The Montréal metro opened on 14 October 1966. The second Canadian subway system after Toronto’s, which opened in 1954, the Montréal metro was the first subway in North America to run on rubber tires instead of metal wheels.
The Montréal metro opened on 14 October 1966. The second Canadian subway system after Toronto’s, which opened in 1954, the Montréal metro was the first subway in North America to run on rubber tires instead of metal wheels. Extensions to the Montréal metro were built on Montréal Island over the two decades after it opened, and then to the city of Laval, on the island of Île Jésus, during the 2000s. The system runs entirely underground, and its stations are distinguished from one another by their unique architecture and design.
The first known proposal for a subway in Montréal was presented by the Montreal Subway Company in 1902, at a time when several subway systems were opening in the United States and Europe. From then through the end of the 1920s, Montréal’s city government received about 15 more proposals for a municipal subway system. The reason for so much interest was the potential profits involved:Montréal’s population and its economy were growing steadily, and public transportation was a service that the city contracted out to private firms. The rationales offered at the time for building a subway system included the seriousness of Montréal’s traffic problems, aggravated by the city’s location on an island and the way that Mount Royal obstructed traffic flow.
Despite all these factors, none of these proposals came to fruition. In part, major infrastructure projects in Montréal were impeded by the outbreak of the First World War, and by the city’s deplorable finances, which led to its being placed under the trusteeship of Québec’s provincial government from 1918 to 1921. But in general, the Montréal authorities simply did not seem very convinced about the need for a subway and so refused to give it the green light.
In the late 1920s, the stars finally aligned, when plans for a subway were approved by the premier of Québec, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau. But the momentum was then broken again, by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Though subway construction would have provided many jobs, it was not one of the projects chosen for funding by the city, provincial or federal governments — for one reason, because Montréal’s rising unemployment had reduced its traffic problems considerably.
Nevertheless, calls to build a Montréal subway continued. In 1939, proponents thought they were nearing their goal at last when, on the eve of a provincial election and despite the city’s appalling finances, Montréal mayor Camillien Houde asked the provincial government to amend the city’s charter to give him the authority to build a subway system. But nothing came of his request, because the Second World War broke out that same year, and the city was again placed under provincial trusteeship from 1940 to 1944.
In 1942, Montréal will be celebrating its tricentennial. Plans are afoot to celebrate it in spectacular fashion, so as to attract crowds of visitors and the money that they will spend while they are here. Wouldn’t this be a wonderful opportunity to inaugurate the underground railway that the city has needed for so many years?
– “Will Montréal have an underground railway by 1942?” La Patrie, 28 March 1937
Debate Over the Need for a Metro in the Age of the Automobile
Once the war ended in 1945, the debate over building a subway resumed. It continued throughout the 1950s, fuelled by several new reports, including one from the Commission de transport de Montréal (Montréal Transit Commission), established in 1950 when mass transit, formerly operated by a private firm, was brought under the control of the city government. The need to ease the city’s traffic problems was still the primary argument cited by the people and organizations promoting subway construction. These problems were becoming worse and worse with the rapid increase in the number of automobiles on the road and the accompanying decline in public transit ridership (from 398.3 million in 1947 to 284.5 million in 1960). Proponents also argued that the metro would stimulate urban development both in downtown Montréal and in the other parts of the city to which it ran. Rivalry with Toronto became another factor. When the 1940s began, Montrealers saw a metro as a piece of infrastructure that would be only natural for their city, Canada’s largest. But as Toronto grew rapidly, and construction of a subway began there in the summer of 1949, Montrealers gradually began to see a metro as essential if their city was to maintain its status as a great Canadian city.
Many other citizens and elected officials staunchly opposed metro construction, however, arguing that the age of mass transportation had ended and the age of the automobile was here. Automotive vehicles were seen as symbols of modernity and freedom — the transportation mode of the future. This perception, initially shared by Mayor Jean Drapeau, led to the total elimination of streetcars in Montréal over the years 1951 to 1959 and their replacement with buses. Opponents of the Montréal metro also regarded it as a form of transportation that was too costly, inefficient, and even unhealthy, because passengers rode from place to place underground, far from the sunlight and fresh air.
Subways have served the world’s big cities very well for the past few decades but are gradually losing their importance and will eventually disappear as a mode of transportation. In New York, there is already talk about eliminating the subway, because it does not fit with the city of the future, where personal transportation methods will account for a higher proportion of the mix…. The authorities of the City of Montréal are wisely considering the proposed metro from every angle before making a definite commitment. A subway would afford certain benefits right now, but despite the exorbitant cost of its construction, it would add nothing to the beauty of the city, and the revenues that it generated would pale compared with its operating costs. Subways are not an effective transportation method for the cities of tomorrow.
– “Subways: an outdated mode of transportation,” Guide Mont-Royal, 30 May 1946
The Conversion of Jean Drapeau
The debate over a Montréal metro changed rapidly in the fall of 1960, when Jean Drapeau became mayor again after three years out of office. His Civic Party secured a majority on the city council and with it greater freedom of action. In private, Drapeau was lukewarm to the idea of building a subway. But Lucien Saulnier, his new right-hand man and chair of the city’s Executive Committee, was an ardent champion of the project and tried to convince him to go ahead with it.
In November 1960, on a visit to Paris, Saulnier took Drapeau to see one of the city’s metro lines that had recently begun using a new technology: cars that ran on rubber tires instead of the traditional steel wheels on rails. This technology was not yet in use in North America, and discovering it dramatically changed Drapeau’s views. Now, instead of seeing the metro as an obsolete mode of transport, he saw it as a potential symbol of innovation for Montréal, part of his vision to establish Montréal as a modern, world-class city. Mayor Drapeau thus came home to Québec determined to build a subway that would run on rubber tires.
In January 1961, the Québec provincial government of Jean Lesage granted the City of Montréal the authority to build a subway and to fund the construction on its own. The city thus had complete control over the project and was completely responsible for the bill, which came to $213.7 million in the end. The cities of Longueuil and Westmount agreed to make financial contributions once two metro stations (Longueuil and Atwater) had been planned within their city limits.
Montrealers are fed up with committees studying proposals. What they want now is a metro in Montréal.
– Jean Drapeau, 26 January 1961
Planning and Building the Metro
In April 1961, the Montréal Metro Committee was established. It was chaired by Mayor Drapeau and composed of members of the city’s Executive Committee, along with managers and employees from city departments including Urban Planning, Public Works, Traffic, Roads, and Finance. The Committee worked into the fall to define the characteristics of the project, in particular the type of wheels, the design of the cars, and the routes of the lines. On 20 October 1961, shortly after the 100th-anniversary celebrations of public transportation in Montréal, Jean Drapeau and Lucien Saulnier unveiled the selected routes to the public.
The plan called for three lines: a north-south line running east of Mount Royal (today’s Orange Line), an east-west line running through the downtown (today’s Green Line), and a line connecting the downtown to the northern part of the city via an existing Canadian National railway tunnel running under the mountain. The routes were strongly influenced by city officials’ desires both to use the metro to foster urban development and to protect certain major arteries from the inconveniences that construction would cause. Thus, for example, the city decided that the east-west line would run not underneath Sainte-Catherine Street, a major downtown artery, but instead underneath De Maisonneuve Boulevard, then under construction just north of Sainte-Catherine.
On 23 May 1962, metro construction began. It was supervised by the Bureau du métro, a municipal body headed by senior engineer Lucien L’Allier. Some major adjustments were made to the routes in June 1963. The line that was supposed to serve the northern part of the city via the tunnel under Mount Royal was discarded, both because of technical difficulties and because Montréal could not reach an agreement with the other municipalities through which this line would have passed (Outremont, Mount Royal and Saint-Laurent). But the city authorities also announced the addition of four stations on the Orange Line (Henri-Bourassa, Sauvé, Square-Victoria and Bonaventure) and a new line (today’s Yellow Line) connecting downtown Montréal to the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River and the site of Expo 67, which had been awarded to Montréal in November 1962.
Building a metro is also a unique opportunity to breathe new life into certain neighbourhoods.
– Report of the Metro Committee, Urban Planning Department of the City of Montréal (Claude Robillard, director), 11 August 1961
The Metro Welcomes Its First Passengers
After four years of construction, the Montréal metro opened on 14 October 1966. The Yellow Line and four stations on the two other lines (Frontenac, Beaudry, Square-Victoria and Bonaventure) were not yet ready; they would welcome their first passengers over the coming months, in time for Expo 67. Management of the metro was entrusted to the Commission de transport de Montréal. The system initially comprised 26 stations along three lines running a total of 22 kilometres, entirely underground. The stations were named after nearby streets and squares.
The novelty of the metro and the opening of Expo 67 helped to increase public transit ridership in Montréal rapidly, from 268.7 million passengers in 1965 to 300 million in 1967. As of the end of 1966, when the metro had been open for only 2½ months, riders had already made 32.1 million trips on the system. But the lure of the automobile remained strong: the number of public transit passengers in 1969 was lower than in 1966. Many public transit officials believed that the best way to attract more riders to the metro would be to extend its lines further throughout the city.
Today our new metro is here at last. Naturally, my very first thought on this occasion is that all of us who live in this great city should congratulate ourselves on having an underground transportation system of this kind. We’ve worked hard for it, and we deserve it.…
I hope that [the dignitaries attending this ceremony] share our legitimate pride at having managed to build the first part of this system — nearly 16 miles of subway lines — in less than 4½ years. Now it is up to Montrealers and visitors to Montréal to help our metro achieve its rightful place among the world’s great subway systems. Indeed, with the inauguration of the metro, Montréal can make yet another claim to being one of the world’s great capitals.…
The metro is a profoundly human work, in the sense that it is going to make many changes in the way we live.…
By celebrating the inauguration of the Montréal metro with us today, [the dignitaries attending this ceremony] are helping to make Montréal a city that is open to the whole wide world. A North American city to be sure, but also a French city that has just affirmed its special character once again by building a subway system based on engineering from France.
– Jean Drapeau, speech at the opening ceremony for the Montréal metro, 14 October 1966
Extensions to the metro had been discussed when the original system was first being planned. Progress toward actually building the extensions began in earnest in 1969, when the Québec provincial government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand agreed to cover part of the cost. In February 1970, the Bureau du Métro was moved from the authority of the City of Montréal to that of the Montréal Urban Community (a new governance structure for the Montréal metropolitan area, chaired by Lucien Saulnier). Now known as the Bureau de Transport Métropolitain, it was tasked with planning the new extensions. In September 1970, the Bureau made its recommendations: to extend the Green and Orange lines and build new north-south and east-west lines.
These recommendations were approved by the Montréal Urban Community and the provincial government, and work on the extensions began on 14 October 1971, five years to the day after the metro first opened. The selection of routes was again influenced by the conviction that the metro would serve as a lever for urban development, and in particular as a tool for revitalizing depressed areas such as Ville-Émard and Pointe-Saint-Charles.
However, major construction delays ensued. The planned routes had to be revised, both because of technical difficulties and because of citizen opposition to the demolition of housing and the elimination of green space at various locations. As a result of the delays, the changes in the routes, the addition of more segments to the planned extensions, and inflation, costs exploded, from $430 million in 1972 to $1.6 billion in 1975. Deeply concerned, the provincial government — the primary funder of the project — declared a moratorium on the work in May 1976.
Nevertheless, the new eastern segment of the Green Line, serving the Olympic Park, was placed in service in June 1976, in time for the Montréal Olympics in July. The other new segments came into service in stages. The western extension of the Green Line opened in 1978. The new Blue Line, 9.7 km long and comprising 12 stations, was completed in 1988. (With a history of start-and-stop construction as new moratoriums were declared and new agreements reached, the Blue Line had taken 14 years in all to build.) From 2002 to 2007, the Orange Line was extended to the city of Laval, on the island of Île Jésus (plans for this extension had been considered but set aside when the original system was built).
We think that in the near future, we are going to have to consider various ways of dissuading people from using their cars in major urban centres.
We and our transportation consultants believe that to successfully present public transit as the better choice, we will need to extend the current lines of the Montréal metro, add new ones, reconfigure the surface bus routes, and possibly convert certain railway lines to make them part of a major public rapid transit system.…
Much as the Executive Committee believes that the public transportation system must be treated like any other public service supported by the public treasury, the committee also believes that special measures must be taken to encourage citizens to use this system.
The current metro, though not very extensive, has already proven a fast, efficient, comfortable means of transportation.…
The value of all these benefits to the economy is beyond measure. But we have been able to measure the cost of transportation by metro. The current metro system, with all its speed, comfort, and efficiency, actually carries passengers more cheaply than buses do.
This fact has been decisive in determining the best way to get the public to start making more use of public transit again: the metro network has to be extended.
– “Public transit… a leap forward,”Bureau de transport métropolitain, September 1970
The Metro as a Showcase for Art
When the original Montréal metro system was built in the early 1960s, great care was taken not only to give every station its own unique architecture and design, but also to have it display works by Québec artists from various disciplines (including such names as Frédéric Back, Jordi Bonet, Charles Daudelin, Marcelle Ferron, Mario Merola and Jean-Paul Mousseau). In part, the reason was the same as for choosing rubber tires instead of metal wheels: to make the Montréal metro different from the Toronto subway and other North American subways. The particular context in which the Montréal metro was designed also had something to do with it: the authorities wanted to build a system that would attract Montrealers at a time when many of them were abandoning public transit in favour of their automobiles, which were seen as the transportation of the future.
The first works of art chosen for the stations — in particular, by Robert LaPalme, the metro’s first art director — reflected various aspects of Montréal’s history, such as the city’s founding, its industrialization and its musical past. But when the extensions were being planned, the variety of subjects was expanded considerably, and committees addressed the integration of works of art as part of the process of designing the stations. The art budget for the new stations amounted to 1 per cent of total construction costs.
This distinctive characteristic of Montréal’s subway system has since inspired cities such as Washington, DC to incorporate the esthetic dimension into planning for their own new subway systems. Montréal applied these same principles in designing the three new stations that opened on the Orange Line in the first decade of the 21st century.
The work of the art committee became interesting, because the process included the artist, the artisan, the urban planner, an engineer and the architect — a real team.
– Jean Dumontier, chief architect of the metro (1970–91), 17 March 2014
50 Years On
The Montréal metro is one of the main pieces of transportation infrastructure built in Québec from the 1960s through the 1980s. As it marks its 50th anniversary in 2016, it comprises four lines running a total of 71 kilometres. Montréal’s previous record for public transit ridership — 398.3 million passengers, in 1947 — was broken in 2011, when ridership reached 404.8 million. Further extensions of the system are under discussion, and a new generation of rubber-tired AZUR subway cars is gradually being placed in service to increase the trains’ capacity and serve the system’s 68 stations more effectively.
Dale Gilbert, « Penser la mobilité, penser Montréal. La planification du réseau initial de métro, 1960-1966 », Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 68, nos 1-2 (2014): 57-83.
Dale Gilbert et Claire Poitras, « "Subways are not outdated": Debating the Montreal Metro, 1940-60 », The Journal of Transport History, vol. 36, no 2 (2015): 209-227.
John Martins-Manteiga, Métro: design in motion/Métro : le design en mouvement (Toronto: Dominion Modern, 2011).