Collectively, Montreal’s fleet of Métro trains resembles a giant, rolling anachronism, the long-ago vision of the future conceived and built smack in the middle of the sixties. The trains slow to a stop with the sound of rushing air, then leave the station with an ascending three-note arpeggio (F sharp, B, F sharp–do, do, doooo) that is as quaintly Montreal as steak frites and bière en fut. So is the colour scheme: sky blue with a white stripe—a streaking Fleurdelisé that efficiently ushers some 400,000 people through the city’s innards every day. And soon enough, most of the fleet will disappear.
Starting in 2014, the city’s transport authority will begin mothballing the old trains, replacing them with sleek, silvery, bullet-like carriages. Bombardier and French conglomerate Alstom have partnered to build the new trains, which will be “more spacious, open and inviting,” according to a promotional video, “with well-positioned support poles and bars.”
But whatever the new trains will offer—air suspension, high-definition television screens, a PA system that doesn’t make the conductor sound like he or she is in the throes of death—they will undeniably spell the end of a glorious chapter in the city’s history. Put into service in the mid-1960s, a time of giddy optimism, the Métro trains have been a comfortable constant as the city above shone—and as it went through various stages of hell.
Language woes, caustic politics, the War Measures Act, economic downturns, two referendums, an ice storm, the flight of thousands of its citizens for more English pastures: throughout all the calamities you could always depend on a bubble-bodied, rubber-wheeled, Smurf-coloured train to take you quickly and efficiently where you needed to go.
Montreal has changed. Although they haven’t subsided, those debates over language, culture and identity have certainly lost much of their intensity (or at least shifted elsewhere), while the city itself has for the most part shed its long-running inferiority complex vis-à-vis Toronto. Montreal weathered the recent economic meltdown better than most Canadian cities and, unlike New York or Vancouver, it is still possible to buy a decent-sized house near the Métro line without having to consider live organ donation.
In short, apart from its crumbling infrastructure, bureaucracy-addled government and the occasional mob-related firebombing, Montreal is doing all right, thank you. Doing well, even. And you might say that the new Métro cars, all monolithic brushed steel and eye-grabbing gadgetry, are a reflection of this. Like something you might see in Stockholm, or zipping along in Tokyo. Change is necessary, particularly for the Montreal Métro fleet, which has travelled more than 2.5 billion kilometres—“The oldest subway fleet in North America,” says Carl Arseneault, the rolling stock maintenance director for the Société de transport de Montréal (STM).
But as Morley Smith suggests, it can also be quite sad. “There are no other Métros in the world that are quite like it, I’m proud to say,” says the 72-year-old Smith. In 1962, as a self-described “kid out of Syracuse Industrial Design,” he landed a job with the firm of architect Jacques Guillon, and was charged with designing a significant part of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau’s dream: a modern, fully underground subway system to service the city’s booming population.
It had been a long time coming: as early as 1930, city planners had suggested sticking Montreal’s tramway system underground because of the traffic chaos it created. “If one [tram] car stops by the curb, the flow of traffic in that direction is immediately reduced to one lane,” complained Montreal Tramway assistant president Robert Watt in a speech that year. (It seems Toronto only recently clued in to this problem with its streetcars.) The idea of an underground system was batted about for several decades without much consequence until Drapeau ran for ofﬁce and rode into power in 1960 with a promise of making the Métro a reality. Drapeau certainly had big dreams: he thought the Métro network would grow to 160 km to accommodate Montreal’s projected population of seven million people by the year 2000. Reality turned out to be a little more modest: only about a third and a quarter that size, respectively.
Smith’s design was a modification of Paris’s Métro. “It’s very small,” he says of his Montreal subway train. “We were using the French concept of a single tunnel with two tracks. We were constantly fighting with the French designers because they wanted to sell us their design. The reason [the Montreal car] is shaped that way is because I managed to get another three inches by curving the sides to give the inside a bigger dimension. It doesn’t give you the feeling of being in a vehicle. It’s like a house on a trailer bed.”
The colour scheme, meanwhile, was a happy accident. “Drapeau wanted a white car with a red stripe,” Jacques Gillon says. “I had to say, ‘But Mr. Drapeau, that’s Air Canada.’ ” Instead, Guillon and Smith came up with a blue-tinged silver metallic paint. Drapeau, who inspected the new colour with his right-hand transport man, Lucien L’Allier, along with their wives, didn’t like it at all. “So we compromised on baby blue,” says Smith. “It matched Lucien L’Allier’s wife’s sweater.”
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