More Thoughts of Trains and Mirabel

Mirabel Scale Model

As you doubtless already know, I’m a big fan of Mirabel International Airport, and dream of day when it’s fully operational, ideally as the original plan intended.

I’m also a big fan of eliminating waste and the various inefficiencies that plague our lives and make living in large urban centres unnecessarily taxing. I’d one day like to poach White Elephants…

We have a strange problem in this city – we repeat our mistakes and forget past problems. It seems to tend towards a vicious circle in which too little actually gets accomplished and waste accumulates at an impressive rate costing the citizens immensely. And because this has been the status quo for so long, our ‘leadership’ doesn’t know what else to do.

Mirabel failed for three main reasons. Planned highways weren’t built, an express train connecting the airport to the Central Business District via Mount Royal Tunnel never got off the drawing board, and we, as citizens, allowed failure to be an option vis-a-vis the airport’s fate. Curiously, we built a train station and a rail line, we just never connected the two. Today we have the exact same problem at Dorval.

An on-going dispute between the AMT and the ADM has resulted in yet another airport in Montreal lacking an express train to and from the city. And as opposed to not having the requisite highways, we instead have over-burdened highways in dire need of repair and upgrades. Public transit options are inconsistent, inconvenient or otherwise lacking, though the STM’s 747 service performs admirably on the no-frills end of the spectrum. For all the money and time that has been wasted trying to figure out a solution to the differences between the ADM and AMT’s vision for transit expansion, we’ve come no closer to a solution. Yet, if we had simply directed our efforts at completing the links to Mirabel as planned, perhaps starting with an express train, we’d likely have access to one hell of an international airport right now.

In my opinion, the facilities at Dorval have several problems which will likely get worse as time marches on. It’s effectively topped out in terms of how much more it can expand, largely as a consequence of the rather exceptional amount of growth all around the airport over the course of the last forty odd years. A further consequence of the growth of both airport capacity and the sheer volume of people living and working in and around the airport is the exceptional congestion eating away at the highways around and leading to the airport. All of these forces working together have made airport operations at Dorval unnecessarily complex from a logistical perspective, which is partially responsible for the numerous delays in adequately connecting this effectively urban airport to the city it serves. Railways or subways or mono-rails – no one can reach a conclusion on how best to attach the airport to the central business district directly, and so we soldier on as an apparently global city without an amenity that goes for granted in any other large metropole.

It is based on these reasons that I ask whether it truly is better for a large city such as our own to strive for the convenience of an on-island, semi-urban airport when congestion and political bickering slowly increases the amount of time it actually takes to get to and from the airport. Think about it – the number one complaint about Mirabel was how far it was from the city (a fact exacerbated by the failure to complete highways 13, 19 and 50, which meant that all airport traffic was funnelled through a single highway which also served as a pole for northern ring development) and the further failure to complete the planned city-to-airport express train, designed to cut travel time down to 20-30 minutes from Central Station to the train station built into the main terminal at Mirabel (which, like so many other once-useful things in this city, is today used as a parking garage). Ask yourself how long it takes to get from the city to Dorval as is. Without traffic or too many stops maybe you can get there in 20 minutes using public transit, but we all know to bank maybe three times the amount of time if traffic is expected. The airport certainly serves the West Island excellently, but it doesn’t anchor the far greater geographic area Mirabel only briefly served.

We forget that Mirabel was once fully operational and Canada’s Eastern Gateway, offering direct service to numerous world cities directly, with an impressive number of foreign flag-carriers choosing Mirabel as their preferred landing site in Canada. And for good reason too. It was modern, well-designed, exceptionally efficient and designed to eventually grow to six runways, six terminals, a STOLport and an estimated annual traffic in excess of 50 million people.

With the planned highways and rail lines, in addition to the completion of a ring-road system (such as the connection of highway 640 to highway 30, extensions of highway 10 etc.) Mirabel’s strategic position could have offered service to an immense region, including Eastern Ontario, the National Capital Region, Québec City and the Eastern Townships, as well as the Northern parts of Vermont, New York, New Hampshire – a region in excess of seven million people today, and likely able to drive airport usage up towards that 50 million mark. Though these plans in large part never came to fruition (or else were developed after the airport ceased passenger operations), they’ve nonetheless already been laid out, and they still make as much sense today as they do back then. Dorval is chiefly designed to serve the City of Montreal, not the Greater Montreal Region, and it’s the regional population base, and how they get around, which will determine whether any future attempts to revive operations at Mirabel will be successful. Moreover, given the population distribution around Dorval, we must ask ourselves whether we actually want large aircraft taking off and landing from the middle of a large residential area. If an accident on take-off or landing at a Montreal airport is to occur, wouldn’t it be best the crash happen far from the populated city, ideally in a large open field?

But getting back to my initial thought. We’re still at square one. We’re still bickering about how to attach the airport to the city, though this time the argument is whether a train should serve the airport uniquely or whether it should serve commuters as well. If we migrated back to Mirabel, we’d likely run into the same problem, again. This in turn leads me to question why we have a system wherein the airport authority and the public transit and provincial transport agencies aren’t all working together to a) find mutually beneficial solutions to common problems and b) seeking to ensure maximum connectivity, not only between the airport and city but between the airport and the much larger region it initially served. The question shouldn’t be whether to build a new West Island commuter train or a new train to the airport, but rather how we’ll build both as part of a much more comprehensive strategy. Move to Mirabel and at least the AMT and ADM won’t be arguing about West Island transit options, but this may in turn set the Train-de-l’Ouest project back a bit. What a curious trap we’ve built for ourselves – and all because we chose to accept this notion that Mirabel shouldn’t have been built in the first place.