Tag Archives: Montréal Métro

Actuaries make poor urban planners

Vancouver's Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM
Vancouver’s Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM

I can’t believe it. I’ve been stymied by light-rail.

And light-rail development in Montreal has been stymied by what appears to be a near-total lack of consultation or coordination by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec with City Hall nor any of the numerous transit agencies operating in Greater Montreal.

This project may be responsible for some grey hairs I noticed recently; not in my lifetime has there been a transit project as audacious, innovative and potentially rewarding as the Caisse’s Réseau Électrique Métropolitain (REM).

Unfortunately, and just like every transit project announced in my lifetime, a lack of organization and consultation has likely doomed what might have been a major boon for local commuters.

This light-rail project gave me serious writer’s block. What’s the point writing about Montreal’s potential when every good idea we seem to have is so riddled with inconsistencies and flaws it’ll never get off the drawing board? The citizens of Montreal are used to being disappointed, and chronicling a city’s endemic disappointment hardly makes for good reading.

I wanted to take a closer look at some aspects of this project I found potentially innovative, but every time I started to write over the past week or so I discovered another news item detailing this project’s many defects. It wasn’t inspiring. I didn’t want to believe the cynics who initially scoffed at the REM for being too ambitious and/or requiring too much in funds from austerity-driven governments. Keep in mind the first criticism – and one of PKP’s last as leader of the PQ – was that the light-rail plan was over-focused on the suburbs at the expense of a long-planned (and now officially dormant) project to extend the Blue Line of the Métro.

Most of the criticism seemed unwarranted to me. Just because most of our recent transit and transport infrastructure endeavours have lagged behind schedule despite overinflated budgets doesn’t mean this is necessarily how things are done. And to a province wary of endemic corruption and collusion between the provincial transport ministry and the construction industry, the Caisse’s plan killed two birds with one stone: it takes initiative, and takes some of the financial burden off the public purse.

Pension funds financing infrastructure development is a smart solution to the problems that come with electing unimaginative austerity-driven governments and expecting them to ‘do more with less’.

Moreover, the Caisse’s expedited timescale to complete the project, in addition to its scale and scope, is reminiscent of Montreal’s single-greatest infrastructure success story, that of the Métro. The very first iteration of the Métro included 26 stations across three lines, and it was opened on time and in the black, entirely financed by the City of Montreal. It also only took four and a half years to build, and that was fifty years ago. The Caisse’s project is supposed to be ready in four years.

While I’d still like to see this project realized, the defects, shortcomings and problems that have come to light in the past two weeks must be addressed. Otherwise, the CDPQ’s REM project may end up causing more problems than it is worth.

Here’s a list of every reported problem with the REM so far:

– The REM is incompatible with the AMT network, and AMT trains will not be able to use the Mount Royal Tunnel. The under-performing Train de l’Est will be cut off from accessing the city centre via Central Station, and the Deux Montagnes Line will be eliminated altogether.

– This is particularly unfortunate because the AMT just sunk $300 million into building a maintenance depot to service those trains. Once the REM comes online the depot will service only a quarter of the trains it was designed to handle. On top of that, it was the AMT that purchased the Mount Royal Tunnel from CN for $92 million specifically so that it could execute renovations to expand the tunnel’s capacity.

– Light-rail systems are typically designed to be compatible with heavy-rail, such as the AMT’s commuter trains, and Montreal has a large railway network that would ideally be accessible to all AMT and future REM trains. If the Mount Royal Tunnel is rendered inaccessible to commuter rail it’s probable ridership on the $744 million Mascouche Line will decrease, and the REM may effectively prohibit its own potential future expansion.

– The system may require expropriations and demolitions, including two buildings of heritage value, the Rodier and the New City Gas. A total of seventy buildings in Montreal and Brossard have been put on notice by the Quebec government, despite the province having not yet set funds aside for the project. Worse, the incompatibility issue prevents the REM from using existing tracks on the CN viaduct. Buildings may be demolished to build a railway next to existing railways.

– Access to the airport seems to be reserved for the branch of the line running between it and Central Station. Passengers boarding on the Sainte-Anne or Deux-Montagnes branches will have to disembark at Bois-Franc and cross to the opposite platform to await an airport-bound train. From the looks of things, passengers airport-bound from the South Shore will have to disembark and transfer at Central Station.

– The locations of the Saint-Anne’s and Rive-Sud termini are suspicious; the latter is in an empty field across from the Dix-30 shopping complex, and the former adjacent to the Anse-a-l’Orme Trail. This has West Island conservationists concerned the city’s going to push through on a 5,000 home residential development next to the station. While encouraging public transit use amongst new homeowners is doubtless a good notion, it’s self-defeating if mass-transit is being oriented towards kickstarting large low-density housing projects.

– Initial discussions between the CDPQ and the city were conducted in secret, but on Monday City Councillor Craig Sauvé tweeted that Mayor Coderre now says his administration wasn’t consulted by the Caisse at all.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, the CDPQ clearly hasn’t yet consulted with the STM about hooking up the Métro to the REM at McGill and Edouard-Montpetit. I cannot stress this enough: this must be done as part of the first phase. Completing tunnel renovations and then re-renovating to build additional stations is so illogical writing that sentence actually gave me a nosebleed.

Oh wait: it actually get worse. The REM may actually be less efficient and less effective than what’s currently in service, especially in terms of passenger capacity on the Deux Montagnes Line. Anton Dubrau is anticipating crowded trains and platforms from day one.

Remember: this project doesn’t get off the ground without public money, and politicians (ostensibly) listen to their constituents. Having the Caisse fund this project is great, but before any actual work is done (or people forced from their homes and businesses), for the love of god let’s just try – once – to fix clearly identified problems before ‘the shovels pierce the soil.’

Otherwise, the REM may actually make public transit an inconvenient burden for everyone.

Hardly a wise move for the people responsible for our pensions…

Tempest in a Teapot

New Azur Métro train test run - 2013
New Azur Métro train test run – 2013

Story out today in the Journal de Montréal about how the Azur Métro cars will be ‘too big and too heavy’ to operate in our Métro tunnels and that work had to be done to adjust the infrastructure so as to prevent trains from tipping over is about as good as it gets in terms of local media’s response to a slow news day.

The article is presented in such a fashion that makes it seem the STM only just found out about this and that these renovations may be somehow related to the delay in receiving the new Métro cars, which were initially due last July but now likely won’t be in service until the end of this year.

But according to the STM (and mentioned in the JdeM article), they new about the requirement to modify a 200 metre stretch of the Orange Line to accommodate the new trains from day one, and that the work has already been completed and factored into the overall budget.

If this is indeed the case and the STM isn’t perjuring itself then there isn’t much of a story in the first place. Yes, the new Bombardier-Alstom Azur Métro trains are heavier and bigger and will even consume more electricity than their predecessors but all of this was expected and understood since day one.

After all, these are entirely new vehicles. They are not carbon copies of the existing MR-63 and MR-73 trains. They’re bigger to accommodate more passengers. They utilize new technology. They will have a different layout and, perhaps most importantly, will permit transit users to move between Métro cars while the train is in motion. I think it’s safe to assume that, if you’re building something entirely new, it might not perfectly fit in a system it wasn’t designed for.

But, with all that in mind, the modification to the tunnels only seems to have involved 200 metres out of a total length of 71 kilometres.

In other words, less than half a percent of the Métro system needed to be modified for these vehicles. Peanuts. The STM knew this and made the decision to modify a portion of the tunnel rather than scrap the project and go back to the drawing board.

If we want to have a conversation about how private enterprise can’t ever seem to deliver a government project on time and under budget, this is another conversation (and one I’d say is well worth having). It seems to me that, time and again and at various levels of government, contractors working on government-sponsored mega projects are consistently late and chronically appealing for more money.

This is true about our new Métro cars, about the Train de l’Est project, about double-decker dual-power commuter trains, about fighter jets and maritime helicopters.

Every time government appeals to the private sector to work on public projects, they pitch it against an illogical assumption the alternative is to have the state build a factory and assume all related project costs. Over and over we’re told that appealing to the private sector saves money and will get the job done faster because of ‘the principles that guide the corporate world’ are ostensibly principles that prioritize efficiency and staying true to your word vis-a-vis project cost and delivery.

Bullshit.

The private sector’s interest in government contracts big and small is twofold, but neither has anything to do with efficiency and/or cost control. The interest lies chiefly in that a) government typically continues throwing money at the project and extending deadlines to save face and b) there are no repercussions to the provider, regardless of how late or how over-budget the project is, because they typically arrange to be the sole provider for after the fact maintenance, not to mention the fact that they own type certificates and other key pieces of intellectual capital that will keep whatever’s being built working. If a government upsets the private firm, they have very little recourse and will likely pay dearly at the polls. It’s not terribly expedient for a politician to campaign on keeping government contractors in check. People respond much better to hearing how much a politician intends on spending rather than how they plan on saving money.

We want to feel wealthy, not cheap, and we want our politicians to reflect this.

Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things at a reasonable, audited cost on the timeline set by the people.

Plus que ça change…

His Majesty's Theatre, ca. 1910
His Majesty’s Theatre, ca. 1910

A loyal reader posted this photograph in response to a question about where one can find archival street scenes of Montreal. The McCord Museum has the famed Notman collection, which provides an incredibly fascinating glimpse into the lives of Montrealers, and what their city looked like, around the turn the 20th century.

Notman was king instagrammer of his time, in a certain way of thinking.

The photo above is of His Majesty’s Theatre, once the city’s premier theatre and host to some of the city’s first major opera companies and regular performances of chamber music. It had a capacity for 1750 people and two balconies, and over time would host a wide variety of performers, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Paul Robeson.

Now can you guess where this important landmark once stood?

Here:

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 9.03.34 PM

Just up from Saint Catherine’s on the east side of Guy. I don’t know whether this was done on purpose, though I have a feeling it was, but you’ll notice that the facade of Concordia’s EV building seems to mimic the facade of the former theatre. His Majesty’s Theatre was demolished in 1963, around the same time pretty much everything else up Guy was ripped up as Boul. de Maisonneuve was created on top of the new Métro line.

In any event I thought it was at the very least a neat coincidence.

But what really struck me about the photo on top was the trees.

Big badass oaks and elms and maples growing taller than most triplexes, and enough of them to make it seem as though some roads disappear off into the woods.

Many Notman photos have this arboreal quality about them. Streets as diverse as Saint Denis, Sherbrooke, Saint Catherine’s, the former Dorchester (now René-Lévesque) boulevards etc. were once all lined with mature, impressive trees. Parc Avenue was apparently so well forested the great limbs intertwined over the street to provide a kind of canopy that could protect you from even the most torrential of downpours.

I look out my back window onto the alley, a typical Saint Henri alleyway, with trees climbing ever skyward, dwarfing the brownstones below them. In winter I can see to the end of the block. In summer I can’t see further than the end of my building, for everything else is masked in green.

Today there are parts of the city where great trees will likely never grow again, for large buildings stacked too close together block out necessary sunlight. Even on a street as wide as McGill College, the trees planted twenty years ago are all sickly looking; many have been removed outright.

I think we’d be wise to take a long look at these old photos and ask ourselves whether we could afford to be a little greener. Not just for aesthetics, there are practical reasons to want to do this, chief among them to increase the quality of the air we breathe and to provide a bulwark against seasonal flooding. Each tree, each patch of green acting like a sponge and a vent at the same time.

Perhaps our city needs to be reforested…