Goodbye, retro Métro

Montreal’s fleet of stylish subway trains—the oldest in North America—is on the verge of extinction

Goodbye, retro Métro

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Collectively, Montreal’s fleet of Métro trains resembles a giant, rolling anachronism, the long-ago vision of the future conceived and built smack in the middle of the sixties. The trains slow to a stop with the sound of rushing air, then leave the station with an ascending three-note arpeggio (F sharp, B, F sharp–do, do, doooo) that is as quaintly Montreal as steak frites and bière en fut. So is the colour scheme: sky blue with a white stripe—a streaking Fleurdelisé that efficiently ushers some 400,000 people through the city’s innards every day. And soon enough, most of the fleet will disappear.

Starting in 2014, the city’s transport authority will begin mothballing the old trains, replacing them with sleek, silvery, bullet-like carriages. Bombardier and French conglomerate Alstom have partnered to build the new trains, which will be “more spacious, open and inviting,” according to a promotional video, “with well-positioned support poles and bars.”

But whatever the new trains will offer—air suspension, high-definition television screens, a PA system that doesn’t make the conductor sound like he or she is in the throes of death—they will undeniably spell the end of a glorious chapter in the city’s history. Put into service in the mid-1960s, a time of giddy optimism, the Métro trains have been a comfortable constant as the city above shone—and as it went through various stages of hell.

Language woes, caustic politics, the War Measures Act, economic downturns, two referendums, an ice storm, the flight of thousands of its citizens for more English pastures: throughout all the calamities you could always depend on a bubble-bodied, rubber-wheeled, Smurf-coloured train to take you quickly and efficiently where you needed to go.

Montreal has changed. Although they haven’t subsided, those debates over language, culture and identity have certainly lost much of their intensity (or at least shifted elsewhere), while the city itself has for the most part shed its long-running inferiority complex vis-à-vis Toronto. Montreal weathered the recent economic meltdown better than most Canadian cities and, unlike New York or Vancouver, it is still possible to buy a decent-sized house near the Métro line without having to consider live organ donation.

In short, apart from its crumbling infrastructure, bureaucracy-addled government and the occasional mob-related firebombing, Montreal is doing all right, thank you. Doing well, even. And you might say that the new Métro cars, all monolithic brushed steel and eye-grabbing gadgetry, are a reflection of this. Like something you might see in Stockholm, or zipping along in Tokyo. Change is necessary, particularly for the Montreal Métro fleet, which has travelled more than 2.5 billion kilometres­—“The oldest subway fleet in North America,” says Carl Arseneault, the rolling stock maintenance director for the Société de transport de Montréal (STM).

But as Morley Smith suggests, it can also be quite sad. “There are no other Métros in the world that are quite like it, I’m proud to say,” says the 72-year-old Smith. In 1962, as a self-described “kid out of Syracuse Industrial Design,” he landed a job with the firm of architect Jacques Guillon, and was charged with designing a significant part of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau’s dream: a modern, fully underground subway system to service the city’s booming population.

It had been a long time coming: as early as 1930, city planners had suggested sticking Montreal’s tramway system underground because of the traffic chaos it created. “If one [tram] car stops by the curb, the flow of traffic in that direction is immediately reduced to one lane,” complained Montreal Tramway assistant president Robert Watt in a speech that year. (It seems Toronto only recently clued in to this problem with its streetcars.) The idea of an underground system was batted about for several decades without much consequence until Drapeau ran for office and rode into power in 1960 with a promise of making the Métro a reality. Drapeau certainly had big dreams: he thought the Métro network would grow to 160 km to accommodate Montreal’s projected population of seven million people by the year 2000. Reality turned out to be a little more modest: only about a third and a quarter that size, respectively.

Smith’s design was a modification of Paris’s Métro. “It’s very small,” he says of his Montreal subway train. “We were using the French concept of a single tunnel with two tracks. We were constantly fighting with the French designers because they wanted to sell us their design. The reason [the Montreal car] is shaped that way is because I managed to get another three inches by curving the sides to give the inside a bigger dimension. It doesn’t give you the feeling of being in a vehicle. It’s like a house on a trailer bed.”

The colour scheme, meanwhile, was a happy accident. “Drapeau wanted a white car with a red stripe,” Jacques Gillon says. “I had to say, ‘But Mr. Drapeau, that’s Air Canada.’ ” Instead, Guillon and Smith came up with a blue-tinged silver metallic paint. Drapeau, who inspected the new colour with his right-hand transport man, Lucien L’Allier, along with their wives, didn’t like it at all. “So we compromised on baby blue,” says Smith. “It matched Lucien L’Allier’s wife’s sweater.”

Today, all 336 first-generation (MR-63) cars, as well as 423 second generation MR-73s, are still in service, and are maintained for the most part at Youville Shops, a squat brown slab that sits just out of spitting range of the city’s busiest east-west autoroute. Built in 1911, the complex once housed the city’s fleet of tramway cars and then its buses. Today, its 1.5-million-sq.-foot space is dedicated to maintaining both the MR-63 and the MR-73—the latter being the train that, because of its power modulator, emits the signature do-do-dooo sound.

Apart from the tires, which are Michelin-made, few companies still manufacture the Métro components. At Youville, housed in what look like overgrown high school shop classes, workers replicate what is no longer made elsewhere. Some parts have been made here since forever.

“See this?” asks Arseneault, brandishing a planed piece of wood about 40 cm long, four cm thick and as wide as a stick of Juicy Fruit. It smells like it just came out of a deep fryer—which it did. “They’re the brake pads. They’re made out of yellow birch, from Quebec. We douse them in boiling peanut oil and salt water so they don’t heat up.” Why wood? “Regular brake pads are rough on the wheels, and because the Métro is totally enclosed, carbon dust from regular brake pads would be a health concern. Plus, these are cheap. Ten dollars each. We had to fight like hell with the engineers from Bombardier to get them on the new cars.”

Arseneault, who began working on Youville’s shop floor in the ’80s, isn’t sad to see the old fleet disappear. “You know, I don’t get attached to things. For me, it’s more having to deal with the instability that’s going to come with the new technology. We’re used to these machines. We know them very well, because we have people who have worked on them for 25 years. They’re worried about what they’re going to do with themselves.” The old cars will probably be put in a museum somewhere. Arseneault doesn’t expect to visit them once they’re there.

Most other Quebecers are a touch more wistful, it seems. “I get this sense of nostalgia from the Métro cars,” says Dave Lank, an instructor at Concordia who recently moved back to Montreal from Vancouver. “Everything in Vancouver is shiny, glassy and brand new. Here, these are the same cars I travelled on when I was a kid, getting on at Atwater to go to Ben’s Smoked Meat with my grandfather, the first strange time when you go way farther east to see the Expos at Olympic Stadium. It’s a reminder of a time when Montreal did big, bold things, and there’s going to be a disconnect when those new trains come in.”

Though they will be chock full of new technology, the STM has taken pains to incorporate certain holdovers from the old cars in the new—a security blanket of sorts for nostalgic Quebecers. Its new paint scheme, for which Montrealers themselves voted in an online poll, is a sophisticated nod to the flying Fleurdelisé. That do-do-dooo sound will now signal the closing of the doors. And, technology be damned, it’ll still be chunks of Quebec lumber slowing the things down at every station.

Change might be inevitable, but so is attachment. Do-do-dooo.


Goodbye, retro Métro

  1. Every time I've visited Montreal the Metro has been great. Much better than the TTC.

  2. The three-note sound has always reminded me of a horn call, making a metro ride just that but more epic than it should be.

    • I have always figured it was the opening notes for a fanfare of some sort … “Fanfare for the common commuter”.

  3. Expanding the tunnels to serve even more of the ON-ISLAND residential neighbourhoods would probably go a long way to reduce flight to the suburbs.

    So where was their latest expansion? Laval. Making it easier to get downtown from off-island than it is from the northeast region of the island itself. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

    • not to mention the whole of the west of the Island, and a vast stretch north between the two uprights of the Orange Line; problem is, Quebec City "pays" for extensions, so Quebec City decides where they go.

      • But the west of the island isn't all that densely populated, right? Wouldn't better surface transport (i.e. commuter trains that don't run only every half hour at rush-hour and hardly ever any other time) make more sense there?

        I could see getting the Métro to reach the airport, though. Heck, build walls and a roof over an above-ground corridor and call it "indoors" if you have to; it would probably be billion(s) cheaper.

        • The Blue Line should at least go to the Montreal West commuter rail station (this would add new stops in densely populated NDG, including at Concordia's old Loyola Campus), there it could at least connect with the planned downtown-Trudeau express train. That train is meant to use existing track and will be quite a bit cheaper than extending the Metro all the way to Dorval would be. That said, I've always thought that "build walls and a roof over an above-ground corridor and call it "indoors"" would be a sensible way to extend the metro further into lower-density areas, too, let's do it!

          • Didn't original blue line plans call for something like that? At least penetrating somewhat into NDG?

          • yup (and they could still — maybe even before Ottawa gets rail transit!), but the priorities are first to extend:
            – the Blue Line east (much needed!)
            – the western branch of the Orange line two stations (also a good priority)
            – the yellow line who knows where (shouldn't be so big a priority IMO)
            – the Orange line into a complete loop (also shouldn't be so big a priority IMHO)
            … at the same time there's also the Peel-Vieux-Port, Cote-des-Neiges and Parc tram lines, building the Train de l'Est (extric commuter train), electrifying the other trains de banlieu, the aforementiond train to the airport, and a dedicated busway on Pie-IX. Considering the way the procurement of the replacement metro cars has been bungled and delayed (and Montreal's modest growth rate), it's hard to believe that even a fraction of these projects will be built in the next 20 years.

          • The STM isn't necessarily responsible for the delay in replacement metro cars. And forget the modest growth rate, the city is underserved as it is. I can easily see the tram lines and some of the metro extensions within the next 20 years, particularly as oil prices continue to rise.

          • Merci!

          • a sensible way to extend the metro further into lower-density areas, too, let's do it!

            Uh, ok… but I hope you have good shovels and a honkin' Home Depot gift card! I'm free after 2PM this Saturday to help start digging, hammering, whatever…

          • I think the point is that there are still very high density parts of the city that are inadequately served by the metro, and parts of the network are running beyond capacity–there is NO sensible way (or very good reason) to extend the metro into lower-density areas (that goes for you, too, Laval!). It would be a boondoggle.

  4. not very soon at all, but what are you waiting for?

  5. Summertime people-watching in downtown Montreal cannot be beat. Whaddya waiting for? Well, ok, at least wait for summer…

    • The city's one big snowball today. Good for watching people fall down without hurting themselves, at least. :)

  6. While in Montreal, if you happen to see a cute guy zipping
    past on a pink Bianchi or a purple Marinoni, that's me! lol

    • I will keep a look out then, if I ever go :).

  7. Oh!

    I want to go back to Montreal before the original Metro cars disappear because they are unique and great, but I imagine I don't have to hurry.

  8. Do we really have to romanticize the old Metro cars? I agree with other commenters that Montreal's metro system is more reliable, comprehensive, affordable and efficient than the TTC… that's a significant list. And I love how Montreal metro riders line up for the buses – so civilized!

    But the actual subway cars are the worst part of the experience in my opinion. Badly designed, way too hot in the winter, that awful air blowing, uncomfortable seats. I welcome the change!

    • Are you from Montreal? Those trains are iconic, they're as much a part of daily life for Montrealers as the mountain and the river–it's only natural that they will be romanticized. I've always found that taking my jacket off when I'm indoors in the winter prevents me from getting too hot (which, incidentally, the blowing air mitigates). The seats are crazy comfortable for a metro train, and I've got wide shoulders and long legs. You can fall asleep in those chairs (which i have done a couple times on the last train of the night. Fortunately, I don't live too far from Angrignon :)

    • It isn’t more reliable and efficient. Toronto’s trains run far more frequently. Toronto beats Montreal in the comfort factor significantly with air conditioning and wider trains.

  9. I haven’t heard the chimes in a while. I hope they will come back. Their open-ended quality, airy quality is nice – a tiny thing but reminds me of all those little unplanned charming things about my city.

    madeyoulook (above commentor) – very funny! I’ll bring my wheelbarrow…

    • From Halo_Override's report, can you bring a snowblower?

  10. sorry but you can't just say steak and fries and beer on tap in french and claim it's typically montreal. you could have said smoked meat and bagels, or depanneurs!

    • seriously! and since when is steak frites a montreal rather than parisian specialty?! rest of the article's great though.

  11. Now I'm missing home!!! I need to go home soon!!

  12. You all forgot what this "change" is going to cost…. the price of a bus pass is rising DRAMATICALLY and now its only going to cause more people to double think the lease of a car vs the purchase of a Zone 3 bus pass! :(

  13. I agree with Tough Love… STM pass prices are rising dramatically… word of mouth (have not confirmed this yet) is that there will be a rise of up to 14% on stm fares in the future. STM fares were already on the rise through the last 10 or so years, with a significant jump implemented at the beginning of 2011, making stm fares about 50 percent higher than what they used to be in 2002, along with other taxes being implemented. (http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Transit+fares+jump/3904474/story.html).

    In other news, the construction of an arena in Quebec City is being planned, (http://montreal.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110209/mtl_arena_110209/20110210/?hub=MontrealHome), and from I've read, well… let's just say "brace yourselves taxpayers!!"

    Other taxes implemented/in the process of being implemented: about 7% property tax increase, 2 cents on gas tax, new car tax, 1% increase in QST beginning 2011, and another 1% increase planned for 2012… Among other things… Wooohoo!! Oh well…

  14. i live in montreal, take the metro everyday.. everyday! and though the system is far from perfect, actually often annoys me to death having to wait for buses that never come (and this isnt a problem liminted only to the days following a winter storm and delayed snow clearing) or waiting for metros that are stalled (frequently at the same time of the day… sketch much!) and then being late for everything because of a reliance on the stm…. all i can say is that i would gladly keep the existing metro cars because i dont see anything wrong with them and i do have a problem with paying ridiculous amounts of money for my bus pass when so many little things arent being done to improve the metro system overall…. i seriously hope that these new cars are worth the money and effort; that we can still have a reasonably comfortable ride (i was just happy to see that they are changing the design so that the standing room is a bit more efficient)…. as long as they keep that do-doo-doooo i guess in the end, itll all work out.

  15. The first train will arrive in June/July 2013 for testing, while the others will begin coming in in 2014. The MR-63s will all be gone by 2017, so they should make it just beyond a full 50 years of service.

  16. Whoever wrote this is obviously not from montreal nor have they spent a lot of their time living there.

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