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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Boundaries or Barriers for Petite-Patrie-Mile-End?

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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.
permeable tracks in Saint-Henri

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?

The Passages sur la voie ferrée Facebook group offers posts celebrating the space, warnings about police surveillance, and advice on contesting tickets.



  1. I moved to Rosemont—Petite-Patrie last year too and totally agree; the absence of a “humane” way of crossing the tracks is indeed intolerable. I’d heard of this polémique before moving to the neighbourhood, but experiencing it on a daily basis has really driven home the absurdity of it all. But what can we do? They’ve been talking (but not doing anything) about this for ages.

    On the Prairies we have an old expression: “Goddam the CPR!”

  2. New crossings need to be built yes, but there is absolutely no excuse for the disgusting state the current infrastructure is in. There is way too much political finger pointing and buck passing going on, with the boroughs blaming the city and CP, the city blaming the boroughs and CP, and CP not saying much because really they don’t have much to gain. The St-Urbain/Clark tunnel for example would be much more popular if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to walk through, the Saint-Laurent tunnel isn’t much better. Plateau Mont-Royal is insisting on a level crossing, but is that the best option? In any event, something needs to be done about it.

  3. It’s not entirely correct to say that ‘negotiations with CP were unsuccessful.”
    Certainly, CP has not agreed to build a level crossing, let alone the five or six or more that would be ideal to connect the Plateau and Rosemont as the two boroughs should be connected.
    But work continues and if CP persists in refusing to allow a level crossing, then the case will almost certainly end up before a federal tribunal which can order the railways to accommodate the reasonable demands of municipalities. And this demand is, of course, more than simply reasonable; it’s just good sense.

  4. The tall green wall on the right is the result of people in Village des Tanneries, just beyond the green, planting 2000 trees 4 or 5 years ago. The trees act as a border. I have never personally seen anyone get hassled on this stretch, but I am sure it does happen.

  5. Indeed, the area south of the wall of trees Neath mentioned is land owned by the CN. Any trespassers caught crossing the tracks or simply walking their dogs on that site are routinely given hefty fines… Given the accidental deaths of trespassers by trains over the years, it’s quite reasonable for them to discourage illegal crossings whenever possible …  Until a safe alternative can be found.  
    It does seem like a waste of perfectly good space though…

  6. Hmm I can’t read this

    “Given the accidental deaths of trespassers by trains over the years, it’s quite reasonable for them to discourage illegal crossings whenever possible”

    without raising suspicion. Where are the data to back up this? How many *accidental* deaths (removing people who really decided to throw themselves in front of the train).

    I’m living in the area and I have hard time understanding how someone could be killed by the train in this large open area with trains moving at a very slow pace. I have been living in Japan where passages for humans are very common on lines with a lot more traffic and trains going a lot faster.

    Education, signals, etc is more the issues than forbidding the crossing.

  7. Récemment j’ai découvert la brèche dans la clôture exactement à l’endroit où la photo a été prise. Bien que c’était l’hiver, j’ai beaucoup apprécié passer par là en allant au marché Jean-Talon et sur le chemin du retour. J’étais à pied, je prenais une longue marche de santé et je me cherchais une autre route pour diversifier le parcours. Je me suis imaginé être en été au moment où j’ai traversé ce terrain du CP qui relie le vaste terrain vague qui se trouve au Sud du chemin de fer que j’utilise souvent à vélo quand j’ai à me rendre de chez-moi vers Outremont et vice-versa. Ça me rappelle les terrains vagues de Longueuil quand j’étais enfant, là où se trouve le métro et les bretelles du pont Jacques-Cartier. À l’époque il n’y avait rien à cet endroit. à par que des herbes folles et les sentiers tracés au fils des été par nos vélos et ça sentait bon le mélilot et la vesce-jargeau. Même en janvier je me suis imaginé l’odeur… Je ferai attention pour ne pas me faire donner un ticket si je passe à nouveau par là. Ça demeure quand même un bel endroit même si c’est quelque peu trash.

  8. I recently had a conversation with an urban planner working as a land manager for CP about this very issue.  She was very unsympathetic to the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists having safe and inviting spaces to cross railroad tracks, and argued that the only solution was for pedestrians to keep using the tunnels like on St Laurent or have the city build new ones.  My counter-arguments, similar to what Alanah presents, fell on deaf ears.  This woman’s chief argument in favour of strict enforcement was the mental trauma that train engineers experience when they hit someone.  

    Although I can imagine that this is a very serious situation for the engineers and I can’t imagine how badly they would feel if they hit someone, I cannot think of very many incidents where people have died by being hit by trains in Montreal.  There have been a few to be sure but it doesn’t strike me as being a highly significant risk compared to all the possible ways to be killed and injured after leaving the house in the morning.  It was interesting to hear this argument presented, but I don’t buy it much.  I think CP could be far less intransigent in negotiations than they are, but I suspect they haven’t much to gain by putting in level crossings.

    On a related note, a new fence went up a few months ago along part of the tracks in St Henri near the Provigo in what was for a very long time an open area with a nice path…check it out, its rather a shame.

  9. These tracks are effectively a rail right-of-way which is significantly impinging on public space (the neighbourhoods which have developed on both sides). Perhaps this was less of an issue fifty years ago, but the city has developed extensively since then and this is certainly causing hardship for a large number of residents. What of the people who are hit or injured using unsafe (but legal) passages around this obstacle? Transport Canada is working on policies to address the safety of such corridors ((, but there is little recognition of the public right-of-way. There needs to be a balance between safety and access.

    CP, as the owner of this right of way, should be held responsible for resolving the situation. If they refuse to do so, perhaps it is time that the issue be forced upon them. Why should infrequent freight trains have unobstructed use of this corridor if pedestrians and cyclists do not?

  10. À Boucherville il y a une voie ferrée qui sépare la nouvelle partie de la ville et le vieux village. On a tout simplement mis une porte dans la clôture pour que les gens puissent passer d’un côte à l’autre de la voie ferrée et ainsi accéder au vieux village de même qu’au fleuve. Cette porte est magnétique et se referme d’elle même automatiquement. Lorsqu’un train est sur le point de passer, cette porte reste collée à l’aimant et est alors impossible à ouvrir. Une fois le train passé, on peut de nouveau l’ouvrir sans problème et traverser la voie. Pourquoi ce système ne serait pas installé le long de la voie ferrée du CP? Si à Boucherville, une ville où à peu près tout le monde se déplace en voiture, on a eu la brillante idée d’installer un tel système, pourquoi à Montréal, où plein de gens se déplacent à pied ou à vélo, ce n’est pas possible?

  11. Merveilleux idée Luc! Comme vous disiez, “Pourquoi ce système ne serait pas installé le long de la voie ferrée du CP?” Surtout le long des sections identifiés comme ‘critique’ de point de vue ‘citoyenne’.

  12. As William’s example shows the few deaths crossing tracks tend to come from suicide, writing on trains, riding on them, hanging out along the tracks or train workers but unfortunately rail orgs don’t differentiate by cause. 
    Unlike with auto transport, pedestrians & bikes are not a high priority and in the rare instance when municipalities ask the railroads for level crossings they inevitably say it’s impossible and municipalities give up. The only way to succeed is to mount a Transport case, many x cheaper &quicker than trying to build a tunnel/ bridge. Glad to see Montreal isn’t just giving up.
    Once you build them and accidents don’t follow people accept them. 81% approval of building the Ave Ball level crossing to Parc Jarry after the St. Roch overpass was condemned 
    Cut off at the pass

  13. The de Lorimier bicycle path crossing under the tracks is fine if you are young and don’t have any minor disabilities. I’m in my 50s and have a bit of arthritis – while I can usually handle the high climb and deep drop there (it strikes me as unsafe for anyone though, in wet weather) but there is little room to get off one’s bicycle if one is unable to make the climb (me, when my joints act up). I cycle a lot, and it is very important to make cycle paths praticable for cyclists “from 8 to 80”.

    The cycle path along the CP line is very useful for people who work in southeastern Montréal. I used to teach at the Hochelaga YMCA and a member of my housing co-op in Petite-Patrie teaches at Cégep Maisonneuve and uses it a lot. But indeed, the connections with the major streets along the way are terrible.

    I live in La Petite Patrie (Petite-Italie) north of the tracks, and friends are involved in founding a housing co-op in Mile End due south of our co-op. The detour will be very annoying. The Ball crossing is wonderful – it means that there are far more people from Parc-Ex using Parc Jarry, to the extent that the city has built a cricket pitch!

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