Resurrecting Windsor Station

Windsor Station, looking north along Peel, 1926

I regularly take the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line to commute to the city from Pierrefonds, and like many other commuters, I’ve noticed something – a significant lack of space. The Deux-Montagnes line is regularly over-capacity; it’s not so much that there aren’t any seats, it’s that there’s barely anywhere to stand. And this is apparently the same for most of the AMT’s other lines as well. While the agency moves forward, albeit slowly, on the development of new lines to serve new areas, it hasn’t done much to alleviate over-crowding on the existing lines. As such, the commute isn’t terribly pleasant, and the infrastructure within the city designed to handle the commuting masses has left a lot to be desired for quite some time. It’s woefully inadequate and lack of planning today will only lead to a worse situation tomorrow.

Gare Centrale seems to be over-capacity in general. Massive cues to board VIA trains now regularly stretch the length of the station, and during rush hour congestion is even more severe as throngs of office workers huddle around waiting for up to twenty minutes in order to ensure they get a seat on the commuter trains. It’s beginning to seem very clear to me that concentrating all inter-city and commuter traffic in the same space isn’t such a great idea, especially if we recognize the growing trend in the use of passenger and commuter rail options in Montréal.

As it happens, there was once a magnificent train station but a few blocks away from Gare Centrale, a station very well integrated into the urban transit and traffic fabric inasmuch as the urban core it was designed to serve. Today it is little more than commercial office space, an underused public square and a seldom used convention space. The Bell Centre stands between Windsor Station and the open-air platform that is the Lucien L’allier. If only we hadn’t been so myopic in the past, we could have endeavoured to secure investment in rail travel. It is after all a cornerstone of our local economy, as true today as it was when we were the commercial capital of the entire country.

It occurred to me, as I was walking through Place Ville-Marie to make my way to the station, that fifty years ago we accomplished a magnificent feat of engineering and architecture, by building a heart of the Underground City and one of our most vital skyscrapers and office complexes above what had previously been an ugly, exposed railway pit.

If we could do that fifty years ago, surely we could do the exact opposite today. What if we were to resurrect Windsor Station by running the CP tracks which currently terminate at the Bell Centre, under it, and build a new platform under the station and arena in much the same fashion as Gare Centrale?

The first issue would be the Métro tunnel for the Orange Line which runs parallel with the tracks, so such a tunnel would have to start just to the West of Guy in order to avoid having to build under the Métro tunnel. Building a new train tunnel alongside it may be practical, and being able to remove the Guy and Lucien L’allier viaducts would improve the somewhat dour aesthetics of the area, not to mention allow real-estate developers the chance to build new buildings aboveground. Given Cadillac-Fairview corporation’s interest to build new condo towers and office space at the site, you’d figure it’s high time the multiple implicated parties collaborate to ensure Windsor Station can rekindle it’s former use as a major point of integration in the urban traffic scheme. Certainly, new residential and office development would be more attractive if the aim was to, in essence, create another PVM, though from below.

As it happens, this particular area may become the next major focal point for urban re-development in the City of Montréal. Consider not only Cadillac-Fairview’s proposal, but the open lots at Overdale, the parking lot across from the Bell Centre and the decrepit old buildings south of Saint-Antoine. Establishing a massive new train station in the middle, with an appropriate expansion of underground tunnels, passageways and access to other points in the Réso system, would stimulate growth in the area around in a manner similar to the way PVM anchors much of the CBD. It’s a natural extension, and the area could use the stimulus of people power.

Granted, it would be costly, it would take time and we’d have to overcome some significant obstacles, but the long term implications of alleviating over-crowding at Gare Centrale, expanding the Underground City and newly desirable land in the urban core, ripe for redevelopment, is worth the investment given the long-term return.

And the added advantage is that by not doing this, by leaving things as they are, we ensure no new development will take place in this area, or at least it won’t nearly be as impressive, important and fiscally sound. The status quo is inefficient because the status quo doesn’t suit our current nor future needs. By developing a whole new train station and subsequently spreading out commuter and passenger traffic between two inter-connected stations, we can increase the area of economic activity stimulated by the increasing group of people who fall into this category. In addition, we right a historic wrong, secure the use of a landmark and subsequently provide an economic stimulus with significant indirect stimulus spin-off. Transformative is an understatement.

Something to think about. There are about seven large tracts of land around the site which seem to be ideal for redevelopment, as office towers, condominiums, mixed-use developments etc, and all of them could be very easily inter-connected. That’s got to encourage the city inasmuch as the construction and real-estate development sectors in this city. A little bit of ingenuity and the will to invest in a much needed mega project of the kind that was once matter-of-fact in Montréal could help spur an urban development scheme of epic proportions.

I guess the question is how to get all the specific parties into the same room so as to pitch the idea.

3 thoughts on “Resurrecting Windsor Station”

  1. Sometimes I like to walk into the great reception hall at Windsor Station and think about how it was and how it could be again; I think about what a waste it is in its current state. I completely disagree with emdx, Windsor Station was not a “dead end” in the past, and it need not remain one now. Windson station was a Terminal in the same sense as such great urban train stations as Grand Central in New York, Victoria in London or the Gare du Nord in Paris (all still functioning). I remember when the Centre Bell was proposed. There was considerable discussion about whether to build it over the commuter rail tracks. I believe it was decided that at about another thirty to forty million, the price was too high. But I have wondered since the building’s completion if this huge mistake is irrevocable. Specifically, could the existing Bell Centre be raised, the tracks be extended under it, and the commuter hub returned to Windsor station itself? And how much would such a project cost if feasable?

    If only I had a spare few hundred million…

  2. I hate seeing places and buildings not used for their intended purpose. Moreover, I think you’ve misjudged the amount of traffic moving through the corridor between the two stations (extended to Lucien L’Allier that is). Also, consider future potential strain on the system, the expansion of additional lines or the re-use of old branch lines to expand commuter train options. I think a division of services spread out throughout a larger complex of transit systems is the better option.

    It’s not so much that Windsor Station is currently a ‘dead-end’, but rather that the lack of social activity that was once anchored by the station now no longer exists. The area around Windsor Station is surprisingly void of human traffic, and thus in my eyes constitutes a bit of a dead zone. The social and economic impact created by a twenty-four hour presence of residency was once adequately replaced by the activity of the train station. Today the area can be a bit of a ghost town, which is far from ideal given that the city is actively encouraging some new residential development to occur in and around the area. It’s lack of humanity, lack of human-scale services, and the lack of human-scale aesthetic and service links between it and other areas of the city, make it far from ideal for new residential construction. Unless we invest in a dual-station set-up. As far as I know, Windsor station was still being used for commuter rail purposes into the mid-1980s. AMT operations, and the desire for enhanced service, necessitates a proper station. Instead of building a new station, let’s tunnel our way to re-using an architectural masterpiece. The novelty makes it worthwhile if for no other reason than the international recognition such a project would attract, which could mean big spin-offs for our struggling, and once proud, engineering and architectural services.

    Incidentally, this is why I’m not keen on your viaduct solution. A viaduct of the design you propose, or of the kind proposed a few years back by Cadillac Fairview, is exactly not what we should do, given the damage caused already caused by the Ville-Marie Expressway and the Bonaventure Viaduct. The reason why the A-10 viaduct is being demolished and the Ville-Marie is being covered over is because these unnatural scars on the urban fabric have an awful downside of negatively impacting land value and creating, if not maintaining, urban ghettos, which have myriad negative consequences on the stability of urban society. They must be avoided at all costs. Already, the existing viaducts have severely divided the city and the urbanists and city planners all agree, the area immediately south of St-Antoine needs to be re-integrated into the downtown’s urban fabric.

    The Windsor Station of the future would look and feel very different from what it is today or what it was yesterday, but I can imagine a newly renovated and redesigned station, with tracks buried at or below Métro level, could nonetheless serve the area well. It would guarantee the necessary development of human-scale services in the area across multiple levels (all of which provide excellent small-business opportunities), allow for the extension and development of the Réso, offer new incentives for the development of high-capacity residential and commercial rental space and help extend the ‘living space’ of the city down the hill and into may very well become a new residential area in hat was once Griffintown.

    The key is fundamentally this – cities’ need points of social integration, of constant human traffic, and of civic presence. Most of these places need to be operational 24 glorious hours a day, to one extent or another, and further need to placed and maintained in strategic areas. Train stations, parks, universities, libraries, hospitals, squares, diners etc all need to be available and evenly distributed according to their relative weight in social mass in order for cities to function optimally (a lot of which has to do with the ‘presence’ of interested citizens, or in other terms, the set of people who have an immediate personal interest in ensuring their little part of urbania is safe, secure and engaged in attracting human traffic). So centralization? No, we’re big enough now to expand, and thus distribute systems along the most efficient lines. We’re also now cognizant of the impact such facilities can have on a city long-term and big-picture.

  3. Windsor station is a dead-end, always was, and always will be.

    Built by the CPR, it displayed all the shortcomings of something built by a private company more than a century ago: shortsightedness, bogus grandiosity, rapid obsolescence and unexpendability.

    On the other hand, when CNR built it’s Central Station, it was everything Windsor was not: modern, planned for the very long term, efficient, expandable and, most important, central.

    Central Station consolidated Bonaventure, Tunnel Terminal & Moreau stations, and directly accomodated trains for all directions.

    Windsor Station only served well westward trains, eastward ones were compelled to a long detour around Montréal-Ouest and through Laval.

    Central station currently has 14 platform-tracks (with a possibility of 16 with slight modification, 17 with a bit of more work and 19 with a lot more work). Those 16 platforms were quite sufficient when the station opened in 1944 with close to 300 trains per day.

    Nowadays, the busiest day will only see 110 trains in Central Station, so one really cannot say that the station is overloaded. For the apparent crowding, one can blame VIA Rail’s practice of loading the train at the very last second and insisting to have employees babysit every passenger. AMT, on the other hand, simply lets passengers on the platform whenever the train is there, and in some cases, even before it arrives in the station. Given the greater number of commuter passengers, one really cannot invoke safety reasons…

    Central Station can take a lot more traffic than it does now, and it only makes sense to make it the only downtown station in Montréal; this could very easily done by building a viaduct to link the CP line to Central Station. The viaduc would be built on mostly vacant land; only 3 or 4 old buildings would have to be demolished:

    Westward commuter trains could then use Central Station, facilitating transfers, and, most importantly, having the airport shuttle arrive to Central Station without using the well-used CN line (which would guarantee delays to the shuttle, in addition of being a longer route).

    It is illusory to think that trains would ever come back to Windsor station; it was designed for two centuries ago, and it is not as central as Central station is.

    Windsor station is a heritage jewel. Let it be such, and have the crowds go through Central station.

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