Tempest in a Teapot

New Azur Métro train test run - 2013
New Azur Métro train test run – 2013

Story out today in the Journal de Montréal about how the Azur Métro cars will be ‘too big and too heavy’ to operate in our Métro tunnels and that work had to be done to adjust the infrastructure so as to prevent trains from tipping over is about as good as it gets in terms of local media’s response to a slow news day.

The article is presented in such a fashion that makes it seem the STM only just found out about this and that these renovations may be somehow related to the delay in receiving the new Métro cars, which were initially due last July but now likely won’t be in service until the end of this year.

But according to the STM (and mentioned in the JdeM article), they new about the requirement to modify a 200 metre stretch of the Orange Line to accommodate the new trains from day one, and that the work has already been completed and factored into the overall budget.

If this is indeed the case and the STM isn’t perjuring itself then there isn’t much of a story in the first place. Yes, the new Bombardier-Alstom Azur Métro trains are heavier and bigger and will even consume more electricity than their predecessors but all of this was expected and understood since day one.

After all, these are entirely new vehicles. They are not carbon copies of the existing MR-63 and MR-73 trains. They’re bigger to accommodate more passengers. They utilize new technology. They will have a different layout and, perhaps most importantly, will permit transit users to move between Métro cars while the train is in motion. I think it’s safe to assume that, if you’re building something entirely new, it might not perfectly fit in a system it wasn’t designed for.

But, with all that in mind, the modification to the tunnels only seems to have involved 200 metres out of a total length of 71 kilometres.

In other words, less than half a percent of the Métro system needed to be modified for these vehicles. Peanuts. The STM knew this and made the decision to modify a portion of the tunnel rather than scrap the project and go back to the drawing board.

If we want to have a conversation about how private enterprise can’t ever seem to deliver a government project on time and under budget, this is another conversation (and one I’d say is well worth having). It seems to me that, time and again and at various levels of government, contractors working on government-sponsored mega projects are consistently late and chronically appealing for more money.

This is true about our new Métro cars, about the Train de l’Est project, about double-decker dual-power commuter trains, about fighter jets and maritime helicopters.

Every time government appeals to the private sector to work on public projects, they pitch it against an illogical assumption the alternative is to have the state build a factory and assume all related project costs. Over and over we’re told that appealing to the private sector saves money and will get the job done faster because of ‘the principles that guide the corporate world’ are ostensibly principles that prioritize efficiency and staying true to your word vis-a-vis project cost and delivery.

Bullshit.

The private sector’s interest in government contracts big and small is twofold, but neither has anything to do with efficiency and/or cost control. The interest lies chiefly in that a) government typically continues throwing money at the project and extending deadlines to save face and b) there are no repercussions to the provider, regardless of how late or how over-budget the project is, because they typically arrange to be the sole provider for after the fact maintenance, not to mention the fact that they own type certificates and other key pieces of intellectual capital that will keep whatever’s being built working. If a government upsets the private firm, they have very little recourse and will likely pay dearly at the polls. It’s not terribly expedient for a politician to campaign on keeping government contractors in check. People respond much better to hearing how much a politician intends on spending rather than how they plan on saving money.

We want to feel wealthy, not cheap, and we want our politicians to reflect this.

Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things at a reasonable, audited cost on the timeline set by the people.

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