Nine Reasons Why the Métro Blue Line Won’t be Extended Above Ground

Ceci n'est pas une système de tram
Ceci n’est pas une système de tram

Call it a problem of thinking aloud…

Last Wednesday Denis Coderre was musing about public transit expansion and improvement when he let slip that he thought it might be possible for the Blue Line’s projected expansion to be moved outdoors.

His argument was simple Рthe average cost of at-grade light rail is roughly a quarter of what it would cost to extend the M̩tro underground.

And this is true, to a point.

However, there are several reasons why the Métro cannot be expanded outdoors, which I’ve listed here:

1. Our Métro trains aren’t designed to be used outside. This is true of the existing Métro trains as well as the new Azur trains (production of which has been delayed six months because the automated control software doesn’t work – the trainsets were ordered in 2010); ergo, if the Blue Line were extended above ground, the line would require an entirely new set of trains designed with outdoor operations in mind.

2. It’s because the system is ‘sealed off’ from the elements that we’ve been able to get so much service out of our Métro trains. The oldest trains have been in service since 1966. They would not have lasted nearly as long had they had to contend with snow, slush, corrosive road salt etc. (not to mention the wear and tear on the exposed tracks and the problems inherent with using an electrified third rail at ground level). We want the Azurs to be inservice even longer than the MR-63s and MR-73s – exposing them to the elements they weren’t designed to encounter will likely result in a shorter operational lifespan.

3. Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely new train be created to operate both inside tunnels and above ground, and this hypothetical train could operate exclusively on the Blue Line. This would be expensive. It would also prevent any future ‘interlining’ initiatives (wherein trains could hypothetically switch lines while in operation, offering more potential routes) and eliminate an efficient aspect of the Métro’s original design. If the whole reason behind considering the above ground extension option is cost effectiveness and efficiency, this is the wrong way to go about it.

4. Subterranean mass transit systems are subterranean for a reason. Usually, the presence of buildings above ground is the chief motivating factor for burrowing underneath. This is pretty elementary. It’s also why subway systems are typically found in the most densely populated parts of the city. So we need to ask ourselves – where is this above ground extension supposed to go? The AMT’s plan has been to follow Jean Talon Boulevard east from Saint-Michel station towards a likely terminus at the junction of highways 40 and 25 at the Galleries d’Anjou. If it’s too expensive to tunnel underground, how expensive will it be to expropriate the land necessary for a new above ground rail line?

5. Alternatively, if the above ground extension were to be simply a tram line running on Jean Talon Boulevard, why go to the trouble of integrating it into the Métro system? Call it a tram and have people transfer onto the Métro at Saint-Michel. Again, if keeping costs down is the ultimate goal, creating a Métro line that requires its own trains and operates both as a subway and a tram is not the way to go about it. It would require a substantial investment in new technology and infrastructure, and the Blue Line simply doesn’t generate enough traffic to merit it. The Blue Line is underused – it is the only Métro line to use six car trains rather than the standard nine car trains.

6. Trams are fundamentally different from the Métro and have different service expectations. Our Métro trains don’t have to contend with traffic, their routing and speed is centrally controlled by a computer. Unless the tram line is grade separated or otherwise runs on an express right of way, it would have to deal with traffic congestion on the street it runs on. Automated controls wouldn’t work with half the line having to deal with street traffic. Again, this would be an expensive alternative to what’s already assumed to be too expensive.

7. The mayor is right to be thinking with an eye to efficiency. Yes, tunnels are expensive and yes, light rail systems offer an efficient alternative. There’s considerable interest in developing a mass transit system based on standard gauge railways – which Montreal has in excess – and, based on the most recent news, will be building more of. Light rail’s main advantage is that it uses the same tracks used by heavy rail – freight, passenger and commuter – but can also be integrated into the existing roadway network. The other advantage is that a hypothetical light rail system would likely be electrically powered by overhead wires, the same method currently favoured by the AMT for its commuter rail lines. But integrating light rail with our existing Métro system would likely be a step too far, presenting a multitude of new costs. For this reason we should be prioritizing tram development over the Blue Line extension generally speaking.

8. But this doesn’t mean we should rule out the Métro altogether. If the province has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on the Métro, spend it on system improvement first. Before expanding, we need to assess what we have and bring it up to the highest possible standard. If there are deficiencies in the current system design, fix those defects first. Consider how few of our Métro stations are universally accessible. Or the complete and total lack of public washrooms. And let’s face it – some of our stations are downright ugly and most are aesthetically dated. Renovating and improving what we have could help encourage greater use and fundamentally, this ought to be our primary concern. Moreover, is the Blue Line the most deserving and requiring of expansion? Wouldn’t it be more effective and useful to close the Orange Line loop instead? Or to improve the tracks so as to permit line-switching, in turn allowing for express Métro trains?

Isometric view of Edouard-Montpetit Métro station's original design

9. And if the money is to be spent specifically on the Blue Line, wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the line’s usefulness? One of the reasons I suspect is responsible for the generally lower usage rate and smaller trains on the Blue Line is that it doesn’t connect directly to the downtown core, but rather serves to move people to either side of the Orange Line. Originally, the Blue Line was supposed to be connected to the Mount Royal Tunnel at Edouard-Montpetit station, permitting Métro users to transfer onto commuter trains underground for the five minute trip to Gare Centrale. If there was ever an improvement to make, this is it. It would give the Blue Line an entirely new raison-d’etre, cut down on passenger congestion on the Orange Line and Parc and Cote-des-Neiges bus corridors. Most importantly, it would provide an excellent impetus to Blue Line expansion in both directions, given that the Métro primarily serves to move citizens between the urban first ring residential neighbourhoods and the Central Business District.

Now, all that said, a few things to consider. The Blue Line extension project was a PQ initiative and so far all it is is a feasibility study whose results are due later on this year. The AMT is not actively planning a new Métro Line, just doing a study on an extension project that dates back to the mid-1980s. I’m not sure what it is they’re studying for the umpteenth time. The current Liberal government is not actively pursuing the Blue Line project – the official line is ‘wait for the feasibility study’.

Light rail seems to have a bright future in our city – based on the recent ‘agreement in principle’ with the Caisse de Dépot et Placement concerning infrastructure project financing, rail systems will be prioritized in the near term (such as the Train de l’Ouest) and light rail will hopefully be integrated into the new Champlain Bridge and airport express projects. Light rail is an attractive and generally uncomplicated option.

So let’s not re-invent the wheel trying to integrate outdoor rail systems with a very unique subway.

I don’t think we can handle any more feasibility studies.

A Thousand Words for this City in Time

Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1963 - Archives de Montréal
Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1962 РArchives de Montr̩al

I don’t know for certain but I’m guessing this shot was taken in the summer of 1962 or 1963.

It fascinates me because it shows our city at a crucial moment of transition.

Look closely at this photograph and think about what you don’t see.

No Bonaventure Expressway. No Ville Marie Expressway. No Métro. No Expo. No Tour de la Bourse nor Chateau Champlain.

And consider what you do see. Large neighbourhoods now lost to time; the Red Light, Griffintown, Goose Village, Faubourg à m’lasse.

This is Montreal right before the slum clearance gets thrown into full swing, before the era of the wrecking ball. Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance has already been built but despite it’s arguable success as a housing project, would never be replicated in our city. There were many other massive, somewhat utopian housing projects intended for downtown Montreal, but the few that were ultimately realized, like Habitat 67, would wind up condos auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For many this was not a particularly good time to live in Montreal, even if the economy was arguably stronger and there were greater local opportunities. For far too many, this photo is of a moment right before mass expropriations and the intentional destruction of urban neighbourhoods in the presumed name of progress.

Dorchester Boulevard has been widened by this point and serves notice of the next phase of apparent urban renewal – the highways. You can see the blacktop cutting a nice wide swath through the downtown, reminiscent of the Lachine Canal further south – neat and boxy, the next commercial artery. Dorchester was widened at the expense of its former estates and grand churches throughout the 1950s, expanded from a quiet and meandering tree-lined residential street into a stately minor highway.

The construction of the Bonaventure, Decarie and Ville Marie expressways further hampered the livability of the city for a considerable period of time, and we’re fortunate that there are plans in place to a) eliminate the Bonaventure expressway viaduct downtown and b) continue covering over the Ville Marie. In time we can only hope the remaining exposed sections of urban highway that have so thoroughly divided the city are eliminated as barriers. It’s a crucial component of our city’s urban rehabilitation.

This is Montreal at a crossroads. The end of the North American colonial metropolis, the beginnings of both the international and the self-conscious city.

The city you’re looking at was much smaller, geographically, than it is today, and when this photo was taken in 1962 the city’s population was only about 1.2 million people. The population of Montreal would grow to nearly 1.3 million people by mid-decade, but then depopulated by about 300,000 people over the course of the next thirty years. The population of Montreal didn’t surpass the high water mark of 1966 until 2006, and only as a result of the municipal reorganization and forced annexations of some populous on-island suburbs.

The reason I point this out is because this photograph represents the kind of built environment that developed to accommodate a city population that was once far more tightly packed at its core.

Consider this. Were you to get in an airplane and fly to the same spot today and take another photograph and compare the two, you’d see there were once many more buildings in this city, though today we have many more tall and otherwise large buildings occupying massive pieces of urban real estate. In the photo above you see a downtown where commerce, retail, residences, industries and institutions existed practically one atop another. Today you’d see a largely corporate sector that in some respects has very little to do with what Montreal actually is. Industry and residential areas have been pushed to the periphery.

Zooming in you can see Montreal’s downtown was once filled with a great variety of smaller office buildings, not to mention traditional triplexes, in places we no longer associate with small businesses or neighbourhoods. Much of the human scale architecture, the fundamentals of city-building, was gutted in the name of civic improvement, and worse, was done so in an area of exceptional architectural variety and vitality.

But such as it is, it’s history. What’s done is done. We would be wise not to develop our city so haphazardly and inconsiderately in the future.

Now, all that said…

Looking at this photograph I also see just how far we’ve come. In the thirty years after this photo was taken downtown Montreal transformed into a massive parking lot and the urban vitality of the city suffered. All too often whole blocks were wiped out before the intended replacement project had even gained funding (Overdale immediately comes to mind). Complexe Guy-Favreau, as an example, was an open pit for much of the 1970s. At one point the intersection of McGill College and Boul. de Maisonneuve was four parking lots and the Champ de Mars was a parking lot too (before someone had the bright idea to turn it back into a commanding public green and local historical site). Demolition teams tore strips through the cityscape to install Métro lines and highways, obliterating nearly everything in their paths with no concern paid to the negative effects it would have on local livability.

We don’t develop like this anymore, and it seems as though a lot of recent attention – broadly speaking over the course of the last twenty years or so – has been placed on rehabilitation and rejuvenation, both of the core and the first ring suburbs (like NDG, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, Plateau and Mile End).

There’s no doubt in my mind Montreal is a superior city to live in today than at any point since this photo was taken. The city has more to offer its citizens today than it ever has, and I hope we soon start to realize this. For as great as past achievements may have been, they do not compare to what our accrued potential has made us capable of.

Thoughts on a Grim Day

kissing_hebdo

Some very foolish, backwards people did an awful thing today. In a misguided attempt to satisfy the insane demands of their purported faith, three men stormed the offices of a satirical French magazine and shot ten people dead. They then killed two police officers, one pathetically as he pled for mercy lying prone on the ground. That man, 42 year old Merabet Ahmed, was a Muslim. I’m quite certain the faith of the dead officer was vastly different, and indeed in innumerable ways better, than whatever sick corruption manifested itself as faith in the minds of the gunmen.

The magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked and a dozen people massacred because three young men had committed themselves to the extreme end of a religion, and believed that the magazine’s depictions of the Muslim prophet Mohammad was a blasphemy so extreme and heinous the only appropriate reaction was to gun down the cartoonists responsible.

What sins did those people commit, to warrant their deaths?

Illustration?

Caricature?

There is no justification for such violence. And indeed the violence is so unjustifiable and sickening it reminds me why I’m convinced religious fundamentalism of any kind is a nefarious social pathology.

But worse was how we in the decadent West reacted.

It upsets me to no end that some would argue this nearly insignificant weekly satirical newsmagazine had it coming, or that they baited religious fanatics into being attacked.

Who cares how they illustrated Mohammad? Should we not live in a society free the restrictions of any one particular religious dogma? Am I not free to doodle whichever deity I should choose?

It confounded me to see people of ‘the left’ argue that the illustrations had been perceived as racist or otherwise culturally insensitive. For one, the prohibition on visual representations of the man known as Mohammad are unique to extremist Sunnis. Why should anyone give two shits about their obscure rules – neither Canada nor France is a caliphate.

And Islam is not a race.

It’s a religion that purports to be multi-racial and all-encompassing. It’s a set of values and a collection of ideas, and ideas are fair ground to be mocked, belittled, dismissed etc. If anything, the Sunni extremists who perpetrated the attack want their understanding of Islam to be the dominant form, and believe further that their racial identity as Sunnis gives them the right to dictate Mohammad’s teachings. They are the racists for pushing a Sunni Supremacist worldview. They’re fascists too. The cartoons were not ‘racist’ even though they may have been tasteless, but they sure as hell were critical of of those who want to turn back the clock on human evolution by appealing to religious fundamentalism, and severely curtail individual rights and freedoms.

It should be of primary concern to all those who want to defend free speech to acknowledge this means defending all that you personally disagree with as well.

As an example, I cannot morally support Quebec independence, pro-lifers or death penalty advocates, but in our society they have every right to express themselves. Should they, or I, choose to belittle/undercut our own positions by stooping to the level of mocking the rhetorical opponent, the onus is on the audience to consider that debasement as well, in context, and weigh it against whatever other pertinent information is available.

It shouldn’t have to be spelled out like that, least of all to those on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and thought are the most important, fundamental freedoms in a liberal democracy.

And yet, when it came time to show some true solidarity, The Associated Press, the Daily Telegraph, CNN, New York Daily News and from what I can tell, an unfortunate number of Canadian news outlets have decided that they would rather censor Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures and cover pages in their news reports.

There’s a word for this: cowardice

The unfortunate reality is that, as damaging and despicable as today’s terrorist attack in Paris is, it’s not nearly as damaging and despicable as our own media’s self-imposed censorship.

The only thing more insane than gunning people down for ostensibly mocking a 6th century merchant who claimed divine revelation is for ostensibly secular news and media corporations to defend the outrage of religious fanatics by supporting their efforts at censorship.

Censoring the images does nothing to defend the rights, values and responsibilities of our society. It does the exact opposite.

Worse, it encourages terrorism, because it demonstrates just how quickly we’re willing to compromise our values and further demonstrates that violence can be used as an effective tool against the apparent ‘excesses’ of Western secularism, free speech and liberal democratic tradition.

It is pathetic and perverted that news organizations in Canada and the United States, organizations that have a civic responsibility to defend the public interest against censorship, have collectively decided to fold like umbrellas and censor themselves.

If I can put it simply, this is literally how the terrorists win.

State secularization and political and economic socialization are fundamental aspects of the progressive evolution of our species. Today, the wretched fist of the Middle Ages, of barbarism, struck a satirical magazine in early 21st century Paris. Twelve people dead because they dared imagine what a 6th century Arabian might look like, and dared further to criticize the beliefs and practices of that man’s most insane followers.

And in the supposedly free and learned West, the progressives blamed the victim and the media tacitly endorsed censorship.

It was a very grim day indeed.