Goodbye, retro Métro

Montreal’s fleet of stylish subway trains—the oldest in North America—is on the verge of extinction

Goodbye, retro Métro

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

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.”

Today, all 336 first-generation (MR-63) cars, as well as 423 second generation MR-73s, are still in service, and are maintained for the most part at Youville Shops, a squat brown slab that sits just out of spitting range of the city’s busiest east-west autoroute. Built in 1911, the complex once housed the city’s fleet of tramway cars and then its buses. Today, its 1.5-million-sq.-foot space is dedicated to maintaining both the MR-63 and the MR-73—the latter being the train that, because of its power modulator, emits the signature do-do-dooo sound.

Apart from the tires, which are Michelin-made, few companies still manufacture the Métro components. At Youville, housed in what look like overgrown high school shop classes, workers replicate what is no longer made elsewhere. Some parts have been made here since forever.

“See this?” asks Arseneault, brandishing a planed piece of wood about 40 cm long, four cm thick and as wide as a stick of Juicy Fruit. It smells like it just came out of a deep fryer—which it did. “They’re the brake pads. They’re made out of yellow birch, from Quebec. We douse them in boiling peanut oil and salt water so they don’t heat up.” Why wood? “Regular brake pads are rough on the wheels, and because the Métro is totally enclosed, carbon dust from regular brake pads would be a health concern. Plus, these are cheap. Ten dollars each. We had to fight like hell with the engineers from Bombardier to get them on the new cars.”

Arseneault, who began working on Youville’s shop floor in the ’80s, isn’t sad to see the old fleet disappear. “You know, I don’t get attached to things. For me, it’s more having to deal with the instability that’s going to come with the new technology. We’re used to these machines. We know them very well, because we have people who have worked on them for 25 years. They’re worried about what they’re going to do with themselves.” The old cars will probably be put in a museum somewhere. Arseneault doesn’t expect to visit them once they’re there.

Most other Quebecers are a touch more wistful, it seems. “I get this sense of nostalgia from the Métro cars,” says Dave Lank, an instructor at Concordia who recently moved back to Montreal from Vancouver. “Everything in Vancouver is shiny, glassy and brand new. Here, these are the same cars I travelled on when I was a kid, getting on at Atwater to go to Ben’s Smoked Meat with my grandfather, the first strange time when you go way farther east to see the Expos at Olympic Stadium. It’s a reminder of a time when Montreal did big, bold things, and there’s going to be a disconnect when those new trains come in.”

Though they will be chock full of new technology, the STM has taken pains to incorporate certain holdovers from the old cars in the new—a security blanket of sorts for nostalgic Quebecers. Its new paint scheme, for which Montrealers themselves voted in an online poll, is a sophisticated nod to the flying Fleurdelisé. That do-do-dooo sound will now signal the closing of the doors. And, technology be damned, it’ll still be chunks of Quebec lumber slowing the things down at every station.

Change might be inevitable, but so is attachment. Do-do-dooo.

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