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?

4 thoughts on “Abandoned Public Transit Projects in Montréal”

  1. Nice overview of projects relegated to the dustbin.

    Regarding the STOLport, yes, it was pretty much where your map link puts it, although I wouldn’t call it walking distance to the city center. You’re looking at ~3km to PVM. The target audience of the service, namely businessmen on day trips, weren’t likely to be seen hoofing it up and down Bridge and Wellington with their briefcases in hand.

    The STOL service was a federally funded experiment that just didn’t work out. A large part of the reason for that was the location chosen for the Montreal airstrip. The Victoria car park was built on top of a garbage dump. After a couple of years of service the runway was found to be buckling, and the the cost of stabilizing it would have exceeded the amount the government was willing to invest in the project.

    It’s an environmental nightmare underneath the scrub now growing in the Technoparc. See here for some of the gory details:


  2. The United Aircraft/MLW turbo was an experimental train that tried several novel concepts at the same time, that is turbine propulsion, tilting, articulation, steered axles and a low center of gravity.

    Of course, each of those concepts have been tried separately before (as much as 150 years earlier for steered axles), but never before had they been tried together.

    Even though the stuff was a train that, 45 years later, still looks much better than the fastest TGVs we see in Europe, the net result was not very optimal.

    The train vibrated excessively, the low-center of gravity needed for tilting shaked the cars side to side in a way that sometimes gave passengers seasickness and the articulation crippled the whole train if only one car was defective.

    Besides that, turbines are notoriously hungry in fuel, which is the reason why the french TGV was wisely re-powered mid-project, which added several years to it’s introduction to service.

    All those flaws were addressed by the Bombardier LRC, the first successful tilt-train that entered service, more than 30 years ago, on VIA Rail.

    As beautiful as the Turbo was, it just could not cut the mustard in terms of service, and it was inevitable that it had to be replaced by the LRC.

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