Abandoned Public Transit Projects in Montréal

The Expo Express – 1967 to 1972

Montréal has an interesting history regarding experimenting with different forms of public transit. Interesting in that we experiment often and that we tend to drop entire systems from use rather suddenly. In some cases we literally bury a system entirely and cover it over, seemingly never to be spoken of again. As Canada’s principle metropole for most of its history, our large population base and unique geography has required a wide variety of different public transit and transport systems for different purposes and at different times, and we have quite a collection, most of which is in use. Most were or are traditional, some are keenly re-purposed traditional systems, while others are wholly original yet serve very specific functions. What I find peculiar is that we don’t keep our peculiarities, we destroy a lot of what we’ve built, and I can’t help but see this as a colossal waste of money accrued over a long timespan. It’s idiotic to destroy something which can be improved. We’ve tried many different things but it’s as if we keep looking for a single solution and we should know better, there is none. And yet, we have this history of rather successful experimentation that never manages to make it to its first re-genesis, and thus becomes an expensive flop. Imagine life without Web 2.0, or if Apple had ceased handheld computer development after the failure of the Newton? In Montréal we lack commitment to our new ideas yet feel the old are worn out and thus require replacement. We look to supplement when we ought to compliment and end up sucked into a vicious cycle of frenetic innovation followed by hasty demolition and a broad subsequent remorse we acted so impulsively, so foolishly. And then we forget and do it again.

It’s costly and unnecessary.

At the very least we should keep these oddities and insist that once the money is paid to build, we ensure we get our money’s worth in terms of use. Many of the projects mentioned here simply weren’t in use long enough to demonstrate their viability, or were otherwise derided as antiquated and out-moded prematurely. Thus, all that money spent to build solutions would be wasted, as almost all of these systems have been completely abandoned.

A tram going up the Mountain circa 1940s/1950s

Consider that we once had a massive, comprehensive tramway network in our city, up until a bunch of slick salesmen from General Motors Corporation came up here and convinced the STM’s predecessor organization to abandon the tramway system entirely and replace it with a fleet of new buses. It would have been better for the citizens if the city had complimented the tramway with an extensive bus network, but such is life – and so we buried the tramlines never to be used again. Today we realize trams are just about the only way to effectively reduce vehicular thru-traffic in dense urban environments; they’re crucial and they work. That said, if we ever plan of developing trams again, we’ll have to start from scratch – that’s a lot of wasted coin.

We once had a STOLport (an airport with a short runway for small airplanes, typically located very close to the central business district and used primarily for inter-city flights) for a few years back in the mid-1970s. It was an excellent re-development of a large parking lot built adjacent to Expo 67’s Place d’Acceuil (more or less in the dead centre of this space near the foot of the Victoria Bridge, the airport’s namesake).

Canadian-built Dash-8 landing at Toronto Billy Bishop

It didn’t work out because the only route served by the airport was Montreal-Ottawa, despite the company having enough aircraft to have regular flights to Toronto and Québec City as well. Service was never expanded and so we closed it down and paved it over – with grass and dirt this time – and turned it into an unpopular and generally unused industrial park. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport has expanded operations of late, and is very well used for a variety of general aviation purposes. We created a void in our city by not adequately replacing the once available service, and in this particular case have made business travel to and from Montréal that much more difficult, time consuming etc. Today we argue over how to connect commuter trains to Dorval Airport and talk about twenty minute ‘express’ service between the airport and the city core. Back then the Victoria STOLport could place you within walking distance of the city centre. I think we may have taken a step backwards here. Also of note, Place Bonaventure was originally designed to feature a heliport on its roof, the idea being that helicopters could cheaply move people to and from the airport. A similar idea still operates today in New York City.

This is a key problem – developing transit and transport systems which arguably improve people’s lives and then removing them without appropriately maintaining the previous level of service – and all the while usage trends demonstrate periodic investments in developing the scheme or expanding operations is all it would take to keep them going and working well. By not properly replacing service, the citizens feel as though luxuries they once earned have been removed, and this affects collective morale as it suggests a drop in prominence. Concerning Montréal specifically, it’s not like we’ve become any less important as a tourist hub over the last fifty years, and our city hasn’t shrunk either (it has grown by over a million people in the metro region since the 1960s), meaning we need these transit alternatives now more than ever.

The Turbo Train

We also used to have the Turbo Train. VIA nixed that one about a decade after it entered service because a jet-powered express train to Toronto ‘wasn’t economically viable’, and then replaced these jet-powered trains with slower, conventional diesel models. It really makes me wonder. We had a first generation high-speed train but, much like the Avro Arrow in its quest to break Mach 2.0 in 1957, the Turbo Train was never permitted to travel at full speed (which at 274km/hour could make the Toronto to Montreal trip two hours as opposed to the four-hour ‘express’ time it actually took). And thus, despite executing the idea and making it work, we never pushed the idea into next gear. The Turbo Train could have easily achieved top speeds if it was given an isolated track and simply didn’t stop between Canada’s two largest cities. If we had kept this one going, we’d be profitting from it immensely today, as train ridership is increasing each year and Canada really can’t afford to continue going on without high-speed rail. A well-used inter-city service is a good place to begin building a national network from. Why didn’t people protest? VIA is a crown corporation after all.

The Mount Royal Funicular – check out the sporting gentleman at the rear of the car

We used to have a funicular railway that crawled up the side of Mount Royal from Fletcher’s Field near the Cartier Monument (Tam-Tams). It brought sight-seers to a massive wooden look-out, just off to the East of the current Belvedere, itself constructed in the 1930s. The funicular was in use from 1884 and by 1918 it was suddenly declared structurally unsound and dismantled two years later. Its function would be partially replaced by the number 11 tram line which began on Mount Royal Avenue and wound it’s way up the eastern ridge to the Belvedere and Lac-des-Castors, but the funicular was more of an amusement than public transit service. Today, the Olympic Tower is served by the modern Montreal Funicular, which is unfortunately also no more than mere amusement. Though the original funicular was large and a bit of an eyesore, it was far less invasive than the Camillien-Houde Parkway that currently bisects the mountain. That said, I can imagine a modern funicular would be particularly useful for the students at the Université-de-Montréal.

The Habitat 67 stop on the Expo Express line

A far more useful antique piece of public transit equipment was an express train that functioned a lot like an elevated subway, and it connected the city’s central business district with Ile-Notre-Dame and Ile-St-Helene. It was called Expo Express and you guessed it – it was built for Expo 67. The brains behind the operation figured that if daily attendance was in excess of quarter million visitors the exposition site would require a public transit capability specifically designed to quickly traverse it. Trains began at the Place d’Acceuil located at the foot of the Victoria Bridge in the Cité du Havre and would cover six kilometers with departures every five minutes, going all the way to La Ronde. Each train could carry a thousand passengers, and the system operated in parallel with other systems, such as the Expo Minirail, the Montreal Metro, not to mention the existing roadways and bridges, buses, pedicabs, gondolas (of both marine and aerial variety) and small ferries utilizing the Expo Canal system on Ile-Notre-Dame. You might say this was public transit overkill, but the planners would ultimately prove correct in their belief that utilizing multiple integrated systems running on different schedules and with varying capacities would serve the masses well by evenly distributing them around the site. For tourists coming in by car from outside the urban area, Expo Express would be the first of many different public transit systems encountered by the vast majority of visitors. Expo Express was an integral tool in moving massive quantities of visitors quickly and efficiently in and out of the fairgrounds, and distributing large quantities of people onto smaller systems throughout the park islands. There’s no doubt in my mind, if it weren’t for this comprehensive system, and especially Expo Express, we could not possibly have attained the attendance records we did. Fifty million people in six months is absolutely incredible and an enduring testament to just how well the transit master plan actually worked.

On a closing point, we now have a societal obligation to rid ourselves of our over-dependence on automobiles. We have multiple systems for all the different varieties of requirements for a truly excellent public transit system, but we’re going to have to expand and re-investigate these abandoned projects to see what we might gain from implementing them today.

Think of it this way:

Trams in the urban core replace buses and cars in our streets, reduce gridlock (especially if they operate in segregated lanes) and makes the city more pedestrian friendly.

Métro expansion extends the ‘reach’ of the urban core, increases property values and can serve as a revenue generator for the city (by selling appropriated land for high-density residential or commercial development).

Commuter trains extend the suburbs while maintaining direct, efficient and generally fast connectivity with the urban core.

With the latter three in place, buses can be diverted to provide public transit access in suburban areas. Car use would plummet, and people would have much more money in their pocket as a result (not to mention that people could afford nicer cars that would keep longer, but I digress).

Imagine if we took it a step further, developing a comprehensive inter-island bike path network and expanded Bixi service to all corners of the island? Or by developing a tourist-oriented monorail to connect the downtown core with the Parc Olympique, Parc Jean Drapeau, Parc LaFontaine and Mount Royal?

Is the goal of creating a public transit system not to provide thorough, low-cost access of an entire metropolitan area for the citizenry’s convenience?

What are we working towards here?

My Country Isn’t An Accident

I wrote this a couple weeks ago for Forget the Box, an excellent local blog you should definitely check out.

I was asked to write a piece on the significance of Pauline Marois’ decision to remove the Canadian flag from her cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony. I see no significance in the decision, other than something I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in this province for all the many years I’ve lived here, for all the epochs and eras of our collective history I’ve studied.

What significance? It’s posturing. It’s theatre. It’s about as much as the péquistes can do at the moment to distance themselves from Canada. That may be significant in itself, but I can’t help but feel it’s little more than noise.

We forget that this was not a permanent move (apparently the flag was returned the next day), it’s been done before by other péquiste governments in the past, and they still had to swear allegiance to the Queen with hand set upon the Bible.

It’s these last two that struck me as odd, as somewhat scandal-worthy.

Haven’t we evolved past this? What was 1982 all about if the apparently secular and sovereign Premier of Québec still has to swear allegiance to an old woman in a foreign country, by placing her hand on an at best incomplete and heavily politicized book of history and moral judgments mixed in with outright nonsense?

I’m a federalist to the core and I wouldn’t do either. But I wouldn’t do either because I’m a federalist to the core. The Constitution and Charter of Canada and the political theory that led to their creation grant me greater freedoms than any other political theory developed in this country’s history, and the fault of those other theories lay chiefly in their incompatibility with the profoundly Canadian values of restraint, complexity and individual sovereignty.

A federalist has no need for a foreign monarch, let alone one for whom allegiance must be sworn. I have nothing in common with royalty, and as a Canadian I have the individual sovereignty necessary to reject allegiance to anyone, especially foreign monarchs. Why? Because Canada is a collection of sovereign individuals entered into a social contract that seeks to support and sustain our collective sovereignty. That’s what 1982 was all about…

Moreover, my Charter Rights protect my right to exist in a default secular society, where government is the great equalizer because it refrains from any particular religious orientation. I refuse to acknowledge any deity as proof of my ability to govern and conduct myself appropriately. This ability lies within me. Official state secularism is the only way to go. Québec was once leading the pack in this respect, but in this neo-evangelical era of ours, we too have fallen victim of tying culture too closely to an absurd notion of ‘oppressed Christianity’. In a superhuman effort of logical gymnastics, the new saviour of Québec’s culture endeavours to create a secular state not by promoting the advantages of atheism, but once again by lashing out at minority groups in such a manner so as to prevent better societal integration. How many orthodox Jews or Muslims do you see working at the SAQ, SAAQ or the Revenue Québec office? Do you think they’ll feel more or less welcome to apply for such jobs when an ‘officially secular’ province decides a yarmulke or hijab is an affront to our collective values?

But an illuminated Roman-era torture device atop a mountain in our country’s second-to-none city that can be programmed to flash bleu, blanc et rouge during the playoffs? Well – that’s just a part of our heritage…

The symbols of the most oppressive and destructive forces in our province, nation and country’s history – British Imperialism and the Catholic Church – are the very emblems that Pauline Marois still feels obliged to supplicate herself before. They are, apparently, those with which we cannot do without.

I can do without them, and so can you.

Let’s not forget who else in Canada has been pushing an antiquated and historically inaccurate vision of our collective heritage. The Tories have been taking down great oeuvres of Canadian folk art and replacing them with photographs of the Queen throughout our federal buildings for some time. We close down embassies and consulates in places where they’re needed most, but re-decorate those in the upscale neighbourhoods of our richest allies with the symbols of an empire that no longer exists in any tangible sense. We adorn our foreign service with the symbols of something we’re not; as if to prove our legitimacy by resurrecting the notion we’re an extension of Old Europe. And recent news is out that Canada and the United Kingdom will have joint embassies, ostensibly to save money. Are we soon to share a common military and foreign policy? This is federal sovereignty? Moreover, Stephen Harper hasn’t delivered on a single major military acquisition promised during various election campaigns, but he made damn sure to resurrect the royal prefix of our armed services! And while we continue scratching our heads over the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Libyan Mission, Harper and his crew of Bay Street marketing gurus shamelessly over-embellish the significance of the War of 1812 in a thoroughly misguided effort to establish Canada’s ‘warrior-society’ street cred.

Its all so manipulative and cynical, inappropriately Republican-esque, an awful homage to the most profane depths of American populist politics. Marois and Harper, unlikely peas in a pod, both taking lessons from the Tea Party in an albeit slightly more nuanced fashion. Both pushers of a twisted and delusional pop-nationalism where societal sovereignty is tied to imported notions of legitimacy. How pathetically unpatriotic.

I refuse to believe, for even a fraction of a second, that my country is an accident. That our society and culture are mere imports of something broken from beyond. That we must supplicate ourselves before foreign and antiquated means of social and economic control that appeal to our basest instincts as a society. We forget that monarchy and religion are intimately associated, that nobility is demagoguery, and that though both played a role in our creation, we also decided to reject them. Our rejection of that which created us, in favour of homegrown solutions, marked the first step in our evolution.

We are a Métis society. We are the integration of the Americas, Imperial Europe and the shared socio-democratic value that is openness to immigration that has characterized the nation since its inception. Our country has Founding Fathers, and many of their ideas, their values, form the backbone of Canadian social-liberalism today. Our nation has been evolving for one hundred forty-five years, and neither Pauline Marois nor Stephen Harper wishes to acknowledge it. They both fear the socio-political identity that developed out of the ashes of the Rebellions of 1837 and led quite directly to Confederation, and then for another hundred thirty-five or so years after that. They turn their back on our own symbols of strength through unity for the preference of symbols of dominion-from-afar and spiritual bondage.

It seems as though the evolution of my people, my nation, has been on hiatus ever since Stephen Harper took office. He, much like Pauline Marois, is blind to the truth that is Canada, to the greatness we could achieve as a more unified nation. Each wants to further decentralize and marginalize the legacy of Canadian federalism, and each are going about it in their own way. Harper hacks away at the budgets and scope of the census, scientific and ecological research and the national archives, while Marois proceeds to govern by decree without any debate. Neither care much for Canadian democracy, they view it as an inconvenience to accomplishing their own myopic goals.

And we let them get away with it, because we falsely believe we are nothing but an accident.