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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Will streetcars return to Montreal?

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Bleury St.

It used to be that Toronto and Montreal weren’t so different. La Ville reine had spiffy red streetcars; la métropole had cheery yellow and olive-green ones. But that changed in 1959, when Montreal, ever so fashion-conscious, scrapped the last of its trams.

Now, nearly half a century after they disappeared, it would seem that the people who run this town are determined to bring streetcars back to its streets. Yesterday, La Presse reported that City Hall will announce the construction of a new tramway line linking downtown, Griffintown, Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter as part of a broader transport plan that will be unveiled in May. Apparently, the federal government might be willing to cough up enough cash to pay for the project, but nothing is certain just yet. That hasn’t stopped others from dreaming: today brought with it the news that officials in Montreal’s Southwest borough want to reclaim disused CN and CPR tracks to build a tramway along the banks of the Lachine Canal.

If Montrealers are sceptical, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve heard this kind of thing before, such as when Mayor Gérald Tremblay visited Paris, gazed upon its new shiny new streetcars and declared, with a strange look in his eyes, that Park Avenue would have a tramway by the end of the decade. Of course, nothing came of that and, considering Tremblay’s new relationship with the people of Park Avenue, it’s likely that nothing ever will.

But it seems clear that the mayor has latched onto the idea of leaving behind a new streetcar system as his legacy. After all, the project reported yesterday in La Presse did not emerge from thin air: it was first proposed in 2005 as a part of a plan to revitalize Montreal’s harbourfront neighbourhoods—a plan drafted by none other than heavyweights Lucien Bouchard, a former Quebec premier, and Bernard Shapiro, former principal of McGill University. If any tramway project is likely to be realized, it is this one. So here are the details: the proposed harbour tramway would start at Dorchester Square, a block from the busy intersection of Peel and Ste. Catherine. It would then travel down Peel Street, towards the harbour, before turning east and heading into the Old Port along the unused railroad tracks next to the water. It would finally pass through Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter and end at Berri-UQAM, the city’s main metro hub.

I think this is a great plan for a couple of reasons. The first is that it would link uptown and downtown—or downtown and Old Montreal, if you prefer the more modern terminology—in a way that hasn’t been done since Montreal’s streetcar system was dismantled so long ago. More importantly, it would pass through Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was isolated from the rest of the city by highways and urban renewal but has recently undergone a revival with the rapid expansion of the à‰cole superieur de technologie and the construction of several thousand new residential units. Very quickly this has gone from being a totally marginal part of town to one that is home to thousands of new people—yet it is still underserved by public transit. The harbour tramway would provide it with a fixed link to the rest of the city.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of a Lachine Canal tramway. Opened in 1825, the canal was the catalyst for the industrialization of Montreal and, by extension, the whole of Canada. The neighbourhoods that arose along its banks are varied and fascinating, but they traditionally turned their backs to the noisy, dirty canal. After the St. Lawrence Seaway rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete in the late 1950s, though, it became downright pastoral as industry moved away and a bike path was built along its banks. Over the past ten years, old factories have been converted into residential and commercial lofts and the Atwater Market, located next to the canal at the foot of Atwater Street, has become a hub of new commerce and condos.

As gentrification has progressed, however, the canal has become increasingly disconnected from the working-class neighbourhoods that surround it. A tramway along its banks would help to reintegrate it into the centre of community life. It would also knit together all of the canalside neighbourhoods that were isolated from one another in the postwar era: Griffintown, Little Burgundy, St. Henri, Point St. Charles, Cà´te St. Paul, Ville St. Pierre and, of course, Lachine. It seems to me that many postwar public transit projects, including the Montreal metro, ignored traditional transit alignments. Building a tramway along the Lachine Canal would reembrace what is essentially an overlooked 182-year-old transportation corridor.

We’ll see what happens. For now, though, this flurry of tramway interest makes me hopeful that streetcars will once again find their place in Montreal.

Papineau St.

Photos from the Montreal Transit Corporation’s photographic archives.

Cross-posted to Urbanphoto.



  1. This is a great thing if it goes through. I find heading down to the water is obstructed by the Bonaventure expressway. This should help remove the disconnect.

    And Toronto might be able to see what could happen with a competitive bid for the streetcars? (Or would Montreal default as well to Bombardier?)

  2. I lived in Montreal for over 30 years and always knew spring was around the corner when the old streetcar tracks began heaving through the pavement of the downtown streets.

    (The city’s infamously crooked contractors had paved over them, instead of removing them as they had been paid to do. This strategy also provided the crooks with decades of additional revenue charged for the perennial street repairs that became necessary.)

    I wonder if they’re still there?

  3. They were still spotted on Ste-Catharine by yours truly last May. Where they were not removed, they sometimes resurface here as well – check out the north side of the Bay and Bloor intersection. The tracks were gone there since 1966. There’s a few others.

    I’ve got one of the books published by the Bytown Railway society on the MTC. What I always notice (evident in the first photo above) is the all-English signage on city streets, even offical civic signage. Montreal has come a long way.

  4. Streetcars are making a comeback in North America. Portland just rebuilt it’s Streetcar Network. Vancouver is trying to get one built for the Olympics. Calgary is flirting with the idea.

    It really did help when Calgary and Edmonton decided to build LRT.

  5. Interesting summary of the capacity of a BRT run. 8,000 people per peak hr per direction with standard buses. A quick calculation shows a 27 second headway would be required between busses!!! In mixed traffic??? With average traffic signals of about 60 second cycle??

  6. A question I might ask, is there any room for a loop around Dorchester square? And maybe an underground loop at Berri-UQAM similar to what Toronto has at Union station?

  7. Since Montreal will surely be not insane enough to buy single end streetcars for a new network, tail tracks and crossovers will be sufficient as in the new light rail systems in Europe. Where a quick turnaround is needed and land available permits, a loop can be constructed anyway, but this introduces wheel squeal into the equation too.

  8. Tony Prescott would disagree, the previous Montreal tramway was mostly unidirectional, and Toronto still retains unidirectional running. Tony has written an article published in transit Australia about this, he says that while many old systems still retain unidirectional running, sometimes without even considering a switch to bidirectional running, many newcomers are reluctant to even consider unidirectional running. He thinks this is due to operational conservatism.
    But then again, I studied the location on Google maps and found a more direct route, and realised jut how indirect the tram route is, so I thought that maybe a circular route might be a better idea, where trams from Dorchester square to Berri UQAM loop back to the square via Boulevard Maisonneuve, and trams in the opposite direction loop back from Dorchester square to Berri UQAM via that same route.
    This way, trams in both directional will constantly run in the same direction, and the advantages of designing trams for unidirectional running can be considered:

    *The cost of the rolling stock (and possibly the energy needed to manufacture them) will be less as only one driver’s cab and full control panel needs to be provided, and (if all stops are on the same side) doors on only the side which stops are located. By having doors on only one side, we can avoid to possibility of the driver accidentally opening the doors on the wrong side and the safety risks of children and absent minded adults alighting on the wrong side. Thus if doors are located on both sides without any wrong side safeguard, either a fence on the side opposite to the platform, or some automatic mechanism and software to prevent the doors opening on the wrong side, may well be disability discrimination and thus breaching the spirit of disability discrimination legislation.

  9. * The new Toronto lines (the TC lines) will be bidirectional.

    * The possibility of “wrong door opening” is dealt with by appropriate safety equipment, as on the Toronto subway where a key has to be turned to change door sides. “Breaching the spirit of disability … legislation” – come on!

    * Even on a circular route, you still need turnback capability which in an exclusive right of way is best done with crossovers to avoid having to enter the public highway.

    The frequent sight of Toronto streetcars front-to-back trapped by an incident and unable to reverse to a crossover and head in the other direction to maintain service is good enough for me, as is the engineering challenges facing TTC when it tries to expand the loop at Union (which 2-3 tail tracks would have managed with much easier placement of supports).

  10. Re:wrong doors

    I would expect that such safety equipment to be fitted in which case there is not disability discrimination. But here in Melbourne, where all our trams are double ended with doors on both sides, there have been cases of drivers accidentally opening the wrong doors, similar incidents have occurred in Adelaide and on the Dublin Luas, where such safety equipment is not provided.

    Re:Transit city

    But these are very much LRT in character, with less frequent stops, wider curves and lesser maximum gradients.

    Re:short working

    This is possible with unidirectional trams too! On many tramway networks in Europe, this is managed by intermediate turnbacks, additional loops are provided along the way, and even any triangular junction can serve as a turnback as in this video.
    Modern unidirectional trams in Europe are often provided with a basic set of rear controls that can be used for reversing and have similar performance in forward or reverse.
    On some larger networks, like that of Prague, there are also some double ended trams that can be used on lines temporarily truncated for trackwork, and many other smaller networks have a practice of running unidirectional trams in back to back coupled pairs with only the lead vehicle being used for passengers.
    On a final note, depot design is usually the same for both unidirectional and bidirectional running, unidirectional trams just reverse in using their rear controls if necessary. Any that needs to be in place is a wye at the entrance to the depot, often available even in depots for bidirectional systems. While depot design does therefore tend to be the same, there are exceptions, in case of bidirectional systems, they may not always be available, but usually are. Even if there isn’t a wye at the entrance of the depot, one could provide a reversing triangle within the yard.
    Another exception is in Milan, where depots are constructed as balloon loops.