Tag Archives: Tram Proposal

The Tramways Issue & the Future of Montréal Public Transit

Of the various videos I looked at that featured archival footage of the city and the tramway we once had, this one was the least schmaltzy. Enjoy. It appears as though the STM’s choice of narrator certainly has no beef peppering his orations with English loan-words and anglicisms. I wonder if this was done on purpose to attract a wider audience or reflect the French as it is all too often spoken in Montreal.

Curious stuff…


I didn’t have a chance to get into too much detail on Daybreak, so I figured I’d offer the coles notes version here. Here’s the truncated version of my thoughts on the issue – I’ve expanded below further below.

1. Before we expand our public transit network or implement new systems, let’s ask ourselves whether we can do better with what we have. In sum, let’s prioritize renovation before expansion.

2. There have been many LRT/Tram proposals that have been floated about since we foolishly eliminated the system several years before the city even began construction of the Métro. Trams and LRTs have been proposed (or are being proposed) to connect Brossard and the Sud-Ouest district with the downtown, to connect the city to the airport, to replace the near totally unused 715 bus route, to run on Cote-des-Neiges Road, Parc Avenue (replacing the high-capacity articulated and express buses), Boul. René-Lévesque, Pie-IX and Peel Street (etc.) and even as a potential replacement for express buses running to and from suburban bus depots conveniently co-located at major area shopping malls. If we ever do get around to building any of this, we really should look to build as much of it as quickly as possible and using the same vehicles to streamline efficiency. Developing several different types of trams and/or LRTs is completely illogical.

3. Any new tram or LRT system built in the city should use a reserved lane and be given absolute right of way. If trams are getting bogged down in vehicular traffic (as they do in Toronto), they’re not really helping anyone at all.

4. Tramway routes should be designed to fill the gap between the bus and Métro network. I’d even go so far as to argue trams would be best used to completely supplement buses in the most densely populated parts of the city, allowing buses to be re-directed to suburban routes.

Some questions we should consider:

Are we optimizing the value of what we already have?

Is our existing system as efficient as it could be?

Do we have adequate services?

Could our diverse public transit services use a facelift?

There’s no better example, in my opinion, of how little control Montréal has over its public transit system than the news of the past weeks and months. The Fed wants to invest $5 billion in a new Champlain Bridge, but refuses to use that money for any other public transit purpose. They also insist that this money could not be used to construct an LRT system on the new bridge to serve South Shore commuters, that tolls are the only way to pay for it and that the original Champlain Bridge would have to be destroyed afterwards.

Meanwhile, the place-holder péquiste government insists that it wants the Fed to pay for an LRT on the new bridge, that it will spend $28 million to study a financing initiative, that it prefers spending $1 billion to extend the Blue Line east towards Anjou and St-Leonard, and that no money will be available for tramways development for at least five years.

And then place-holder Mayor Applebaum says that public transit in Montréal requires tens of billions to sustain operations over the next few decades and that no tram could be operational before 2021, some eight years from now. Applebaum won’t be mayor as of this November, leaving promises and proposals in his wake, with nothing actually accomplished.

Mayoral candidate and architect Richard Bergeron makes a good point – taxation could pay for a tram, we don’t need to wait for Québec or Ottawa to green light our transit initiatives.

I like this notion because, quite frankly, we haven’t had a mayor since Drapeau who was determined to lead Montréal, as opposed to letting it be led around by the nose by the often competing interests of Ottawa and Québec City.

We’ve become hostages. Cela doit cesser. Montréal needs to provide the public transit that best suits its citizens and the citizens in its periphery of influence.

As to the bridge, despite the obscene price tag and arguably obsolete transit concept (i.e. of an ultra-wide highway bridge without any high-capacity public transit component), it’s a federal project and we have no real say, at least at the moment. If we want our money better spent we should throw our political support behind either of the two local prime-ministerial candidates in 2015 and hope the oilmen who have taken hold of our nation’s government get swept under by their own operational mismanagement and economic incompetence.

Our city may have better luck negotiating with the PQ, as their minority position and ultra low popularity ratings may be enough to convince them to try and work with their enfant terrible, as opposed to telling Montreal what to do, a losing proposition on any subject.

So it breaks down like this:

The Fed prefers cars and bridges, the PQ prefers the Métro and the city is cautiously suggesting a tram system is in order. The commuter rail network, though valuable, has proven extremely costly to expand with CN and CP generally disinterested in cooperating with the AMT, while the proposed city-to-airport rail link as dead in the water as when they completed the train station in the basement of Trudeau airport’s main terminal some time ago. Aeroports de Montréal was most recently suggesting a monorail, doubtless with its own billion dollar price tag. And though residential expansion off-island has exploded in the last decade, provisions for better STM service in these suburban areas is currently non-existant.

Some commuters living in the Greater Montreal region regularly spend anywhere from two to three hours in traffic, every single day and coming from all directions. This, more than any other factor, is what’s responsible for the degeneration of air quality and the single greatest threat to the long-term viability of sustaining Montreal as a city. As long as we continue to grow, something which I would hope is inevitable, we have to expand public transit service to mitigate the environmental damage caused by so many hundreds of thousands of cars on our roads. Under ideal circumstances, at some point in the future public transit will be the preferred and most convenient method of getting around the metropolitan region. Doing so will not only help us breathe easier and do immeasurable good for the quality of the local environment, but would further serve to allow our roadways longer lifespans and permit vehicle owners to significantly expand the lifespans of their cars. It means savings for the consumer and tax-payer alike over the long-term, something we’d be wise to consider. All the public transit improvement schemes I’ve seen thus far are limited in scope and can only be considered band-aid solutions to far more complex problems.

So where do we go from here?

For one I’d say now is not the time for expansion of the infrastructure of transit, but rather an ideal time to re-imagine, renovate and rehabilitate what we already have.

Why expand the Métro when what we have isn’t being used to its full potential? As an example, the Blue Line remains the least used in the whole system, largely (I would argue) as a consequence of the inconvenience of transferring at Jean-Talon station and the line’s lack of a direct connection with the downtown (consider the popularity and rate of use of the Parc Avenue and Cote-des-Neiges Road express and articulated buses). It just so happens that the Blue Line was originally supposed to intersect the Mount Royal Tunnel at the Université-de-Montréal Métro station. If we were to complete this design the Blue Line would likely operate at full capacity – you’ll notice that trains on the Blue Line are shorter than than the other three. Moreover, the Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line would benefit from an exit at the tunnel’s half-way point and many more potential users.

And it would cost a lot less than an expansion to Anjou. The Blue Line’s proposed eastern expansion would itself be more useful if it offered a more-or-less direct connection with the city centre.

But this brings up two other potential improvements – inter-lining the system and introducing express Métro lines. Inter-lining would permit Métro trains to switch the lines they’re operating on – i.e. a train could go from the Green to Orange line without requiring passengers to switch trains. This could facilitate the introduction of myriad new lines, such as a circular route using the Orange and Blue Lines, or diagonal lines aimed at connecting the first ring urban suburbs and industrial zones directly, as opposed to funnelling everyone through the city core. I can imagine a better distribution of riders this way (which alone could all of a sudden make the while system more useful). Express Métros would simply not stop at certain stations, though this would likely require the development of ‘passing lanes’ or more sophisticated switching and routing systems.

And then there are the improvements that need to be made to most of the existing stations as is, such as basic aesthetic renovations, introduction of elevators for increased accessibility, anti-vandalism treatments (e.g. all those fancy new TV screens don’t have simple plexiglass covers and as such many have been damaged by idiots) and better in-station services, like dépanneurs and public washrooms. Anti-suicide barriers would also be nice.

AMT commuter rail map - 2013
AMT commuter rail map – 2013

With regards to our commuter rail network, this too would be better off without any more expansion. The Train de l’Est project has become a bit of an embarrassment for the AMT, as it is now more than double the initial cost of $300 million and two years behind schedule. On top of it all, there’s an on-going dispute between the AMT and CN as to the new dual-power locomotives and double-decker train wagons procured by the AMT, something which may delay the opening of this train line even further.

Aside from getting this line up and running and finding a solution in which the new train wagons and locomotives could be used, the AMT should prioritize increasing the rate of operation on its network, ideally making all lines run as frequently as the well-used Deux-Montagnes Line (currently the busiest with the highest operational rate of the whole network). Station services need to be improved as well, as almost all are little more than concrete platforms and un-heated glass box shelters; no cafés, no dépanneurs, public washrooms or station attendants. The AMT also has to work out a solution with ADM, CN and CP to establish a rail link to the airport once and for all.

It seems like we’re quick to come up with conceptual renderings of what could be while we drag our collective feet improving that which we’ve already developed. Moreover, I firmly believe the city of Montréal will have to take a leadership role in settling disputes between various transit agencies and the rail giants. We have one of the most comprehensive rail networks of any North American city, but our commuter rail service doesn’t have access to most of the system. Again, an investment in routing and switching technology could help us better optimize what’s already built. City-owned multi-level parking garages at major suburban train stations is another initiative that could maximize the number of commuters, in addition to providing another means of paying for public transit improvements, if not future development. Commuter rail is probably the single best way to get large numbers of people to and from the ever-expanding suburbs, but only if the investment is made to maximize efficiency and convenience.

Proposed Tramway Network developed by the City of Montréal in 2007
Proposed Tramway Network developed by the City of Montréal in 2007

As to the proposed tramways network, there are a lot of good arguments against spending on this kind of public transit at the moment. I would like to see a tram system one day, and believe that it is an ideal system for the city’s urban core, but nonetheless believe we should prioritize making what we already have much better before embarking on new development. François Cardinal provides some excellent arguments to that effect in this article.

I’m in favour of expanding public transit access not only throughout the city, but more importantly in the established suburbs and residential development areas within the broader Greater Montreal region, but I think herein lies one of our biggest problems – we tend to look at public transit either as a city or suburb-specific issue, with various levels of government jostling for different regions of voters. A city such as ours requires better access across the board, no exceptions. Urbanites and suburbanites need better door-to-door service.

However, this must go hand-in-hand with legislation and various other political tools designed to get people to use public transit as the primary means for commuting. What’s destroying our local environment inasmuch as our roadways is primarily the hundreds of thousands of passenger vehicles clogging our roads, all too often going nowhere fast while expelling noxious fumes and carbon dioxide. We all know the drill on this issue.

And we can’t wait for private industry to institute clean vehicles – they’re far too slow. Our own idiotic governments won’t allow electric cars produced here in Québec to be used on our own roads. Perhaps I’m being optimistic in thinking government could institute proactive environmental legislation when the inflated bureaucracy we deal with has such a long and inglorious history of dragging its feet on such vital issues. The city thus needs to take on a leadership role – neither the péquistes or Harper Tories will do much of anything to help our transit system – so far its nothing but delays, potential studies and prohibitive cost projections.

So all that said, I’d prefer we take a step back from discussing expansion and new trams and instead focus on getting the absolute most value out of what currently stands, knocking down inter-organizational conflict and seeking to make public transit as attractive as possible to all citizens. If we can secure higher usage rates across the systems and infrastructure we already have, then and only then can we take a serious look at developing new systems or major expansions to existing networks.

The city of Montreal's current, watered-down Tramways network proposal.
The city of Montreal’s current, watered-down Tramways network proposal.

There’s no question trams could be very useful in the city; the city’s roadways were created with trams in mind, unlike the suburbs that are better served by regular and express bus service. Implementing a tram system in the urban core would allow buses to be re-positioned in more suburban areas, permitting an expansion of suburban public transit access with vehicles we already have. But if people are disinclined from using the bus and Métro, for whatever reason, whatever initial interest there is in trams will likely quickly evaporate. We can’t afford expensive novelties.

Final note – a lot of these projected tram lines closely mirror existing Métro routes. Some would argue this isn’t intelligently designed, that tram lines should go where the Métro doesn’t. On the other hand, if we were planning a major renovation of the Métro network, a surface tram that mirrors the Métro somewhat might not be a terrible idea.

Also, why not co-locate trams on otherwise pedestrian-only streets? St-Catherine’s Street is narrow and consistently jammed with pedestrians; for several summers in a row the street has been closed to cars in the Gay Village, an effort which has not only proven popular but useful as well. Instead of building a tram on René-Lévesque, an urban boulevard specifically designed with cars in mind, why not install it on St-Catherine’s, which was designed with trams in mind, and close that street to cars entirely? A re-developed, pedestrian and tram-centric St-Catherine’s Street could optimize tramway efficiency simply because it would have no cars to compete with.

In any event, just some things to think about.

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?