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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

How Did Tramways Make it Through Montreal’s Winters?

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

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. I always love what Cdnlococo has to say – it’s detailed, informative, and there’s always this wonderful narrative quality to the text. Thank you!

  2. The “extensive manpower” required to operate the streetcars in winter was much smaller than the current manpower required to clear the streets ASAP after the slightest snowfall… And the same comment goes for operating the Métro system nowadays.

    And it wasn’t until the 40’s that all the streets were consistently cleared of snow.

    Back then, the streetcars operated on tracks that BELONGED TO THE COMPANY, and that the company had to clear & maintain; contrast this to today’s trucks (and buses!) who do not pay for the upkeep of the streets they roll on.

    You cannot compare streetcars to buses and whatnot; it’s a totally different plane of reality, if only for the fact that rail companies **OWN** the tracks they run on. It’s even worse than comparing cherries to watermelons; the only common point is probably just the wheels.

    The low technology used in streetcars was robust and easy to fix, yes; this is why streetcars lasted for 40, 50 or even 60 years; railroad rolling stock was not designed like cars, with planned obscolescense (heck, VIA Rail currently has cars in operation that are 60 years old, and they run them at 100 mph every day)…

  3. Who cares? They do fine in Toronto up to today. It’s completely banal.

    I mean, who is Toronto? What is Toronto?

  4. I would like to know the figures on the amount of manpower required and dollars spent, in say 1947, to operate JUST the streetcar system, with about 260 miles of track.

    Ten employees for each mile? twelve? twenty?

    There could well be several more men hired casually in winter.

    Remember, there were about 900 streetcars, some one-man, some two, with a trailer, three, not all operating at once.

    The power system had to be capable of handling all the cars used at peak periods. At night the cars would have their lights on inside, and in winter, their electric heaters.

    Each car would have an air compressor, altho’ not all would be on at once on the system, several would be. Cars in the barns would have the hand brake applied and the compressor shut off.

    If heat not required in nicer weather, the trolley pole and it’s pulley would be moved off the wire in the barns.

    There are THICK texts dealing with power distribution on street railways, the gauges of wire involved, the weight of the wire, the spans between the poles, the type of poles, wood, steel, concrete, poles in the centre of double track vs poles on each side of the road.

    How many cars per mile in rush hour, how heavy the car, how heavy with a standee load, how many traction motors, how much horsepower per motor, how many hills, curves and so forth.

    Huge expenses!

    How many of those employees looked after JUST the track, wire, power generation and distribution? one per mile?, three, five?

    Remember, most routes were DOUBLE Track, so, on a five-mile route, there would be ten miles of TRACK AND TROLLEY WIRE.

    The employees would, mostly, be looking after just the Tramway’s interests and the Tramways DID plow the streets with streetcar tracks with electric rail plows, brooms and rotaries.

    There were full-time crews looking after the TRACK, just like the railways, changing ties, tamping ballast, gauging, lining, tighting bolts, welding joints, renewing specialwork and so forth.

    There were men cleaning the switches as per Mr T from Poland, and there were lots of switches.

    Other crews, with tower cars and tower trucks, looked after the wire.
    Another crew with welding trucks or electric bonding cars on rails made sure the rail bonds to conduct the electricity back to the powerhouse were in good shape.

    Ohm Sweet Ohm.

    I just looked in the Binns Montreal Electric Streetcar book, and the Company had, over the years, well over 120 WORK CARS including the plows, sweepers, cranes, dump cars, motor flats, and so forth.

    These are non-revenue equipments not earning a DIME, and can only, for the most part, be used on rails and for the needs of the Company.

    All costs MONEY, to build, maintain and crew.

    One hundred and twenty trucks on rubber tires would put a big dent in snow on all roads today.

    There were over 900 streetcars when the City of Montreal took over in 1951.

    I might suggest the TAXPAYER gets better bang for his BUCK per operating mile with buses as they can travel on any street at all without WIRE NOR TRACK, and, in today’s world of wall to wall automobiles, the streets have to be plowed with trucks, anyway.

    I could be wrong! T’was a different era!

    If ridership patterns change, a bus can just change it’s sign and go elsewhere.

    HOWEVER, in SNOW, buses can get stuck, and even if they have the tires, weight and the traction to move, they are too often hindered by autos that cannot.

    I was in Toronto in the fall of 2007 and there was 18 inches of snow. The buses could move, but, nothing else did, and the buses were blocked.

    The Subway ran okay underground, but, the Scarborough LRT got drifted in and the power rails shorted out.

    Around the same time, a subway train derailed and tore out switchwork and third rail at Kennedy Station, causing a MASSIVE Fluster Cuck.

    I know, as I had to reroute via the hated Route 25 Pape and take the also-hated Bloor/Danforth Subway instead. A suicide there on the tracks blocked the line one evening and I took two and a half hours to get home instead of 45 minutes with a bus, Subway, LRT and another bus on a normal day.

    On another occasion a large fire closed the Queen streetcar route for a week.

    Ice falling off the CN Tower closed a portion of downtown.

    When my Father passed away, I took his ashes back to Montreal on the train, then we went to the Exporail Museum at St Constant and I was the Motorman on car 1959, thanks to Mr. Laurendau. An electric Funeral Car, but, not to Point Aux Trembles on the Terminal Railway, and we dispensed his ashes in appropriate locations.

    I also put some ashes in Car 1046, which, altho’ rebuilt, dates back to 1902

    which he rode in the Twenties and Thirties from Ahuntsic.

    ( We also walked the former Tramways Millen Route from Cremazie to Kelly ( Henri Bourassa ) and placed ashes along that route and where his home was once at La Jeunnesse and Kelly. )

    Streetcars ‘worked’ in Montreal in THEIR era because they ran unhindered by autos. They would not work, now, unless on their own private reservation in the centre of a wide street.

    Had autos and trucks come first, there might not have been any streetcars at all, and fewer railways.

    To run in THEIR TIME, they were labour intensive, given the WIRE and the TRACK.

    The population was much smaller and clustered around the Tramways.

    The wives stayed at home, usually, and shopped in local markets close to home.

    As a child I rode in a sleigh to the-then new Steinberg’s at Walkley ( With an Apostrophe as in Eatons’s and Simpson’s and Morgan’s ) pulled by my Mother. On the way back I had to walk, as the sleigh was full of groceries.

    She NEVER thought to take the 3B Autobus along Somerled, and never take a taxi, either, a kilometre each way in snow well up to her knees.

    Admittedly, milk, eggs and bread came by horse wagon, but, still.

    ( I also rode the same sleigh down the tunnel route of the Tramways from Beaver Lake pulled by my Father c. 1949. The route did not operate in winter, and it was thump, thump, thump over the ties echoing in the tunnel as there was no snow inside.

    I was scared a streetcar would come, even with the snow, when we were in the tunnel.

    If the tunnel was still there, some tagger would get hit by a streetcar tying up traffic for hours. Sure as crap! )

    The Pittsburgh trolley men probably slept in their cars as they still had Company Pride and did their jobs without complaint, or texting.

    Possibly they could not get home as the streetcars were not running, so, put on the handbrake, shut off the compressor and most of the lights and slept in a nice warm car and wait it out. I would.

    It WAS a different world before wall to wall telephones, big Diesel trucks with plows, and the Unions.

    Not necessarily a BETTER world, but, different.

    ( Still had Polio and Diphtheria. Kids died all the time from Pneumonia, as did the aged. )

    Company pride does make a man move mountains, and, too often that has been lost.

    ( Of course, there could have been subtle pressure in the robber baron era about dismissal if the cars did not run on time, either, just because ‘Someone went home!’ )

    Into the Fifties, the City of Montreal, when sanding sidewalks, would first plow the snow off with small bulldozers or Case tractors with a big dopey-looking cab, painted grey with red wheels, then send out Sicard dump trucks with sand in the back.

    The driver ( and the truck! ) would go down the centre of the street in bull low gear, and two men with shovels and a flat stick would take sand from the truck and walk to the sidewalk sweeping the sand onto the ice as they walked.

    Each man would walk out to the truck for more sand when his shovel was empty, and return to the sidewalk.

    Before the motorized plows and bulldozers, the sidewalk plows were pulled by horses until 1950 or so.

    In the spring, probably the same men would come around with bristle brooms and sweep the sand into the gutter, making piles every fifty feet or so, following behind, would be the same dump truck and two more men with shovels moving the piled sand out to the truck to haul away.

    When cars became more common in the Fifties, another dump truck would circulate with a mix of sand and salt in the back. A man with a shovel would ride in the back. The truck would slow down approaching stop signs and intersections and the man would shovel four or five crossways sprays of the mixture onto the road behind the truck.

    Car traffic would then spread the salt mixture to the corner.

    T’was a different world just after the War.

    Montreal was mechanically FASCINATING!

    Anyway, another story that got too long and diverged from it’s appointed route.

    These stories are meant to inform, possibly ‘educate’ and definitely, if possible, amuse?

    The Lost Motorman?

    Thank You.

  5. Way to focus on the negatives, CDNLOCOCO. That subway derailment was an extremely isolated incident, the only one of its kind in memory. If a fire closes down a street like Queen, then no alternative vehicles can get through besides streetcars. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives like Dundas or King, all two way streets. You’re just looking for things to hate and you combined isolated incidents which occurred over a broad period of time without anything positive to say. In reality, the streetcars work without major incidents or war efforts in Canadian winter today, as I see in Toronto. They help make Queen Street West into the iconic and still iconoclastic slice of Canadian urbanism that it is.

  6. Back in the Sixties, having to leave Montreal, I lived in Toronto-the-Good for a while, and had to use the East/West subway line, this being when there were still vestigial remnants of streetcar operation on the East end of Danforth and the West end of Bloor.

    I had to cross the city all too often and found the trip very tiring, as it was way too far to do on a daily basis, and that was in 1968!!

    During that time, the subway was extended East and West, getting rid of the last streetcars on Danforth and Bloor, and making the whole subway trip that much longer.

    ( However, it WAS quicker than transferring from streetcars to the subway. )

    At that time the St Clair car still went to Eglington and Mount Pleasant rather than turn at St Clair Subway.

    The Rogers Road car still branched off from St Clair and the Wychwood car barns were still in use.

    PCC cars ran coupled in sets of two on Queen out to Humber Loop, the CLRV still in the future.

    With the extensions to the subway, the earliest PCCs were sent to Egypt, Car 4000 sent to Halton.

    We spent a good hour in the rain one winter’s day waiting for TCC 4199, then the oldest streetcar operating in Toronto, as someone had seen it on Queen and called me.

    ( An aside. One thing nice about streetcars not appreciated by people who have never ridden them nor lived in a city where they operate, is that they have BELLS!, a ‘Big City’ sound not to be forgotten.

    Toronto’s cars also have horns and turn signals. )

    If Toronto gets new streetcars, I HOPE they still have bells, even if electronic.

    Trolley buses on several routes, the Can Car Brills and the Marmon Herrington coaches soon being replaced by the-then-new Flyer trolley buses.

    The Annette trolley bus winding its way electrically across Toronto adjacent to the CPR North Line from Leaside to Toronto West.

    ‘Ned Hanlan’ the steam tug was still afloat in the harbour, not far from a derelict TTC Mack Bus, and facing an uncertain future.

    ( Lets not diverge to CP 8921, fresh up to Toronto from Transfer Service between St Luc and Hochelaga in Montreal, another talisman from the past.

    It quickly became know as the ‘Empress of Agincourt’, and could always be seen from the Annette bus as it headed to Agincourt, or trundling by Union Station, Parkdale and out to the Junction at Toronto West/Lambton. )

    Then, there was less traffic in Toronto and things moved fairly well.

    NOW, what has happened in Toronto, and most major centres, is the population has grown faster than the infrastructure, and it has become overloaded.

    In the so called good old days, the Yonge Subway ended at Eglington and they would cut train size back with the red Glouster subway cars at non-rush hours, the trains being shunted into the West Main track at Davisville to adjust train length, those barns for the use of the Yonge trains.

    There were small numbered markers under the platform edge for the Motorman to judge where to stop with 6 or 8 car trains, One set of markers white on black, the other black on white depending if the trains were red or silver equipments, the latter cars being the longer.

    We quickly ascertained the silver 5300s were built by Montreal Locomotive Works and had a different roof pattern and rode them if we could, as they were the uncommon car to see and, Built in Montreal! to boot!

    The Yonge trains stopped Southbound at Union and turned back in the evening, as there was not enough patronage to run the University line back up to Bloor after supper.

    Toronto the Quiet, Forty years ago.

    Everything new, including the Gardner, almost.

    Then you could see little traffic on the DVP or the 401 outside rush hour and one could almost ‘enjoy’ the drive across the top of Toronto or down the DVP and out the Gardner towards the QEW and on to Hamilton or Niagara Falls.

    Then came the rapid expansion and it all went to heck.

    Not just in Toronto, but everywhere else.

    The Pape 25 bus became standing room only much of the time, and SLOW!, it was usually better to use an East/West surface route such as Eglington 34, Lawrence East 54, York Mills, or, even go up to Sheppard and take the new subway once it opened, which often became more practicable than going South.

    Now, the problem is not with the transit systems, per se, but the amount of people and motor vehicles hindering their progress.

    Streetcars don’t work that well when sharing the streets with autos and trucks, the reason many cities got rid of them in the Fifties.

    Aging cars from before the Depression and long-deferred maintainance of the fixed plant did not help, either.

    Oil was cheap, buses versatile and deemed modern when compared with the streetcar, or the Interurban.

    The automobile, the new God of the Roads, and to be catered to at all costs, and buses could use the roads, too!

    Fast forward 4 decades and I had to return to Toronto-the-getting-long-in-the-tooth.

    The good had gone.

    ( A poll on the Internet ascertains, and I know not how, that Toronto is the most unhappy city in Canada?

    Hmmmmm. )

    The 401 a nightmare, Eglington bumper to bumper much of the time.

    The Gardner spalling off concrete onto the streets below.

    ( Montreal cannot gloat here, as overpasses fall down and chunks tumble from the Metropolitan. The cracks in the Turcot Interchange are awesome.

    There was a HOLE in the deck of Pont Viau a while back. )

    Buses packed almost all the time, Queen streetcars inching along.

    Time marching on, along with wear and tear.

    A trip anywhere getting to be a nightmare during the day.

    This is not to pick on Toronto.

    The same is happening in Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal.

    MANY bridges in North America are almost life-expired.

    Last night spoke to a friend who drives a truck for a living in Montreal and he said it took almost two hours to get from Upper Lachine Road at Cavendish to Chateaugay as Pont Mercier was in a snit.

    After my Father passed away I had to take care of things in Toronto, and returned in October 2008.

    As I had time to kill, I decided to TTC to Union, stroll thru the concourse and visit the Steam Whistle Brewry in the old CPR Roundhouse at John St, and visit more old friends, CP 7020, CP 7069 and the CN 4803.

    I got on the Subway at Eglington and the train stopped at Davisville.

    And waited, and waited and waited. A Northbound came in, and stopped, and waited, and waited and waited.

    Some blurry announcement came over the speaker system about a ‘delay’ at Eglington, then our Southbound train moved out towards Union.

    At Union an announcement said the Yonge Subway was closed. I asked and there was ‘An Issue’ at Eglington and service was not.

    I walked thru Union and over to the Roundhouse, noticing things were starting to conjest in Union as the subway trains were not running North.

    While I was sightseeing around the waterfront area, and decided to wait until after the evening rush hour, I wandered over to see and wonder what was going to happen with the ‘Ned Hanlan’ again and the steam engine from the sand dredge in the glass cage at the Marine Museum.

    It used to operate electrically at the push of a button so one could examine the ‘Motion’.

    About 8 PM I walked back to Union and found the line was still closed on Yonge, so, having some time, walked up to King and took the King Car thru to Dundas West, then the Subway over to Keele, and the bus up to St Clair, planning to ride the St Clair streetcar for the last time before I left Toronto.

    OH OH! No St Clair streetcars at all! The wire down, and the white lines for traffic control over the rails not cut by the wheels.

    A fellow was at the car stop and I asked him why there were no streetcars and he said the route was being rebuilt.

    To my surprise, it was!, and a good thing to see. New roadbed and rails going in. Nice to see in the 21st century.

    St Clair is a good street, as is Spadina, for streetcars, as it is wide enough for a separate right of way for the streetcars as well as space for motor traffic.

    I got off at St Clair West and asked if the Yonge Line was reopened, yet, and it was not, they amplifying the story, that the signal cables being down just South of Eglington, and that service MIGHT be restored for the morning rush hour.

    I had a train to catch out of Union in the AM, and that now became a concern.

    I went up to Eglington West and took the Eglington bus East to Eglington Station and took the Mount Pleasant 103 from there, getting back in a roundabout way.

    Those photographs are wonderful! I wish I could compose images such as that, and that we had Digital Cameras to work with in the days of steam locomotives, streetcars, canallers and horse wagons bringing milk to the door.

    I always wanted to get an ‘above’ photo of a ‘Grand Union’ trolley intersection where two double-track routes crossed and cars could access all crossing routes in four directions thru special work.

    Lovely. Snow can be beautiful on Film, or Digital.

    Years ago I travelled out to the East end of the Queen route to look at the water filtration plant on Lake Ontario and on walking back to the Queen streetcar loop, noticed one of the articulated 4200 series cars turning.

    The ‘bend’ at the point of articulation was quite obvious from the raised location to the East of the loop, a nice mechanical photo.

    I liked sitting at the rear of the articulated streetcars and buses and watching how they flexed inside going around curves and corners.

    With my Father in my packsack I then left Toronto, the signals working on the TTC, ( Right On! ) and left Toronto-the-Unhappy for Montreal on Via ex Union Station.

    Its not som much hatred, its the disappointment in seeing things degrading from what they once were, and knowing there is no easy solution.

    Too many, Too much.

    A Global problem that will, maybe? be addressed after I am gone.

    Thank You!

  7. Cars, too are very labour intensive.

    Mechanics, car salesmen, used car salesmen, gas station attendants (okay, there are very few of those), road workers, road engineers, assembly line workers…

    But at least it’s not subversive, unionized Transit Commission labour whose union contributions go to favourize the subversive, pinko-socialist, anti-canadian, separatist Parti-Québécois, but good old uneducated un-unionized labour that does not contribute to the Parti-Québécois, listens to André Arthur, reads Desmarais’ La Praïsse and thus can be bamboozled to vote for the liberals once in a while…

    And transit is cheap; how can you have a docile workforce that will take whatever shit and cutbacks you heap at them if they don’t have to make those expensive car payments every month??? Not having a car means that you can tell your boss to shove his crappy job in his car exhaust. Bosses don’t like such independent employees.

    This is why public transit has powerful enemies, because good public transit means true political freedom for the masses and less money for the Elvis Grattons of this world.

  8. Interesting reads, I enjoyed them. But I never understood the obsession with resurrecting an archaic technology. Besides the fun factor of riding in a trolly there isn’t much going for the project. It’s not cost effective, it’s slow and it’s not flexible. Once you build a track you’re stuck. You have to expropriate a large area for the switch tracks/maintenance area. The initial costs are very large and you have to rip up existing roads to install the tracks/poles. You can’t test an area for service or change routes so if you pick a poor destination you’re are stuck with a huge sunk cost. Most of crucial service coverage is already available through the metro system, which is faster, more efficient and safer since you’re taking out of the equation all the traffic variables. 

  9. Please let keep tramways in our (distant) memories… 

  10. Well, how do cars and buses make it through Montreal winters?

    Answer: because we spend a lot of money shifting snow around the Island.

    It is shameful that Quebec designed modern trams operate in snowy climates in Europe, but we remain too provincial to have them here.

  11. Why did montreal considered their streetcar a liability to get rid of and yet toronto did not , they were a great asset,

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