Last summer I moved from NDG to Petite Patrie and, for the fist time, I began to move through the city primarily in a North-South axis – with most of my weekly activities bookended between UQAM and the Jean-Talon market – rather than in the East-West axis. (For the curious, my previous bookends would have been Akhavahn Iranian grocery on Sherbrooke and Grand, and my parents’ place near de Lorimier and Mount Royal.)
Like many people in my neighbourhood, my stomping grounds straddle the CP rail line that divides the Plateau from Rosemont-Petite-Patrie. The train tracks and adjacent industrial areas create a boundary within the urban landscape, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: over the decades, it has allowed the neighbourhoods on either side to evolve distinct characters.
All summer, I enjoyed cycling on the gravel path alongside the tracks and often carried my bike through the gaps in the fence and over the train tracks to run errands or visit friends in the Plateau. The place around the CP tracks, where the street-grid melts away and the grass grows high, is a field of near-magical possibilities: I remember glimpsing a pair of young ladies laughing and kissing in the honey-sunlight by the tracks, a man playing a mournful saxophone solo under the overpass, and a seemingly nomadic family setting up their living room in the elbow of rue Bernard…
Inevitably, after a dozen or so such trips, I was spotted by the CP police and ticketed for my trespass. A $146 fine is a pretty effective deterrent, and since August I have dutifully refrained from cutting across the tracks, opting instead for the Van-Horne overpass, or the underpasses at Christophe-Colomb, Saint-Hubert, Saint-Denis, Saint-Laurent, and Saint-Urbain.
There are plenty of ways to cross the tracks legally, but all of these routes are uncomfortable on foot and feel downright dangerous on a bike (with the exception of Christophe-Colomb). On the Van Horne overpass, cyclists share the lane with fast-moving vehicles whose visibility is limited by the crest in the road, and pedestrian access is poorly maintained in the winter. Alternatively, the underpasses plunge cyclists into a narrow space between a lane of moving cars and a concrete wall, where the air feels thick exhaust.
But the biggest problem is the resentment. Every time I cross the tracks, I can’t help but recall the ticket and that feeling of outrage is rekindled. I usually spend my time on the overpass concocting a long righteous diatribe in defence of crossing the tracks – much like the case that a Mile-End resident recently brought before a judge, only to have it thrown out as “irrelevant”. After fuming for a while, my thoughts will drift towards nostalgia for that place by the tracks that has been deemed off-limits to law-abiding citizens. I rarely take gravel bike path anymore since it dosen’t connect to any of the underpasses.
For the first couple months, I was comforted by the knowledge that my municipal councillors, as well as those the adjacent Plateau borough, were working to build a level crossing for cyclists and pedestrians. But then in October, news came out that negotiations with CP were unsuccessful.
The train tracks themselves have proven to be permeable – the real barrier is the CP’s bureaucratic inflexibility that has turned one of the most delightful parts of my new neighbourhood into a recurring source of anger and frustration.
Above: the CN train tracks in Saint-Henri remain far more permeable and I’ve heard this flexible space described as asset to the neighbourhood on a number of occasions. Why does it work in Saint-Henri but not in the Mile-End?