Montreal Métro - Smelly, Noisy, but Exceptionally Artsy

Montreal has a special place in my heart. My two-year long immigration project revolved around this great city. Before I set foot in Canada,...

Montreal has a special place in my heart. My two-year long immigration project revolved around this great city. Before I set foot in Canada, I already had a pretty good idea where I would live, work, send my kids to daycare and school, shop for groceries, spend weekends and so forth. And while I was seriously planning to settle in Montreal, I secretly envied those who could afford to live in Vancouver. So far, neither city ended up being my home. This did not prevent me from exploring Montreal though where I have spent quite a bit of time over the past 10 years. And you know what I like the most about this city? Not bagels, not smoked meat, not even poutine. Its métro! Here is my reasons why.

On my very first full day in Canada back in 2011, I got to know the Montreal métro when I headed downtown from Hochelaga-Maisonneuve where I was temporary staying. As brand new immigrants, my friends and I didn't have much of a choice but to rent a tiny, smelly apartment in an old three-story dump house in a neighbourhood where most people do two things - receive government welfare and smoke weed. 
The first thing I noticed as I was descending into the Joliette station was a very strong and unique smell. 
Up until I started writing this article, I honestly thought that the reason of this smell is the Michelin-made rubber tires that each train "wears" to get going. But I've been wrong all those years!
The real reason is the peanut oil used to grease the trains’ wooden brake shoes. These shoes are proudly made from Quebec-grown yellow birch. While it may seem a bit old-fashioned (frankly, it is outdated since most trains now use cast iron to make brake shoes), it's a nice tradition that I'm sure invokes nostalgia in many people when they smell that oil. Similarly, how I get nostalgic when I smell creosote in the Kyiv metro
Peanut oil has a very high burning point so it keeps breaks from overheating. 
Another smell many Montrealers often complain about come from other fellow riders in the summer months. The Montreal métro is pretty shallow which combined with hot and humid summers and no air conditioning at the stations can be uncomfortably warm.
By the way, the Montreal métro does not have a centralized heating system, so all the heat is generated by trains, people and buildings above ground. 

You can throw rotten tomatoes at me, but I consider the Montreal métro to be the most beautiful subway system in North America if not the entire world. At least, many experts agree that the amount of art in the Montreal métro is on par with the subway systems in Paris, Moscow and Stockholm. 
As you guessed by now, the Montreal métro is not mere a way to get from point A to point B. It's a source of pride, too. The collection of artwork is deeply embedded with Quebec's history and culture. Each station is uniquely designed by a different artist that brings a variety of styles and elements. Claude Robillard, the ex-city urban planner, even established an official policy to manage an architectural design in the métro!
Montreal definitely borrowed lots of ideas from its elder brother, Paris. It even (literally) took one of the famous Parisian Art Nouveau porticos and assembled it at the Square Victoria station. If you've been to Paris, you can instantly recognize its delicate green cast iron curves, orange lamps and a sign that says "Metropolitain".
But the Parisian Art Nouveau is just a tip of an iceberg. Each station is a masterpiece and the entire métro system is a giant art exhibitFrom heavy concrete walls in the 1960s and 1970s to round shapes and pop-art in the 1980s to an extensive use of colour and stained glass in the 2000s.
I can easily add a few dozen pictures from different stations, but let me show you my favourite ones. McGill.
De La Savane.
Jean Talon.

Lovely Trails.
The métro trains MR-63 (1966-2018) and MR-73 (1976-) became a legend. 
Proudly wearing the title "The oldest subway fleet in North America", they carried passengers over 50 years and ran over 2.5 billion kilometres / 1.55 billion miles.
While the trains resemble the ones from Paris, they were actually designed and made in Quebec. Interesting that a train manufacturer, Canadian Vickers, had never built trains before and was specialized in shipbuilding. Is it just me thinking that those trains' design still looks fresh after almost 55 years?
New AZUR trains, jointly built by the Canadian Bombardier and the French Alstom, already replaced MR-63 in 2018 and are going to replace MR-73 some time in the next decade. 
After retirement, a small number of MR-63 cars found new homes in museums and other public settings. This car lives at the Canadian Railway Museum, just south of Montreal (picture taken in September 2023). 
The subway inauguration day on October 14, 1966. 
I really like how those old cars transformed into an art atelier, a cafe and a recording studio at Lachine Canal in Montreal's vibrant Griffintown

Big Dig.
Interesting that the key driver to construct a subway system in Montreal was not a rapidly growing population, not even traffic congestion problems, but a rivalry with Toronto. 
When Toronto began a subway construction in 1949, it served as a a wake-up call for the Montreal authorities. It still took them over a decade to finally start digging though.
At the time, Jean Drapeau, the most famous Montreal's mayor, got obsessed with rubber tire trains that he saw in Paris. While previously he fiercely dumped all the streetcars in Montreal and replaced them with buses, no more did a train seem an obsolete more of transportation for him. Quite the opposite - rubber tire train would become a symbol of innovation. 
Another driver to build the métro was the upcoming Expo 67. Opened in October 1966, just in time for the exhibition, the Montreal métro comprised of 3 lines and 26 stations, all underground. It marked a huge milestone for the city and forever changed the way Montrealers would move around.  
The métro was awfully successful, so the city decided to extend it even further.
Most of today's 4-line subway network was built in 1960-80s. The year 2015 marked the beginning of another big transportation project called REM (Réseau Express Métropolitain), a commuter train that will connect the West Island to the Montreal - Trudeau International Airport, downtown and the South Shore. 

Those that rode a train would likely notice a three-note distinct sound that is quite sweet. 
As much as we want to give a credit to artists, the sound is coming from a device called "peak chopper" that prevents power surges. And only by chance does it resemble the first three notes of the Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, one of the musical themes for Expo 67.
While new trains don't require this device any more, the sound is still present, for aesthetic purposes. 
Another interesting fact about the Montreal métro is how it regulates who and when can play music at the stations. There are over 50 designated locations marked with a plaque depicting a lyre. Despite a popular belief, you don't have to be a professional artist to be able to busk in the métro. But you have to respect some pretty strict rules. 
"Performers must use their talent, demeanor and attitude to project a positive public image, making an effort to promote pleasure, happiness and the joys of music; performers must present themselves in a clean and appropriate state of dress; if a gathering crowd begins to obstruct the flow of local commuters, the musician must stop playing and ask listeners to disperse in order to allow other commuters to pass; in consideration of nearby employees or vendors, musicians must perform a varied repertoire of songs that is at least half an hour in length; no use of shrill, irritating or loud instrument" and so forth.

You Might Also Like