Friday, July 25, 2014

A story about a train line

CN's Deux-Montagnes line, was built as part of a major suburban and downtown development plan. The Canadian Northern Railway (absorbed by CN in 1923) needed a terminal in downtown Montréal to be competitive with the Grand Trunk (also later part of CN) and CP. The most direct route downtown available to Canadian Northern was through Mount Royal, the large hill around which Montréal is built.

A 5 kilometre tunnel was therefore built starting in 1912 and opened in 1918. It was financed in part by turning the land on the northwest side of the mountain into a ‘model city’ (modeled after Washington DC), called Mount Royal, centred around its railway station. The tunnel would make Mount Royal an ideal suburb, only about 10 minutes from downtown by train. The downtown development, including a new terminal, was not completed as planned: only a ‘temporary’ terminal was built, which lasted until 1943, when Central Station was opened; and no spectacular development took place in the area of Central Station until Place Ville-Marie in the 1960s. The Deux-Montagnes line is run by electric traction power. Some of the passenger cars include motors so trains can run like rapid transit without locomotives.

From the 1940s to the 1960s the tunnel line was very well used. As many as 77 suburban trains per day were run during the Second World War. 44 trains were run daily until 1967. The areas adjacent to the line, from Mount Royal outward, have become highly urbanized largely because of the presence of this train. This includes neighbourhoods like Cartierville, Roxboro, Pierrefonds and Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, as well as Laval Ouest and my home town, Deux Montagnes.

The municipal planners did nothing to help the trains succeed. Until 1976, it was generally assumed that the trains were a relic of the past and would fade away as their ridership switched to other modes of commuting. The original plans for the metro included a line 3 which would use the Mount Royal tunnel. When Expo ’67 was planned, it became more important to build an Expo line (line 4) under the river to Ile Sainte-Helene. Line 3 was never built. It was decided that an extension to line 2 parallel to Boulevard Décarie would be more useful. The tunnel had lost its importance. CN wanted to close the line in the 1970s and began cutting back on service while at the same time making it more expensive to ride. There was talk of converting the line to a high-speed rail line to the new Mirabel airport. Thank goodness that never went beyond the planning stages, because Mirabel was a white elephant and never became the high capacity international airport that it was originally intended to be (partly due to lack of transit access).

A further handicap that the trains suffered was their lack of connection with municipal transit systems. It may seem strange, but no effort was made to route buses in front of train stations or to schedule buses to meet trains. Downtown, the walkways between Windsor Station (CP), Central Station (CN) and the Bonaventure Metro station are long and full of turns and stairways. Until 1982, the fare systems of the trains and other modes of transit were completely independent. With infrequent service, aging rolling stock, high fares, and no integration either of fares or with other modes, it is little wonder that the trains suffered.

CN transferred the Deux-Montagnes line to the Société de transport de la communauté urbaine de Montréal (STCUM) on July 1, 1982. In 1992, the government of Quebec announced a modernization plan for the line which would include 58 state-of-the-art electric trains built by Bombardier, new tracks and centralised traffic control. Service was shut down completely in the summers of 1993, 1994 and 1995 to allow for major work to be done. The last of the old rolling stock left Central Station at 6:30pm on June 2, 1995 – 76 years, 8 months, 11 days, and ten hours after it first went into service. The same locomotive, #6711 hauled the last old-style train through the tunnel. An underpass was built at a track crossing near Montpellier station, which was needed to allow for more scheduled trains in the future. Agence Métropolitaine de Transport (AMT) now owns the line, having bought it outright from CN in 2014. CN is now only allowed to run freight trains on the line outside of commuter train rush hours.

Today, there are 25 inbound and 24 outbound departures each weekday. More than 31,000 people ride this train daily, having almost as many passengers as Montreal’s four other commuter railway lines combined. The line length is 30 kilometres.

[Update 25 Jun 2017] This train line is about to get another, even better upgrade. The REM, or Reseau Electrique Metropolitaine, The new, faster, expanded network of trains will be driver-less, branch out to 27 stations over 67km, and run 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. What now takes 45 minutes should drop to 35 minutes with the new trains. With service to the airport!

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