Canadian Consulting Engineer

Metro On The Move

January 1, 2008
By Brendan Murphy

For many new residents of a large urban center, public transportation is the way they discover the city. When I first moved to Montreal, this was certainly the case. The metro helped me to hunt for ap...

For many new residents of a large urban center, public transportation is the way they discover the city. When I first moved to Montreal, this was certainly the case. The metro helped me to hunt for apartments in different neighbourhoods and to commute between home, school and two miserable jobs inconveniently located at opposite ends of the city. For established Montrealers, a population that likes to be out and about, public transportation is how they make the most of their city. In the past years, it’s taken me to see the Alouettes at the Big O and the Habs at the Bell Centre, discover new restaurants in Little Italy, visit family in NDG, and explore Parc Jean-Drapeau. While Montreal does of course have buses and commuter trains, it’s the metro that seems to say the most about the city.

Construction on Montreal’s metro system, which currently supports over 220 million rides a year and employs more than 2,000 people, began in large part to prepare for Expo ’66. That year, the metro’s two main lines were opened: the east-west Green line and the U-shaped Orange line. A year later the Yellow line was added, originating at the system’s central station, known now as Berri-Uqam, stopping at Parc Jean Drapeau and ending in Longueuil, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.

After Montreal was awarded the 1976 Olympics, the Green line was extended east to Honor-Beaugrand to help access the Olympic Stadium, and later extended west to Angrignon. A decade later the Blue line, which runs eastwest above the Green line, was introduced.

Though there were several proposals for further expansions, (most notably the so-called “White line”), none were done until the Laval extension completed just last year (see page 23). It has three stations and extends the Orange line from Henri-Bourassa to the Montmorency station on the island of Laval.

Montreal’s metro was originally modeled after the one in Paris, both in the type of cars used and the distinctive architecture of the stations, each designed by a different Canadian architect in mostly modernist and international styles. They’ve not all held up equally well, as a trip through the various stations reveals everything from the striking and elegant to the inefficient and downright tacky. And, while noticeably more reliable than the bus (to the consternation of many an employee hoping for a snow-day excuse), the system is not perfect. During peak hours a sardine-like squeeze can be expected on the main lines.

Replacing what’s fixed — and what moves

Carl Desrosiers is the executive director of operations for the Socit de transport de Montral (STM). He is in charge of everything from engineering to infrastructure and internal security. He points to a couple of ongoing projects that are going to revolutionize the metro.

“Our project called ‘Reno-System’ is a replacement of everything fixed on the system — power, building systems, control centre, communications,” Desrosiers explains. “It was started five years later than it should have, but because of doing that and changing the rolling stock at the same time, we were able to redesign the entire system quite efficiently.”

A new test train, built by Bombardier, will roll out in 2010 and will eventually be the metro’s exclusive rolling stock. As such, Desrosiers and STM are expecting nothing less than perfection. “It’s like we’re changing a 1966 Valiant for a brand new car, so the technology leap is incredible.”

The new cars will allow passengers to switch from car to car, a huge relief to anyone who’s ever been stranded in one that’s packed to the gills. They will also upgrade from the DC motor and add pneumatic suspension, making the ride quieter and smoother. They’ll require less maintenance, consume less electricity and feature new communication, diagnostic and ventilation systems.

Desrosiers explains there is a group called Nova, managed by the Imperial College in London, that compares and ranks transit systems around the world based on a comprehensive set of criteria. The comparison provides an interesting peek into the differences between the countries that house them. For example, the Asian metro systems, especially Tokyo, are expensive but reliable. Berlin’s is very efficient. South American systems, like that in Sao Paolo, are very good but employee heavy. In France, with its ever-striking, ever-entitled student population, the state pays the entire amount of students’ ride fees.

“Montreal ranks approximately alongside the systems in South America,” says Desrosiers. “For efficiency we’re in the top three in the world year after year. [For] reliability we are better than most North American and European systems, but less than the Asian systems. We are also very low cost and compare well overall. But of course, there are things we must improve.”

“We need more service on the track in off-peak hours,” says Desrosiers. “After 10 o’clock here you will wait 12 minutes in between [trains], while it’s five minutes in Toronto and six in New York. So, starting in January, we will increase the service by 27 per cent.” He mentions other areas of concern are improving cell service (heaven forbid one’s Blackberry stays unattended for 15 minutes) and creating a more efficient system of communicating with passengers.

Speaking about accessibility for the disabled, Desrosiers is frank: “We’re amongst the worst metro system in the world for this one. Retrofitting has been going on in most places around the world for the last 15 years, but we just started. We have elevators in the three stations in the new Laval extension, and we’ll be doing one station every year. But doing so in Montreal is very expensive. In some places the stations are 30 metres deep, so it costs about 10 million to retrofit each one.”

A metro system originally created to showcase Montreal to the world has turned into an essential way that the city’s residents navigate its endless nooks and crannies. Perhaps the fact that by now people simply take the metro for granted is its greatest compliment.

Brendan Murphy is a freelance writer based in Montreal.



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