paper schedules rather than electronic signs are posted at the stations to supply departure information. At the Carling and Confederation stations, signs are posted indicating the direction of travel for northbound and southbound trains; Carleton has separate platforms, and from Bayview and Greenboro trains travel in only one direction.
The O-Train stations have sheltered waiting areas for passengers, but at three stations these are only large bus-style shelters beside the tracks. The exceptions are Carling, where an elevator building is required since the tracks are below stret level, and Greenboro, where a covered walkway extends towards the nearby South Keys Shopping Centre. All stations have level boarding platforms to allow for wheelchair access and easier boarding for all passengers.
The European train cars are narrower than the North American standard. In order to enable night-time use of the line by standard-width freight services, retractable platform extenders are mounted at each station (other than Bayview which is constructed on its own private rail spur). Passengers gain access to the O-Train on these extenders, three sets of which are visible in the above photo (at the location of the solid yellow platform markings). If the line is used for freight, the extenders are retracted allowing a wider train to pass through the station. The extender interface with the train has been refined over time, and cyclists and wheelchair users now have no trouble accessing the train.
At present, the trains stop at every station and all trains run directly from one end of the line to the other (with only five stations, short-turns would be of questionable value). The Talent units can be coupled together to form longer trains, but current ridership levels do not require this extended service, which in any case would require more trains and longer platforms at the stations. Each of the three carriages has a plug-type doorway for each side of the train. Rather than all doors opening at each station, passengers must individually open the door of which they intend to board or disembark by pressing a button.
Despite their diesel engines, the trains are quite comfortable; even for passengers sitting directly above the motors, the ride is quiet and smooth. Seats are arranged with two on each side of the carriage, and the rows alternate facing directions, such that half the seats are facing forward in either direction of travel.
The interior is clearly one designed for a mainline train; there are only a few poles for standing passengers, mostly located around the doors and closely integrated into the train’s overall design. There are no advertisements on board the trains. Although the trains consist of three carriages, they are connected such that it is possible to walk from one end to the other; the only noticeable divisions between the carriages are a short articulated section in the walls and a slight ramp over the dividing line. The trains have low floors, but the half-carriages at the ends of the trains have high floors with several steps up, to provide room for under-floor motors. The doors into the cabs are clear, allowing passengers to see in, but some drivers prefer to pull curtains across.
There are no maps posted on the trains, but electronic screens in each carriage and recorded voice messages announce the stations as they come up. The station announcements and all signs are bilingual in English and French; a few features of the trains, such as the buttons touched to open the doors, are also marked in German as a result of their design heritage.
The other criticism is that the trains receive very low ridership compared to some very crowded bus lines such as Route 95, and some believe that the money should be spent accommodating the most people possible on the current network, instead of paying for expensive side projects. It should be noted, however, that one fully loaded O-Train carries 285 passengers compared to 131 passengers for an articulated bus, so the objection is more relevant to the O-Train schedule which is limited by current track capacity. The current system is unquestionably limited, but as a pilot project many of these limitations are intentional.
On July 12, 2006, Council voted in favour (by a vote of 14 to 7, with 1 councillor absent) of awarding the North-South expansion to the Siemens/PCL/Dufferin design team. The proposed extension was more accurately termed a replacement, as the final O-Train would have been an electric tram system running on double track (as opposed to the current single-track diesel system).
According to the plan, the line was to be extended east from its current northern terminus to run through LeBreton Flats and downtown Ottawa as far as the University of Ottawa, and south-west from its Greenboro terminus to the growing Riverside South community and Barrhaven. Much of the route would have run through the currently undeveloped Riverside South area, and it was hoped that the train would allow a large new suburb to be constructed in the area south of the airport. The line itself would not have connected to the airport. Construction of the extension would have been scheduled to begin in the autumn of 2006, resulting in the shutdown of operations in May 2007, and been completed in autumn 2009 with operations resuming under the new systems and rolling stock.
The diesel-powered Talents would have been replaced with electric trams more suitable for on-street operation in the downtown area, by the Siemens S70 Avanto (due to the ‘design, build, and maintain’ contracting process which has focused upon the bid proposing this vehicle). Other bids had proposed the Bombardier Flexity Swift and a Kinki Sharyo tram.
With the use of electric power, greater frequency, and street-level running in central Ottawa, the expanded system would have borne much more resemblance to the urban tramways usually referred to by the phrase ‘light rail’ than does the pilot project (though the use of the Capital Railway track and additional existing tracks which have been acquired along its route may cause it to remain a mainline railway for legal purposes).
The estimated cost of the North-South expansion would have been just under $780 million (not including the proposed maintenance facility), making the project the largest in the City's history since the Rideau Canal project. The federal and provincial governments have each promised $200 million for the expansion, with the City of Ottawa contributing the remainder of the cost using funds from various sources including the Provincial Gas Tax, the City's Transit Reserve Fund, and the Provincial Transportation Infrastructure Grant. 4.5% of the total project cost was expected to come from the property tax base. The City has also requested studies on an extension of the railway from the proposed University of Ottawa terminus through to Hurdman Station.
The north-south expansion planning process became a source of great controversy. It was a major issue in the 2006 municipal election. The incumbent mayor Bob Chiarelli had long been the main advocate for light rail in Ottawa. Terry Kilrea, who finished second to Chiarelli in the 2003 municipal election and briefly ran for mayor in 2006, believed the plan was vastly too expensive and would also be a safety hazard for Ottawa drivers. He called for the entire light rail project to be scrapped. Mayoral candidate Alex Munter supported light rail, but argued that the plan would do little to meet Ottawa's transit needs and that the true final expense of the project had been kept secret. He wanted to cut the Barrhaven leg, and start work on an East-West line. Larry O'Brien, a businessman who entered the race late, wanted to postpone the project for six months before making a final decision.
Transport 2000 president David Jeanes, a long time supporter of light rail in Ottawa and a member of the City of Ottawa's transportation advisory committee, stated that he believed that the project was being ‘designed to fail’. City transportation staff, though long in favour of bus rapid transit systems, disagree with Jeanes's assessment..
On December 1, 2006, the new Council took office. It started to debate on the issue during the week of December 4 with three options including the status quo, the truncation of portions of the current track or the cancellation of the contract. An Ottawa Sun article had reported on December 5 that if the project were cancelled, there could be lawsuits by Siemens against the City of Ottawa totalling as much as $1 billion.
With those possibilities, new mayor Larry O'Brien opted to keep the extension to Barrhaven while eliminating the portion that would run from Lebreton Flats to the University of Ottawa.However, Council have also introduced the possibility of building several tunnels in the downtown core in replacement of rail lines on Albert and Slater. Total costs for the tunnels would have been, according to city staff, about $500 million. Council voted by a margin of 12-11 in favour of continuing the project, but without the downtown section. An environmental assessment will be conducted on the possibility of building a tunnel through downtown. Another attempt made by Councillor Gord Hunter to review the project later failed. At the same time, the Ontario government was also reviewing the project before securing their $200 million funding. However, it was reported that both the federal and provincial funding totalling $400 million was not secured before the contract deadline of December 15. O'Brien withdrew his support, and a new vote was held on December 14. With the presence of Rainer Bloess, who was absent during the previous vote, Council decided to cancel the project by a margin of 13-11 despite the possibility of lawsuits from Siemens, the contract holder. It was reported on 2006-02-07 that the cost of the cancelled project was about $73 million.
However, on February 14, 2007 it was reported that Siemens wrote a letter to the City of Ottawa and gave two options. The first proposal was for the city to pay $175 million in compensation to Siemens in order to settle the dispute and officially cancel the contract. The second proposal was to re-launch the project with an additional price tag of $70 million to the cost of the original project. Councillor Diane Deans had tabled a motion for a debate on 2007-02-23 but it was later cancelled. A poll conducted by the mayor's office showed that a majority of south-end residents disagreed about the cancellation of the project but only a third wanted to revive it.
Long-term plans had included lines on Carling Avenue from the existing Carling station westward to Bayshore and Bells Corners, and from the Rideau Centre south-east to the area of Innes Road and Blair Road via Rideau Street, Montreal Road, and Blair Road. The City of Ottawa has conducted a 4-million dollar Environmental Assessment Study for these two corridors. There were also possibilities of a rail link to Hurdman Station.
Service to Gatineau would also be possible (and desirable, considering the potential base of commuters), as there is a railway bridge over the Ottawa River nearby, but the government of Gatineau is opposed to extending the O-Train into their territory; Ottawa's city staff have taken steps to isolate the current north-south line from the bridge, so it would need to be re-built north of Bayview station. A line running into Gatineau is not included in the current plans for expansion up to 2021, but the city is keeping this option open through its track acquisitions.
In January 2007, Mayor Larry O'Brien formed a special committee to review the city's transportation needs and provide a report to City Council by the beginning of June 2007. On 2007-06-01, this report was presented to the Mayor, and was subsequently released to the media and the public on 2007-06-06. This report was criticized by some for planning service to Smiths Falls and Arnprior while neglecting to plan service to Rockland and Embrun, rapidly growing communities east of Ottawa that are (as of 2006) the main source of Ottawa-bound commuters and are expected to be for several decades.
The committee, headed by former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister David Collenette, recommended that Ottawa's needs will be best served by light rail through the future. This plan calls for expansion of the system using current rail rights-of-way and stations (VIA Rail, CP Rail, and Ottawa Central Railway), constructing new stations and a tunnel through the downtown core, going through the former Union Station (now currently the Government of Canada Conference Centre). The plan initially calls for using bi-mode diesel-electric trains or multiple units, allowing rapid expansion on current track powered by diesel engines, while switching to electric power through the tunnel downtown to remove the concerns about underground exhaust. Through the next thirty years, the plan calls for expansion of up to six lines, including links to surrounding municipalities, the City of Gatineau, and MacDonald-Cartier International Airport, with the lines gradually being electrified and expanded as required.
Only the initial portion of the project was budgeted, and using only rough numbers, but the committee feels that this can be completed for between $600 million to $900 million, including the downtown tunnel portion, within the next 5-10 years.
On 2008-03-03, the city of Ottawa revealed four different options for its transit expansion plan, and presented at Open House consultation meetings during the same week. All plans included the construction of a downtown tunnel or subway to accommodate transit service and possible addition of businesses underground, as well as the expansion of rapid transit to the suburbs. One of the plans includes light rail from Baseline Station to Blair Station and an expansion to the Ottawa Airport. All plans would have a completion date of about 2031, and costs are estimated at least $3 billion in total including $1 billion for the downtown tunnel.
The majority of the public were in support of a downtown tunnel as well as the fourth transit option during public consultations meetings in Centertown, Barrhaven, Kanata and Orleans during the month. There were some suggesting that the light-rail service to the suburbs rather than ending at the proposed stations. Concerns were particularly voiced by south-end residents where the initial rail plan was to be built. On 2008-04-16, the Transit Committee tabled a document which recommended the fourth option.
The plan passed City Council by a vote of 19-4, and included motions for possible rail extensions to the suburbs depending on population density and available funding. However, Kitchissippi Ward councillor Christine Leadman expressed concerns of the environment integrity impacts of light-rail along the Ottawa River Parkway which is situated on NCC land. At least three councillors including Leadman, Capital Ward councillor Clive Doucet and Kanata North Ward councillor Marianne Wilkinson expressed preferences of light-rail service along Carling Avenue instead of the Parkway although rail would run through many traffic lights and stops. The NCC has also suggested the city to consider other options then the Ottawa River Parkway while all three Ottawa Centre candidates for the 2008 federal elections, including incumbent NDP MP Paul Dewar, Liberal candidate Penny Collenette and Conservative candidate Brian McGarry have also expressed opposition to rail on the Parkway.
Another potential route identified between Lincoln Fields and the Transitway near Westboro was a small strip of land located on the southern side of Richmond Road near the location of the defunct Byron Avenue streetcar line although costs would be much higher then the Parkway route.
In early-September 2008, City staff suggested that first phase of the transit plan to be built would be similar to Option 3 with rail service from Riverside South to Blair Station via a downtown tunnel as well as the construction of a by-pass transit corridor via the General Hospital as well as a streetcar circuit along Carling Avenue although Alex Cullen mentionned that Council already rejected the option of streetcars running on that road. The first phase is planned to be completed by 2018.
The O Train fleet has 3 trains or 9 cars. The front and rear cars are powered and the centre towed. There are no fleet numbering, cars are identified by the letter C and a number (C1, C2, C3).
Train sets are stored at the Walkley Yards (OC Transpo) located northeast of the Greensboro station. Maintenance is provided by Bombardier Transportation. Trains are towed to the site by Ottawa Central Railway locomotives.
The yard has enclosed buildings for repairs and outdoor storage tracks.