Aziz Guergachi, professor at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University
In the past couple of weeks, stories have emerged in Ottawa that the launch of the light-rail transit line (LRT) in the city might be delayed a third time, in part owing to challenges around the rail vehicles supplied by the French firm Alstom. Only 14 out of the 34 cars the project needs are said to be ready for testing. And this a little more than a month away from the handover deadline of March 31. There appears to be a host of issues, including communications equipment installation and deficiencies on emergency door releases and power units. The trains, called the Alstom Citadis Spirit, have reportedly no proven track record in North America. Serious doubts have been cast on the cars’ readiness for cold winter conditions. According to media reports, one of the vehicles got stuck for two days between stations because of snow conditions and had to be towed away.
Alstom has received nowhere close to the kind of vitriolic criticism its Canadian competitor Bombardier is usually subjected to in the Canadian media. The general manager of transportation in Ottawa seems to have done everything to avoid pouring the slightest amount of fuel on the fire. He said of the consortium in charge of building the line that they have had “very good days and they’ve had very challenging days. And that last storm was very, very challenging,” as if Ottawa were a city with clement weather that rarely experiences snowstorms.
In stark contrast, scathing media reports abounded in Toronto on Bombardier missing a Feb. 1 deadline to supply six light-rail vehicles to regional transit agency Metrolinx for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. The miss even provoked an editorial from the Toronto Star. The newspaper’s editorial board complained that Bombardier ”keeps pledging, hand on heart, to meet its deadlines – and then promptly breaks every one,” and agreed with Metrolinx in “invoking financial penalties in its contract with Bombardier to protect the interests of taxpayers,” but completely ignored Metrolinx’s own acknowledgment that “Bombardier’s delivery times have improved.” The Star went on to add that “Bombardier, a highly coddled ‘national champion’ in rail transit and aerospace, is ruining its reputation with all these botched deadlines,” but avoided highlighting that missing the Feb. 1 deadline by a few days has no real significance for a project that won’t be delivered for two years.
Perhaps adapting a European design to the harsh conditions of Canadian winter is indeed technically complex. It may be that vehicles are much more than a piece of hardware. They are as much about software – a moving computer with kilometres of wiring integrating various systems into a network. But all of this would also be true for Bombardier’s light-rail vehicles for Toronto.
Perhaps we live in a time of contradictions. There is no question that, in spite of all the woes in getting there, Bombardier’s streetcars are turning into emblems of Toronto’s growing stature as a global city, owing to their sleek design and, foremost, their performance in moving people efficiently, including in difficult winter conditions. They have become ubiquitous in promotional pictures of downtown Toronto. Perhaps that’s all that matters at the end of the day, and we will also say in hindsight that “Bombardier had very good times, and had very challenging times.”
Is it a case of a double standard unfolding before our eyes? Or is it the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence syndrome at play? Or is it that Bombardier, notwithstanding its undeniably large footprint and impact in Canada, including in Ontario where it directly employs more than 6,500 people, is a favourite punching bag of the media? Make no mistake: One just has to scan media coverage over the years in France to realize that Alstom is every bit the national champion that every Bombardier competitor is in its home country.
This is indeed a tale of two cities, with its protagonists’ fates somewhat intertwined. Alstom was awarded in 2017 a $300-million order for an additional 38 Citadis Spirit vehicles for Phase 2 of the Ottawa LRT. Even more stunningly, Alstom received in 2017 a sole-source contract valued at $529-million for 61 of the same “unproven” vehicles for projects in Greater Toronto, including Eglinton Crosstown, as an “insurance policy” in case Bombardier fails to deliver. What’s more, a recent article in La Presse discussed fines that large multinationals had to pay in the past several years for corruption allegations under deferred prosecution agreements. Guess who is on the list published for fines ranging from $900-million to $1.7-billion: Alstom and Siemens. Guess who is not on the list: Bombardier.
With this level of exposure, shouldn’t foreign national champions receive in Canada the same level of scrutiny as a Canadian-based firm? Let’s not kid ourselves – a double standard is at work here. And yes, let’s show some pride in what our home players are able to accomplish.