Tag Archives: STM

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…

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism*

Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington
Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington

Michael Sabia can’t catch a break.

First he faced opposition for even being considered for the role of CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) back in 2009. It was quickly pointed out that an English-speaking Canadian, born in Hamilton, would become the head of the Caisse, the institutional investor that manages a portfolio of public and para-public pensions in Quebec, arguably one of the province’s greatest economic accomplishments. Seven years ago, former premier Bernard Landry was concerned Sabia would bring in unwanted “Canadian national culture” (whatever that means) and poison the well of the cornerstone of Québec, Inc.

And how!

Under Sabia’s leadership, the Caisse has grown considerably since losing $40 billion in 2008. At the beginning of this year, it managed net assets of $248 billion.

Now the Caisse’s leader wants to invest in public transit development in Montreal, proposing the single largest transit development project since the first iteration of the Métro was built fifty years ago, not to mention the prospect of 7,500 jobs created over the next four years. If everything works out, within four years a vast geographic area within Greater Montreal will have access to a twenty-nine station mass transit system connecting the urban core with Brossard, Deux-Montagnes, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and the airport.

And we’ll likely be riding in automated trains built by Bombardier.

Nonetheless, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, among others, is concerned the new system ignores the central and eastern parts of the city. The Parti Québécois leader undoubtedly wants some kind of commitment to the long-planned Blue Line extension towards Anjou, as the PQ got the ball rolling on studies for this long-planned extension with much fanfare back in 2012.

But let’s be real for a moment: all of Greater Montreal has been neglected vis-a-vis public transit development for quite some time, and it’s entirely a consequence of the unending public transit ping-pong match between competing parties and levels of government. The Caisse’s plan is ambitious, but right now is no more real than the Blue Line, the Azur (still haven’t rid it despite near daily Orange Line use… it’s a ghost) or a catapult to the Moon.

It’s completely unreasonable to suppose any part of the much-discussed light rail system proposed Friday is in any way, shape or form politically-motivated.

If anything, the proposed light rail system seems motivated chiefly by keeping costs comparatively low. The plan, if realized, will use existing, automated technology (likely the Bombardier Innovia Metro design) on track largely already owned by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport. The provincial public pension investor has proposed a five and half billion dollar public transit expansion project, the single most audacious plan seen in Montreal in fifty years, and is volunteering $3 billion to kickstart the program.

And this is precisely what we want the CDPQ to do: invest our pensions in necessary mega-projects that will create local jobs, employ local expertise, and are based on prior recent successes so as to guarantee a strong return on investment. The CDPQ is one of the financiers of Vancouver’s Canada Line, a light rail line that connects the city’s downtown with Richmond and the airport, opened in time for the 2010 Winter Games.

So they’ve done this before and it works, and Sabia’s recent success at the helm of the CDPQ gives us reason to be hopeful this proposal will succeed.

If the full version of the project is realized by 2020, Michael Sabia and the Caisse will have managed to out-do the comparative light-speed pace of the construction of the first iteration of the Métro, and a vast swath of Greater Montreal could be served by this system within four years.

Though the proposal does not include branches towards the eastern sectors of the metropolitan city, the sheer number of people this system could conceivably serve would be so great there would ultimately be a net benefit to all sectors of the metro region by virtue of fewer cars on our roadways and highways on a day to day basis.

Crucially, given the expected use of existing railway infrastructure, it’s entirely conceivable this system could be expanded to all corners of Greater Montreal. Moreover, light rail systems (such as this one) can share the track with larger heavy rail, such as the AMT’s current commuter train network. Either the Caisse’s LRT will gradually replace the AMT network, or they’ll share the track and compliment one another.

Either way, if this system is fully realized, we all get to breathe a little easier, and congestion becomes less of a problem.

The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines
The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines

But herein lies the rub: though the CDPQ’s plan is ambitious and headed in the right direction (both in terms of how it will be financed and what parts of the city it will connect), it needs to be integrated into the rest of the city’s mass transit systems from the get-go.

I was very happy to see that the Caisse has indicated a desire to do so in that they listed two potential stations (Edouard-Montpetit and McGill) that would allow the light rail system to connect directly to the Blue and Green lines of the Métro. This not only makes the LRT system more useful and accessible generally-speaking, it would also permit the Blue Line to connect more or less directly to the urban core, long the line’s major handicap.

I’ve always been in favour of extending the Blue Line to Anjou if the line is first connected, by means of the Mount Royal Tunnel, to the city centre, as this will help get that line’s ridership up to where it ought to be. As it is, it’s the least used line in the Métro network. There’s no sense extending it if the root cause of its underperformance isn’t addressed first.

So if I could make a very strong suggestion to the Caisse it is this: work with the STM and AMT and ensure the whole plan illustrated above is realized as the first phase, and seek the greatest possible degree of integration with the extant Métro and commuter rail network. In this way, and perhaps only this way, will they quickly recoup their investment and lay the foundation for the Blue Line’s eventual extension.

I really can’t imagine it working out in any other way.

I’m oddly hopeful politics will not rear its ugly head and screw up this plan, as I’m convinced we can’t afford to wait much longer and that it would ultimately prove exceptionally useful in accomplishing what should be a clear goal for our city: get cars off the road and increase daily mass transit system usage. I find the Caisse’s plan very encouraging, despite my near endemic cynicism and the ample proof we’re not very good getting things built or delivered on-time.

But who knows, maybe things change.

Or maybe once in a while it takes an outsider to get us back on track.

Initially I wanted to write about how this proposed system will work in the broader scheme of things, what this might mean for homeowners living in the expansive corridor to be served by this light rail system, and what kind of organizational response is needed to provide a truly world-class mass transit system at large. But given that we’re already 1300 words in, that’ll have to wait for another time.

*One of former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s more colourful quotes. Agnew was the second and most recent VP to resign from office, and so far the only to do so as a result of criminal charges, these including: extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy, all while he was holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland and Vice-President. Journalist and historian Gary Willis described Agnew as “No man ever came to market with less seductive goods, and no man ever got a better price for what he had to offer.”

Snowdon Theatre Fire, The Lowest Point & Social Media

Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire - posted to mtlurb
Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire – posted to mtlurb

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.

However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.

Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.

But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.

At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”

The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.

In an astounding coincidence, on the very same day that photographs, like the one above, emerged online of several teenagers apparently starting a fire on the second floor of the abandoned Snowdon Theatre, this video of several people galavanting through the Métro tunnels was posted to YouTube and widely distributed on local social media networks.

Montreal police are now both searching for the teens suspected of starting the fire and have opened an investigation into how the Métro tunnels (and trains) were accessed by the creators of ‘Lowest Point in Montreal’.

In the latter case, the film crew accessed one tunnel while the Métro was still in operation, and then proceeded to make their way into the rear conductor’s cabin of an operational train, locking the door when accosted by an STM employee. As La Presse notes, there’s a safety issue inasmuch as there’s a security issue. It was just last week that Daesh sympathizers detonated bombs in a Brussels Métro station; the film crew in the ‘Lowest Point’ video had access to Métro controls, the track, and service tunnels and the various equipment kept in those tunnels. My guess is they were probably down in the tunnels for more than hour, and evaded STM security throughout.

Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.

I’m torn, really. I feel creeping adulthood and my gut says “don’t go exploring Métro tunnels”, especially not when the trains are actually in operation. It’s immensely dangerous, not to mention inconvenient for thousands or tens of thousands of people who may be affected by a temporary line closure. I think the code ‘900-02’ announces a suspected infiltration of the tunnels; if either an STM employee or the system’s CCTV system suspects there’s someone in the tunnels, they have to call it in, close it down and investigate.

So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.

That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.

It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.

***

Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.

Gravenor insinuates that there’s “…a conscious or subconscious will to eradicate this beautiful Art Deco building and what it symbolically represents.”

I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.

But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).

In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?

Mo’ Métro blues…

Azur Métro train rendering

The first Azur Métro train is set to start rolling Sunday at 10:00 am on the Orange Line.

Huzzah!

The Quebec government awarded the contract to build 468 MPM-10 (Azur) Métro cars (forming 52 nine-car trains) to the Bombardier-Alstom consortium back in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion.

Deliveries were expected to begin in 2014, and one prototype was delivered to begin in-tunnel testing. This led to the discovery of unexpected complications, namely insufficient electrical power. Prior complications included the discovery a 200-meter section of the Orange Line was a touch smaller than the rest, requiring renovations to prevent the new Azurs from ‘grinding’ against the tunnel walls or ceiling.

In January of 2015 work on the project was suspended for six months in order for the consortium to work out problems with the trains’ automated switching software.

And now, one completed train has been delivered for entry into service. It is the first new Métro train in forty years and the third generation of trains to operate in the system. The Azurs will operate on the Orange and Blue lines, displacing the second-generation MR-73 trains onto the Green and Yellow lines. The MR-73s entered into service in 1976 and were refurbished in 2005-2008. The MR-63s currently operating on the Green and Yellow lines are fifty years old and the first trains to ever operate on the Métro.

According to a Bombardier spokesman, five more completed trains will begin operating soon and the company expects to have five or six more trains completed by the end of this year. All 52 trains are expected to be delivered by 2018, lest Bombardier-Alstom risk the wrath of the STM and Transport Quebec…

As to replacing the MR-73s, that’ll have to wait until the 2030s because, well, much like the MR-63s, they were rather well-built. There’s also no current plan to build the several hundred additional Azurs that would be required on top of the 468 currently on order.

On the same day the STM made their triumphant announcement, La Presse reported Transport Quebec discovered in mid-January the initial cost estimates concerning the extension of the Métro’s Blue Line by five stations to the east will now cost roughly twice as much ($2.9 billion).

Two years ago the AMT’s cost evaluation put the figure around $1.5 billion, but since then a Federal election occurred and the swarthy new prime minister has announced a major infrastructure spending spree. Mass transit projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions will almost assuredly get federal funds.

It should be noted that, as recently as a year ago, provincial transport minister Robert Poeti and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre both seemed favourable to extending the Blue Line above-ground by using light-rail, though neither offered any particulars on how two different mass transit systems would be linked. Poeti indicated a Blue Line extension wasn’t even a priority, at the time. How things have changed! Coderre, who had previously argued Métro extensions were too expensive, is now very enthusiastic and argued it’s vital to the development of Montreal’s eastern sectors. He said this in the same breath as he mentioned several other transit dossiers which include a light rail system for the Champlain Bridge (and possibly other parts of the city) and a new West Island/Airport express train.

Of course none of this is particularly new: the plan to extend the Blue Line east goes back forty years at least. The map above dates back to when the City of Montreal was playing a more direct role in the development of the Métro, (my guess is 1976 given most of the Green Line stations are correct but the planning names of the western Orange Line stations are still listed. You’ll also notice the western extension of the Blue Line from Snowdon towards Ville Saint-Pierre, and that the eastern part of the Blue Line goes up towards Montréal-Nord), and as you can see back then bigger plans were in mind.

But herein lies the crux of the problem: Métro extensions are not planned by the City of Montreal or the STM, but pêle-mêle by a provincial government agency. Same story vis-à-vis the Azurs: the purchase was made by the provincial government for the STM.

It still boggles my mind that the future of high-speed mass-transit in Montreal will be decided by a provincial government agency, and apparently if and when the Fed decides to spend money on transit infrastructure. Montreal should be doing this on its own, and should further be setting its own development pace and priorities.

The question is whether expansion would be a priority for a local planning agency, especially when it comes to the Blue Line, currently the least used of Montreal’s four Métro lines. Connecting the Blue Line to the Mount Royal Tunnel, modifying the Green and Orange lines to accommodate a higher rate-of-service, or even re-designing the stations of the Blue and Yellow lines to accommodate nine-car Métro trains could all be seen as greater priorities if the ultimate aim was to increase ridership.

Ostensibly this is the underlying justification of the Blue Line expansion, but I have my doubts this is the best possible use of three billion dollars in new infrastructure spending. What I don’t doubt is the new figure likely has far more to do with the Fed’s newfound interest in urban mass transit than the actual costs of building a five-station Métro extension.

And on a closing note, don’t expect to see the Azurs operating on the Blue Line anytime too soon. A Bombardier spokesman told me the Azur train sets are only available in a nine-car configuration, though the stations on that line currently use MR-73s in a six-car configuration (again, owing to low use). The platform lengths of the Blue Line stations are the same length as all the other Métro stations, but also all have barriers on account of the shorter trains. The Bombardier spox indicated that the Azurs can’t be shortened and wouldn’t be operated on the Blue Line until the stations are modified.

So far, no indication the STM will go through with those renovations, nor is there any idea of how much that will cost.

Cabot Square Redux: not quite paradise, kind of a parking lot…

This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt
This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt

After about a year’s worth of work, Cabot Square re-opened to the public on Wednesday July 8th.

The major improvement involves two outreach workers who will now use the square’s renovated stone kiosk (vespasienne) as home base to provide services to the primarily Aboriginal homeless community that (up until the renovations began) called Cabot Square home. Whether this homeless population returns to spend their time in Cabot Square remains to be seen, but the mere fact that these outreach workers have their own workspace within the square is in and of itself a progressive step in the right direction. From what I’ve read, the kiosk will also serve as a café where the proceeds will support the homeless (or the outreach program that helps the homeless). This is also good – Montreal is well known for its dearth of coffee-purchasing opportunities…

Other improvements: apparently there’s daily programming (music, dance, theatre) organized throughout the summer, and free wifi. I have a greater interest in the latter rather than the former, but again, glad to see it and I hope these activities are well-attended.

However, as you can see in the above photo, much of the square has been covered over in a slick ‘water-permeable ground covering’ that looks an awful lot like asphalt and for that reason looks awful.

Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs
Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs

This is not to say that the square was completely paved over – just that too much of it was. The paved portion flows around ‘green islands’ – there are now several such ‘islands’ in the newly renovated square, sharply divided from the walking paths with large curbs that integrate a few benches and subtle anti-skateboarding dimples. Within the green islands, plants surrounding the bases of several trees. Elsewhere in the square, younger trees planted to replace those removed during the renovation are surrounded by small circles of wood chips.

The division between green and grey isn’t subtle – it’s very clear where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not.

There’s almost no grass per se, no flowerbeds either. In its previous incarnation, there were patches of grass and no physical barrier between the somewhat symmetrical paving-stone walking paths and the green space.

The new arrangement reminds me of a trip to the Biodome; nature in the new Cabot Square is ‘grade-separated’ – look, but don’t touch seems to be the overriding design philosophy, which is ironic given how Aboriginal politics often involves efforts to sustain our interactions with the natural environment (i.e. preservation with an aim towards common appreciation etc.)

While there’s no doubt the new Cabot Square is slick, clean and modern, it’s also much less of a park. It feels more like a transit point than an urban refuge, and this is odd given that there’s so much less going on around Cabot Square these days (i.e. the Forum closed in 1996, the Children’s Hospital just relocated and the square isn’t the major bus terminus it once was). Considering there are plans to increase residential density in the area by building more condo towers and apartment buildings, I figured city planners would have gone in a different direction, aiming to provide an urban refuge instead of a kind of shaded crossroads.

It occurred to me that the paved surface will certainly make the space easier to clean, and further allows city vehicles to drive around inside the square without ripping up the ground and grass. Except that these posts have been installed at every entrance and seem pretty solid. I’m not entirely sure what their purpose is… I think it’s to slow down cyclists.

Questionable Purpose

There’s a greater irony here: before the renovation Montreal police would regularly drive directly into the square and either park their cruiser near the statue or do a quick lap before heading back out. Tactics such as these are intended to intimidate and drive people away. It also destroyed the paths and and the grass. Municipal workers would do the same when they were ostensibly working at maintaining the square.

Now the square has a paved interior with wide paths and large curbs to ensure the division between green space and walking space, but these posts make it impossible for any car or truck to enter the square (and Montreal police pledged somewhat to treat homeless Aboriginals more like human beings).

One thing I noticed when visiting recently was the removal of shrubs, decorative fences and bus shelters that once ran around the square’s periphery. I completely approve of this, and wrote about the necessity of opening up sight lines in the past. The former arrangement of bus shelters and shrubs made it impossible to see across the space and for this reason made it an ideal location for homeless people to congregate (Place Emilie-Gamelin and Viger Square suffer from the same problem).

So that being the case, it makes me wonder if the homeless Aboriginal community (or any members of the broader homeless community for that matter) will return to the square.

The picnic tables have been removed, as have a number of park benches. Garbage and recycling has been moved to the periphery, largely at the entrances (in a move I could only assume was based on a recent STM decision to do the same with Métro stations, wherein garbage and recycling has been removed from platform level and relocated to receptacles located up near the ticket kiosks). This is one of those ideas that’s good in theory but rarely in practice (i.e. people have about a 30-second tolerance limit to carrying garbage; if a garbage bin isn’t immediately available, they tend to just drop it on the ground).

And as to those anti-skateboarding dimples on the curbs? Again, useful in theory, but given that the entire square has been paved over, the whole square is now far more inviting to skateboarders than it was previously. Moreover, on all sections of the curbs that ramp up from ground level, there doesn’t seem to be any dimples at all.

Put it another way, when I visited the square last week, it was a group of skateboarders who were making best use of the space. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind.

Underwhelming

Here we see an example of one of the myriad ‘activities’ slated to take place in the square. I think this was for a caricaturist. Elsewhere there was a small group of somewhat depressed looking ‘street performers’ dressed like pirate-clowns; I’m assuming this was entertainment intended for children…

Again, more good stuff in theory, but only time will tell whether this actually leads to a major vocational change for the square. There seemed to be a lot of people working (ostensibly) for the city that day, and supporting this over the long term may prove problematic what with austerity budgets.

Renovated Vespasienne

And here’s the renovated vespasienne. It looks great, but it didn’t look like the café component was fully operational. It’s unfortunate there’s no landscaping around the base of the edifice (no flowers or plants), as this gives the impression the vespasienne grew out of the pavement.

Perhaps the single biggest lost opportunity was the Métro entrance kiosk located at the northwest corner of the square, in that what is arguably the most problematic structure in the square was left as-is. The Métro entrance in the square was once very useful indeed – keep in mind Atwater was the western terminus of the Green Line for about a decade, and up until 20 years ago the Forum was the city’s primary sporting and concert venue. Thus, it was useful to have a large Métro entrance located directly across from the Forum to help manage the crowds. Ever since the Forum stopped being a important venue this Métro entrance hasn’t been particularly useful. It, and the long tunnel that connects it with the Alexis Nihon complex diagonally across the street, hasn’t been very well maintained and all too often stinks of piss.

And as such it will remain – I suppose getting the city’s parks department and the STM to cooperate on a city beautification project may have been a little too difficult to coordinate. Thus, the STM kiosk remains an oversized, underused and aesthetically disconnected element of the square. Had they removed it the square could have had an entrance from arguably its highest traffic corner. Instead, the structure remains as a lasting visual obstruction to what’s going on inside the square and will likely continue to serve as something of a homeless shelter in its own right.

At the end of the day it begs the question – is this really the best our city can do?

Métro woes…

This is about as real as it gets - conceptual renderings of the proposed Azur Métro train.
This is about as real as it gets Рconceptual renderings of the proposed Azur M̩tro train.

Here’s the deal:

In 2010 the Quebec government signed an agreement with the Bombardier-Alstom consortium to build 468 new Métro cars at a total cost of $1.2 billion, with expected delivery starting in February 2014 and continuing for four years. The first completed car rolled out in splashy ceremony in November of 2013. The first train was completed in February 2014 and the company maintained that the entire fleet would be delivered by 2018, as per the contract.

It’s now April of 2015 and only one train has been delivered, and it’s been used uniquely for testing – i.e. it is not in operation yet.

It’s assumed Bombardier will have to pay some kind of fee for late delivery, though this is far from set in stone and could easily be forgiven by the government.

If say Bombardier were to come up with reasons to further delay delivery, government might wave the fee, or do something else to prevent such a delay.

So far Bombardier has announced delays in delivery because of two different issues. First there were problems with parts of the tunnel that required a partial redesign so as to actually allow the trains to pass through. Second, announced in October of 2014, was that the automated control software wasn’t ready, so even though a paltry five train sets had been completed, they wouldn’t be put into service. In January Bombardier-Alstom indicated that the software still wasn’t ready and that they’d have to layoff 145 construction workers at a plant in La Pocatière because of the delay in developing a software an Alstom-owned subsidiary in (wait for it) Italy.

At face value these seem like reasonable justifications, but think on it a little bit.

In the first case, the work to be done was on a small section of a tunnel, and basically involved shaving off parts of the ceiling and outer walls, as that portion – for whatever reason – was slightly narrower than the rest of the system. It had nothing to do with the trains themselves, so how did that retard their construction?

In the second case, the software is just that – soft. Why can’t the new trains use the existing automated control software? Is there no way to operate the trains manually? And again, why would that delay construction of the vehicles themselves?

Today’s news is that the Quebec government will ‘loan’ $31.5 million to the STM so that the STM can then pay Bombardier for the delivery of four train sets, each with nine cars. When these train sets will be delivered is anyone’s guess – despite a lot of flowery prose – a delivery date for these trains was omitted from the STM’s press release (author’s note – thanks to Martin from Propos Montréal for pointing out it isn’t actually a loan, but an advance the STM will pay Bombardier before the total bill is due in full once the last trains are completed and delivered in 2018. So we’re paying a portion of what’s already contractually agreed upon as owed to Bombardier-Alstom for trains that are only 95% complete).

CTV reported in January that five trains had been completed, today we were promised four completed trains at a future date. Which is it? Have five been built or are four to be built?

And why is the government loaning money to the STM so the STM can then pay Bombardier-Alstom to keep production going and save 145 jobs in La Pocatière (which is located about halfway between Quebec City and Rivière du Loup, and closer to Edmunston New Brunswick than Montréal). And why didn’t the government pay Bombardier-Alstom directly as opposed to loaning money to the STM?

And what was the $1.2 billion contract signed in 2010 for if not to pay for the production of these Métro cars in the first place?

The STM press release is thick with laughable quotes from various members of the provincial government, and Bombarider-Alstom, declaring how important it is to keep the Quebec economy going and to save these jobs. Coderre weighed in (for some reason) that the people of Montréal are impatient to get the new trains, but no delivery date was specified and there’s no specific details as to what the $31.5 million will be used for.

If it’s just to keep 145 people employed, how does this fix the software problem?

And wasn’t the contract supposed to create 400 jobs, not 245 of which 145 can be ‘saved’ from temporary layoffs thanks to a mere $31.5 million loan? What about the initial contract?

The Journal de Montréal reports that economy minister Jacques Daoust had the gall to state that ‘if Quebec were in a period of austerity, we (the government) could not have made this grand gesture’.

Son of a bitch. It’s shit like this that makes people absolutely despise the Quebec Liberal Party.

Now to recap:

– In 2010 the Quebec gov’t paid the Bombardier-Alstom consortium $1.2 billion to deliver 468 new Métro cars (comprising 52 trains).

– Trains were expected to begin operation in February 2014.

– As of January 2015 no trains had been delivered to the STM; Bombardier-Alstom at first blames delays on problems with tunnel clearance, then with automated control software, and indicates it will have to temporarily layoff 145 employees at a factory in La Pocatière though fails to connect the dots as to how this will impede the construction of the trains. CTV reports five trains had been completed but, according to STM and Bombardier-Alstom officials, can’t be used safely.

– On April 2nd 2015 the Government of Quebec announces a $31.5 million loan to the STM so that the STM can pay Bombardier-Alstom for the delivery of four trains at an unspecified date as well as the continued employment of those workers threatened with layoffs.

– On the same day officials from the government, the Mayor of Montreal, representatives of Bombardier, Alstom and the STM congratulate themselves for doing something good for the Quebec economy.

The Quebec government just paid nearly $32 million to get four trains when it already paid $1.2 billion for 52 trains five years ago, and apparently Bombardier-Alstom has justified delays in both construction and delivery on a) physical characteristics of the tunnel they should already have been aware of and b) automated control software they are responsible for. And to top it all off, the new trains will be delivered ‘95% complete’ and without the new software.

People, this is your money.

Bombardier-Alstom convinced the representatives of the people of Quebec into paying more money for a subpar product that’s already a year behind in the delivery schedule, by threatening to layoff unionized workers in a riding that up until recently voted PQ.

Once again the taxpayers of Quebec have been screwed by a profit-driven multinational corporation and complicit government officials who look to score political points by creatively financing corporate failures and spinning it as an some kind of economic and political success story. We have been told by various governments for over a generation that the private sector is more efficient at getting the job done. How can such be said of Bombardier-Alstom with regard to the Azur project?

I don’t get it. We have no money to pay for schools, hospitals nor even a sufficient number of maintenance workers to keep the Métro clean, yet have $31.5 million lying around to reward incompetence at best and blackmail at worst.