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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive c. Québec, la STM, et les pneumatiques

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  • Maybe we could learn a lesson from Sesame Street.

« ZELC ne peut exiger que la STM redéfinisse ses besoins et ceux de ses utilisateurs, change le produit qu’elle exploite avec succès depuis 40 ans (…) et qu’elle modifie radicalement ses spécifications techniques. »
Guy Du Pont (from Rue Frontenac’s Michel Van de Walle)

In the gospel according to Émile, there is a parable about a man from Galilee – or maybe it was Verdun.

Anyway, he goes to a store and asks for a bicycle.
The saleswoman says, “I have no bicycles but I could sell you a car.”
He says, “I don’t want a car, I want a bicycle.”
She says, “Bicycles are outdated, not as efficient, and not as durable in all weather conditions.”
He says, “True, but I still want a bicycle.”
She says, “Cars are not as bad as they used to be. All you need to do is make small alterations to your house in order to build a garage for your new car.”
He says, “If you can’t offer me a bicycle, then I will have to take my business elsewhere.”
And she takes him to court.

For those of you who don’t know, there is an engineering and transit ideological war, involving billions of YOUR dollars, brewing in Montréal. Let me break it down for you:

Back in 2006, the STM and the government of Québec got together with Bombardier to replace our well-aged fleet of metro cars.

Then Alstom SA, a French company, got mad and cried foul. They said the government should be soliciting competing bids.

The government, in true fashion, said, “Whatever.”

So Alstom SA said, “I’ll show you ‘whatever’”, and took the government to court.

(p.s. Alstom SA won.)

But instead of continuing to fight, Alstom SA and Bombardier hooked up and have decided to work together.

This led to an even juicier bid. Like super-ripe summer peach juicy.

The city’s original tender for 340 subway cars, worth an estimated $1.2-billion, became 765 cars, with an option to purchase another 288 cars, valued at more than $3-billion.

And that, my friends, is a lot of cash.

But at $3-billion, we’re talking a whole different ballgame. So the government put the offer back out : any company that believes it can fill the order for rubber-tyred vehicles only, and with a commitment to do all the final manufacturing in Canada, now has 30 days to signal its interest.

This seemed to be a bit of a formality – only Bombardier and Alstom SA are known to be able to fill such an order with the requirements stipulated by the government.

And, ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d’enfants.

Not so fast.

Enter China’s Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive. They say the bidding process is unfair because, while in theory it is open to everyone, in practice it is only open to companies that can produce rubber-tyred cars.

They say no one really uses rubber tires anymore for modern metro systems.

  • (Except most French cities – including Paris, a gaggle of Japanese ones, and Mexico City … to name a few.)

They say rubber wheels are less efficient and durable than steel.

  • (That may be true, but with the amount of hydroelectricity Québec produces, I think we will manage.)

They say conversion to steel wheels could be done without service interruption and would end up in significant savings on operating costs.

  • (Experts say that the entire system would have to be shut down for about a year to install new track. Considering it took almost 30 years of planning, consultations, and false starts to redo the Parc-Pins interchange, I’m placing my bets on the experts.)

Maybe steel wheels have come a long way. Maybe my judgement has been clouded by youth spent riding the Toronto subway (minute 3:55 is pretty exemplary). Or maybe the earthquake simulator that is the NYC subway riding under my ex-girlfriend’s apartment has coloured my reasoning.

For this, I apologise.

But here in Montreal, we have stuck to the rubber-tyred method. And for that, I am grateful.

So unless Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive is willing to fund the conversion of our system to steel tires and guarantee that it could be done without service interruption, then I think we have heard enough from them. Passons à l’action! Our metro cars aren’t getting any younger.


  1. Well said! I have always appreciated the smooth ride and relative quiet of Montreal’s Metro system. The only noise you hear when a train pulls into the station is the rush of air. No squealing, squeaking, rattling or screeching like in NY.

    I also feel a lot better about spending that huge wad of cash in Canada even if it is more expensive than going with a Chinese company.

  2. i think what zhuzhou sees here is an opportunity because the bombardier-alstom offer is ridiculously overpriced.
    i compared the cost of one wagon to what we’ve paid in vienna and it is about three times as much. from above calculation: 765 wagons for $3b = $4m/wagon, vienna: $1.5m/train (source: [in german, but you’ll get the relevant numbers from the headline])
    that is for a model from the 60’s as compared to the latest technology from siemens. plus it is manufactured in austria, a country with higher wage costs than quebec.
    i’m sure comparisons with other metro system’s costs will show similar differences.
    montrealers do not see that they get ripped off for about $

  3. Have you read or listened to anything railway engineer Glen Fisher has said..or have you bought into all the STM’s drivel hook, line & sinker? And I mean drivel. Read the article in yesterday’s Gazette – the STM’s arguments are truly laughable.

    If they win the contract the trains will be built at the former Dominion Bridge site in Lachine, which they just (or are about to) purchase. This will provide around 1000 Montrealers with jobs. But nah, I guess it’s better to go with the ancient rubber tired system, have the trains built in the hinterland and use insane amounts of shipping fuel to get them here.

    Oh yeah, and that enormous cash savings, too.

  4. I’d like to echo stf’s comment. If cashstrapped Quebec is willing to pay a premium for an under-performing system, go for it.

    Rubber-tyred metros are a subsidy for the tyre industry and saving electricity actually does make sense, if you are not stuck in the past.

    The current metro system in Montreal has seriously hampered public transit development (e.g. no above ground metro extending into the less dense areas of the city,…) and Montreal is lagging behind several decades(!) of development. We are stuck in the 80ties + 3 stations.

    While conversion to a standard metro system might not be feasible, there is no reason to portray the Montreal system as a viable transit system. It rather demands a creative approach in order to overcome the disadvantages of the current set-up (e.g. a combined light rail and tram, an efficient light rail system serving downtown,…) but for decades nothing got done …

    Any local pride is definitely out of place, unless you never leave the city.

  5. Bill,

    I have used different metro systems (Europe, South America). I find the one in Montreal disturbingly noisy compared to the others, where one can actually use a cell phone comfortably.

    I have never been to New York, but from what i heard it’s one of the most antiquated systems in the world so maybe it might not be a good representative for the case of steel wheels?

  6. I agree it is quite surprising that no one mentions how LOUD steel wheels are in all the articles that are popping up. That alone is a argument to keep our rubber wheel system.

    But as always, people tend to realize the obvious once things materialize.

  7. Glen Fisher, in his rebuttal ( doesn’t address the fact that subway lines will have to be shutdown during long period to retrofit them.

    Fisher’s position that the only thing that will be required is to replace the rails. (current rails are backup rails, in case there is a flat and aren’t strong enough to handle regular traffic). It is true that should be doable during the nights, when the metro is closed.

    But STM says that replacing the rails alone won’t be enough. Ballast, probably under the form of coarse gravel, will have to be installed below the rails to absorb the vibrations. This is the work that will require months to perform and require shutdown of long sections during a long period.

    Steel might be a better option today but we should consider it only for future new lines.

  8. If Zhuzhou does not agree on the specs in the contract, they can just move on and bid on contracts elsewhere. It’s not for them to decide what we need. I find their attitude offensive.

  9. The reason the Toronto and NYC subways are loud is because they use antiquated non-welded tracks. Such tracks are no longer made. However, each time I have friends from Toronto over here, they’ve all remarked on how loud our Metro is compared to the TTC subway.

    And it’s not up to ZhuZhou, Bombardier, Alstom, or any others for that matter to decide what’s best. Taxpayers have a right to the best trains for the best price.

  10. I am sorry Marc, but your friends from Toronto are probably like me, deaf to the bones because of TTC. I swear, sometimes I have to put my hand on my ears – that bad!

    And like other Torontonians, they love to compare their “better city” to other Canadian fine cities. So, I don’t know them, but I bet money that STM Metro trains are still creating less noise than TTC subway trains.

  11. I’ve been thinking about these issues for some time now, here’s what I’ve come up with (fyi – I’m a student, not an expert. I’ve just read a lot from many different sources, combined it with firsthand experience to form my own ideas, no more no less):

    1- Whatever this Fischer guy says ought to be disqualified from the get-go. He’s a salesman working for an interested party and he personally stands to make a lot of coin off this transaction, if he’s succesful. If he had presented his ideas outside the realm of big business I’d be more inclined to listen to him. His experts are dubious because they consistently refer to vastly different systems in vastly different climates.

    2- The Gazette has been pushing this idea – not direct promotion, but from a conversation I’ve had with the local affairs writer, it seems their perspective is “it’s a novel idea that deserves mention”. However, given the consistent whinning of the Gaz’s editorial staff, and the majority of their suburban, commuter, readership, I see their interest lying more in the realm of potential westward expansion along surface routes as a means to combat chronically overloaded AMT trains and late STM buses.

    3- The ‘better business’ types are arguing for fair play in fair trade, arguing that prestige projects should not necessarily go to the local provider, for fears of a backlash from potential foreign buyers. that our products are generally of amazingly high quality is often overlooked by the ‘rah, rah NAFTA’ types.

    4- Fischer and the ZELC’s bid systematically omits almost all of the technical elements which make our metro so fundamentally unique. This alone should be enough to kybosh the deal.

  12. Why is extending the Metro always seen as the solution to everything? If you keep expanding it it will become one of the most uncomfortable long rides to downtown you can experience. Heck, people from places like Verdun or NDG will be looking for alternative routes rather than join the other sardines who manged to get on a few stops back. The Metro could become the worst possible way to travel during rush hour, the exact opposite of it’s original purpose.
    Of course with so many people poised to make mega bucks involved it is a difficult thing to stop and as long as the debate is reduced to steel or rubber it looks like those enormous contracts will eventually get awarded.
    There simply has to be a better solution.

  13. FWIW, I often ride (subway-ish) trains in Sydney, Australia which are steel-on-steel and they’re WAY quieter to ride than the Montreal metro.

    Neath: The solution to “rider congestion” isn’t to halt Metro expansion… it’s to add more metro cars in the system. I believe the metro was built to handle one car every 90 seconds… we’re FAR from using the system to it’s full capacity. (I do agree that metro expansion isn’t the best bang for the buck, though).

  14. Some Toronto info for comparison:

    The new subway trains now being manufactured for TTC by Bombardier will cost $18.2 million each. These are 6-car sets that are about 138m long (Toronto stations are 500ft/152m long, and our cars have always been sized to this design.)

    The design capacity of a new train for service planning purposes is about 1,100 passengers. More will fit at crush load, but planning is based on averages that can be sustained over time. When comparing car prices, it is important to include capacity so that you get a $/passenger figure.

    Wheel squeal in Toronto has been reduced in three ways. First, almost all of our cars now have air conditioning. Only the oldest still have roof vents which let noise from the tunnel come directly into the passenger compartment. These will be retired when the new cars arrive. Second, there are wheel greasers on tight curves. Third, if at all possible, no new lines have curves that produce high levels of squeal, at least in public areas (as opposed to yard connections). Old tight curves we are stuck with.

    The comment about ballasting is important. The steel rails in Montreal were never intended as primary support, and as such probably have little mechanical isolation from the tunnel floor. In Toronto, track was originally bolted directly to the concrete, but more recently rubber pads have been inserted under the track mounting plates. This provides some mechanical isolation, but primarily they are for electrical isolation to counteract electrolysis problems.

    On the newest lines, the track structure actually has two levels with the track slab itself resting on large rubber “pucks” so that the entire track assembly is mechanically isolated from the tunnel floor. This limits transmission of vibrations.

    Again, there are older parts of the system where you can sit in basements of nearby buildings and listen to the trains rumble past.

    Any retrofit in Montreal would have to deal with the track structure as it exists.

    Moreover, you could not do an overnight conversion because there will be a long period where new and old cars would co-exist. The track structure must work for both types of vehicles.

  15. So far, the only evidence provided for on either side is anecdotal. Few can claim to have the engineering knowledge required to have an objective evaluation of the issues.

    1) The STM’s position is nonsensical
    2) ZhuZhu’s position is based on very little data.

    If contested, there will be years of costly engineering expertise presented to the courts, and then, and only then will it be decided if the rubber-only requirement is reasonable in the circumstances.

    Even after that, I am certain part of the evaluation of the tender is past experience in implementing a subway system. Zhuzhu seems to have none of that. (Not to speak of the horrendous design they seem to be putting out – it’s trains look like something out of 1960’s china)

    For years the Montreal metro’s “pride” was the fact that it had rubber wheels – perhaps steel wheels need to be considered in more detail. The only way that can be done is by a proper, unbiased evaluation which takes into consideration the needs (including not having to shut down the metro, running both new and old cars at the same time, etc) and technical limitations of each type of technology.

  16. Unfortunately Steve Munro you are wrong when you state that, “In Toronto, track was originally bolted directly to the concrete, but more recently rubber pads have been inserted under the track mounting plates.”. The track has always had a rubber pad on the base to absorb both the weight of the trains and save the concrete. If there was no rubber pad between the track & concrete box, then we would have had to rebuild tunnel liner base.

    How do I know this & you don’t? Well not only am I an engineer & work for the TTC, but I also have as part of my responsibility at work inspecting track & the structures for damage. Providing opinion without knowing the facts causes more problems for all of us & is not really helpful.

  17. Man, engineers always have such a chip on their shoulder, don’t they?

    What you just did, TTCPeng, is commit a logical fallacy called “argument from authority.” Do you have any evidence to support your position that tracks have always had a rubber pad on the base other than your employment by the TTC? Have you been employed in your current capacity since the Yonge line opened in 1954?

  18. I really don’t want to get into an argument about who is right about the old method of building subway track in Toronto.

    One very important thing that only happened recently was the reinsulation of the signal rails thanks to the inadequate protection against faults to ground thanks to water in the tunnels. At roughly the same time, noise complaints went up in some locations because (it was thought by TTC) the new Pandrol clip track attachments held the track more tightly than the old style.

    If you want to see track bolted direct to concrete, you can look at streetcar track built before the resiliant installation started in the mid 90s (eg original Harbourfront line). That junk is responsible for all the noise complaints the LRT advocates have to put up with.

    The main distinction I was trying to make was between the original style in which the tunnel floor was used directly to support the track, and the more recent version in which the track slab floats separately from the tunnel.

    Any move to steel on steel in Montreal will have to allow for the fact that the steel tracks there do not now provide primary support, and there will be considerably more vibration transmitted through them if the mounting system is poorly designed.

    Should be a job for an engineer.

  19. The NYC subway system has improved quite a bit with the installation of newer, quieter, smoother cars.

    The newest models have LED route maps, automated announcements, and airbag suspension for a much nicer “glide.”

    The newer trains are being phased in slowly, although admittedly there are still some of the old ones on some lines.

  20. I find the author seems to dismiss the idea of Steel-Wheel-On-Steel-Rail a bit too hastily and without proper merit. I’m currently studying civil engineering at McGill, specifically the proposed metro extension, and am also a New Yorker myself.

    First of all, it’s difficult to knock the NY subway system in comparison to Montreal’s. NY’s is one of the most comprehensive in the world allowing residents to get to virtually all points in the city, in addition to running 24/7. The reason they are able to achieve this is because the subway can run outdoors. It’s really only underground in Manhattan below 96th street and the dense parts of Brooklyn and Queens. If Montreal’s metros could expand outside it would be exponentially more affordable to expand the network and service more residents. The wheels may be a bit loud in NY, but I’ve never found it to be a problem and I’m sure that there have been upgrades in that technology since those rails were installed.

    Now it may not necessarily be the best option for Montreal, but there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be considered and properly evaluated on its merits, rather than being dismissed outright.

  21. The noise in the metro is caused more by the (very noisy) traction motors, not the wheels, and transmit very little vibration. The trains here also maintain high speeds (around 70 km/hour) around tight curves and steep gradients, something even current steel wheel trains are not capable of–this would require rebuilding large sections of the metro or an engineering breakthrough, neither of which are necessary.

    And seriously, converting to steel wheels to make it easier to extend the metro lines into the suburbs? What? Waste money to make it easier to waste more money? Forget it. The transit needs of the west island suburbs are not going to be answered by extending the metro. The metro itself doesn’t belong out there no matter what kind of wheels it runs on: the urbanism there just isn’t capable of supporting this kind of transportation–BY DESIGN.

    I imagine, given the metro’s original engineers from the RATP and the obvious model of the Parisian network, our network is designed much differently than say New York City’s system (a caveat–I often wonder if a New York City-like system might have been more appropriate given Montréal’s North American character).

    That might translate to: money better spent someday upgrading and retrofitting the AMT to provide better, perhaps more metro-like service (like the RER), and more lines/extensions within the city.

    I understand this is debatable, so now for what cannot be denied: We KNOW that converting the system would be costly, time consuming, and very likely to cause serious and lengthy delays and closures, for no real benefit to the commuter and with the potential for complex problems caused by mismatched technology.

    I stopped taking Mr. Fisher seriously after his claims about limestone bedrock (De L’Eglise on Line 1 collapsed during construction because of the weakness of Utica shale deposits, eventually built with a similar track arrangement as Charlevoix station).

    @ William– Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive SHOULD be dismissed outright on principle: the STM is asking for new trains, not a new metro. They should never be expected to retrofit the metro to the specifications of a firm incapable or unwilling to engineer rubber tyred trains. It’s just outrageous bullying.

    If we were talking about building a *new* line, this would all be a different story.

  22. Oh, and by the way, a 6.5° incline is pretty daunting even for modern steel rail technology.

  23. I don’t care one way or the other about steel vs. rubber… I just want air conditioning!

    As for taking the métro during rush hour: well, I’ve been doing that for about a month now after having lived walking distance to work for 20 years, and I’m surprised: it’s not that bad after all. I stand there ignoring the other people’s eyes, listening to my iPod and enjoying the feeling of being in a nice busy city with such efficiency to whisk us around town so easily and quickly and cheaply. I’m surprised at how polite and patient people are — those standing close to the door check to see if anyone needs to get out, people always seem to stand right walk left on the escalators, just yesterday I witnessed a very cute “oh, no, please, you take the seat” “oh, no, you were going to get there first” argument, and last week when the métro was not working too well no-one seemed overly flustered — some people left with rolling eyes, but those who stayed hauled out their books and powerpoint print-outs and ipods and it felt rather like being in a library, actually.

    As for métro extensions: I must say I’m getting a little tired of what seems to be a West Island mantra of “we’re so hard done by, when do WE get a métro? We pay taxes, too…” Really, there are many advantages to living in the suburbs, but convenient and frequent public transit is not one of them, now is it?

  24. There is no way any company should be allowed to dictate the terms of the call for tenders – that is the thing that disturbs me the most about this entire issue.

    That said, this is the perfect opportunity to have a completely transparent bid and acceptance process, for the Québec government to show that a construction contract (for that is what it is, ultimately) can be achieved without the corruption that has occupied so many Québec deals in the past.

    Bombardier and Alstom, who also build steel wheel systems, should bid on steel wheel trains as well, and do their own engineering assessments of the tunnels, grade, conversions, etc, since it appears likely that the STM will be forced to consider the matter seriously due to the legal manipulations (for that is what they are) of the Chinese company.

    Any company with a web site such as this, who show as their highlighted achievements small contracts for 3 of this and 6 of that, should be taken very much with a grain of salt for a contract of nearly 800 cars. They also list mostly collaborative projects, and have only solely engineered one project, a locomotive for the Chinese railway system. What is their subway experience? They build electric locomotives. As well, Zhuzhou appear to usually collaborate with Seimens. I would like to know what is the nature of the collaboration with Seimens in this project.

    I should also hope, based on the appearance of the items in these photos, that the STM will have some sort of aesthetic control, because these boxy 60’s era Chinese trains are UGLY.

    Mr Fisher, engineer, is also a salesman, and that is his current primary function. He should also be taken with a grain of salt. Of course he is paid to make what sound like persuasive arguments – and will get much more money if the company he represents succeeds in their efforts. He is doing his job very very well at this moment in time.

    It is therefore time for all the parties concerned to do the right thing : do the *independent* reports, the engineering legwork, to see if a move to steel is indeed a possibility, without enormous hidden costs and free of corruption, without taking the costly move of going to court.

    They all of them owe it to the taxpayer & it can’t be too hard to find a few railway engineers that don’t work for that Chinese company.

  25. Oh, sorry – found the Chinese metro cars. All their contracts have been in China – three contracts for Shanghai lines 1, 3, and phase 2; and one each for Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

  26. OK guys, good and interesting comments. But, actually I really do know what I’m doing after 40 years of railway engineering in Canada, the USA and in 70 other countries . The Montreal Metro was built on continuous welded-rail track, of a crossection and weight to easily support steel wheel metro cars (not freight trains however) and the crossover switches at each end of each line that are used to enable the “Northbound” train to cross over to the “Southbound” track are 100 Pounds per yard railstill commonly in use on older CNR and CPR and VIA tracks carrying vehicles up to 32.5 tons per axle, four times as heavy as the new aluminum metro cars will be.

    As to gradient. 6.5 perecent is “peanuts” to a self propelled passenger coach. Picture a freight train weighing 10,000 tons climbing a 2.2 % grade. If the locomotives were cut loose from their trailing load, they would easily ckimb a THIRTY precent grade. And yes, I do know what I’m talking about as the Only Canadian engineer that organized and tested two models of Europen electric locomotives in winter in Switzerland and in Norway. Regarding price and local content, why are the Bombardier metro cars just sold to Chicago, being built in Plattsburgh NY instead of in LaPocatiere and were sold to Chicago in 2009 at a price of $1.5 million for the first 400 cars and $1.3 million for an option for 300 aditional cars. And Yes, we did offer to include any and all conversion costs for the tunnels in our price, and yes a rubber tire train can be followed by a steel wheel train and vice versa in any mix whatsoever until all the Rubber tire trains are retire. Regarding existing track fesign and suitability for steel wheel cars, we broought the top track engineer in North America to look closely at the track but STM would not allow us to inspect the track. We did get all the information we needed or that anybody could need from the track controctoe that built all of the Metro track except the new Laval extension

    Suggestion: Go to the Montmorency station in Laval, there you can see each train run only on itsd steel service wheels to cross over from the North track through the railway track switvh and then back on the south track until the whole train is clear of the switch. Seeing in believing–I doidn’t make this up.Lastly everyone should know, this wasn’t just my idea—-it was suggested to me by and STM staff engineer in 2004.

    Have fun riding the new quiet trains in about 36 months that cost less than 1/2 the Bombardier/Alstom price and will save Montreal Metro riders a lot of money by eliminating the need for fare increases over the next ten years or more.
    Glen Fisher.

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