How Did Tramways Make it Through Montreal’s Winters?

STM archives: Chasse-neige, construit par la Montreal Street Railway en 1910

Editor’s note: Last week’s snowstorm combined with the recent positive news about the feasibility of boring a transit tunnel under Ottawa’s downtown made this story cross-posted from Spacing Montréal about the difficulty of running streetcars/trams in severe weather seem especially timely to me.

No doubt surface LRT technology will have improved since the days when trams rattled through Montréal, but still, could it be that a downtown tunnel has an “all-season” advantage not normally factored in by its opponents?

Over on Metropolitan News, Andy Riga recently recently put a spotlight on the debate about how tramways would fare the harsh Montreal winters. I’ve always thought it was a silly question: electric tramways operated in Montreal from the 1892 until 1959. Surely if trams worked over century ago, they would work just as well today, if not better?

So I decided to consult Spacing Montreal’s favourite specialist on transit-of-bygone-times, who goes by the name of Cdnlococo, to get the lowdown on how tramways survived the Montreal winter. Below, he describes how juggling snow, ice, and electric trams was no easy task (the text has been re-arranged a bit for length and flow):

Streetcars DID operate successfully in Montreal for many, many winters, but, that’s all that were available, and there were hundreds of employees and much expensive specialized equipment at work 24/7 at great cost!

With what is now considered obsolete technology, running the streetcar system required a lot of men as almost everything was done by hand. Had it not been for the Depression, followed by the War, streetcars, and steam locomotives may well have been replaced in the Forties. Labour costs did not start to rise until the Fifties.

One of the redeeming factors was that streetcars prior to 1950 were very basic machines and had few moving or electrical components when compared with the more modern rolling stock. The cars themselves were were far more tolerant of crap and abuse and lasted for forty years. however, with the use of salt on roads caused streetcars to rust out at a greater rate than before shortening their lives considerably.

The Achilles Heels of streetcars were the wire and the electrical distribution, also the track. A problem with either, or both, could tie up everything…The following Tramways map from 1948 shows most of the track and switches, LET ALONE THE WIRE, that would have to be tended to in winter.

One of the most obvious problems was when ICE or sleet formed on the trolley wire….In Montreal, special ‘Sleet Cutters’ were manually applied to the pulley when bad weather was imminent and the wire started to ice. Cars were fitted with sleet cutters before they left the car barns for their runs – more man power and equipment inventory – then the sleet cutters had to be removed. In very bad weather, empty streetcars were operated all night to keep the wire clear.

The wire itself could be brought down by too much ice buildup, then NO cars could operate, paralyzing the whole system.

Photograph | Rotary plow No. 655, Defleurimont snow dump, Montreal Tramways Company, QC, 1916 | MP-1986.53.21

The Tramways had several snowploughs which were operated by special crews to keep the routes open. A big job! For heavy snowfalls the Tramways had several rotary plows. They threw the snow far and wide and were used only in open areas. The streetcars themselves had small snowploughs ahead of their front wheels which could be lowered onto the rails to remove snow, operated by the Motorman. …

From this description, trams made it through the winter for decades thanks to a massive mobilisation of manpower, the kind of effort that would probably whip today’s transit unions into a frenzy. How many drivers today would be willing to sleep in their vehicles on stormy nights in order to be ready for the morning run, as Pittsburgh’s motormen did in the 1940s and ’50s?

Advances in technology could ease some of those problems: according to Andy Riga’s post, Hydro Quebec now has a melting technique that heats the conductor, avoiding the labour intensive ice-cutting described above. Tramways do make it through the snowy winters in Finland, Russia and Switzerland, and it’s not as if our buses cruise through the snowy and icy streets without a hitch.

When transit is an absolute priority, a lot of obstacles can be overcome. But building tram lines would be only half the battle.


  1. If the underlying point of this article is that it will be better for Ottawa to have a downtown tunnel instead of surface lines, do not forget that only 3km of the 12km (and hopefully much longer in the future) rail line is proposed to be underground. There will still be much surface rail that will require snow clearance.

    The O-Train has had an excellent track record of keeping the tracks free of snow with little or no extra maintenance.

    Ottawa’s streetcar system shut down in the winter of ’48 due to weather. Remind me and I’ll post about it, with photos.

  2. Murphy SG: That NFB short was superb! Thank you for the link.

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