Will Tramways Return to Montreal?

Bleury St.

Yellow and olive-green streetcars used to be a common sight in Montreal as they clattered around the city. That changed in 1959, when Montreal, ever so fashion-conscious, scrapped the last of its trams.

Now, nearly half a century after they disappeared, it would seem that the people who run this town are determined to bring streetcars back to its streets. Yesterday, La Presse reported that City Hall will announce the construction of a new tramway linking downtown, Griffintown, Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter as part of a broader transport plan that will be unveiled in May. Apparently, the federal government might be willing to cough up enough cash to pay for the project, but nothing is certain just yet. That hasn’t stopped others from dreaming: today brought with it the news that officials in Montreal’s Southwest borough want to reclaim disused CN and CPR tracks to build a tramway along the banks of the Lachine Canal.

If Montrealers are sceptical, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve heard this kind of thing before, such as when Mayor Gérald Tremblay visited Paris, gazed upon its new shiny new streetcars and declared, with a strange look in his eyes, that Park Avenue would have a tramway by the end of the decade. Of course, nothing came of that and, considering Tremblay’s new relationship with the people of Park Avenue, it’s likely that nothing ever will.

But it seems clear that the mayor has latched onto the idea of leaving behind a new streetcar system as his legacy. After all, the project reported yesterday in La Presse did not emerge from thin air: it was first proposed in 2005 as a part of a plan to revitalize Montreal’s harbourfront neighbourhoods—a plan drafted by none other than heavyweights Lucien Bouchard, a former Quebec premier, and Bernard Shapiro, former principal of McGill University. If any tramway project is likely to be realized, it is this one. So here are the details: the proposed harbour tramway would start at Dorchester Square, a block from the busy intersection of Peel and Ste. Catherine. It would then travel down Peel Street, towards the harbour, before turning east and heading into the Old Port along the unused railroad tracks next to the water. It would finally pass through Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter and end at Berri-UQAM, the city’s main metro hub.

I think this is a great plan for a couple of reasons. The first is that it would link uptown and downtown—or downtown and Old Montreal, if you prefer the more modern terminology—in a way that hasn’t been done since Montreal’s streetcar system was dismantled so long ago. More importantly, it would pass through Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was isolated from the rest of the city by highways and urban renewal but has recently undergone a revival with the rapid expansion of the École superieur de technologie and the construction of several thousand new residential units. Very quickly this has gone from being a totally marginal part of town to one that is home to thousands of new people—yet it is still underserved by public transit. The harbour tramway would provide it with a fixed link to the rest of the city.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of a Lachine Canal tramway. Opened in 1825, the canal was the catalyst for the industrialization of Montreal and, by extension, the whole of Canada. The neighbourhoods that arose along its banks are varied and fascinating, but they traditionally turned their backs to the noisy, dirty canal. After the St. Lawrence Seaway rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete in the late 1950s, though, it became downright pastoral as industry moved away and a bike path was built along its banks. Over the past ten years, old factories have been converted into residential and commercial lofts and the Atwater Market, located next to the canal at the foot of Atwater Street, has become a hub of new commerce and condos.

As gentrification has progressed, however, the canal has become increasingly disconnected from the working-class neighbourhoods that surround it. A tramway along its banks would help to reintegrate it into the centre of community life. It would also knit together all of the canalside neighbourhoods that were isolated from one another in the postwar era: Griffintown, Little Burgundy, St. Henri, Point St. Charles, Côte St. Paul, Ville St. Pierre and, of course, Lachine. It seems to me that many postwar public transit projects, including the Montreal metro, ignored traditional transit alignments. Building a tramway along the Lachine Canal would reembrace what is essentially an overlooked 182-year-old transportation corridor.

We’ll see what happens. For now, though, this flurry of tramway interest makes me hopeful that streetcars will once again find their place in Montreal.

Papineau St.

Cross-posted to the Spacing Wire.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday April 12 2007at 03:04 pm , filed under Canada, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to “Will Tramways Return to Montreal?”

  • Anon says:

    If you’re going to link to this from spacing, please use the permalink. A few days from now, nobody will have the patience to scroll around and find this post.

  • Ken Gildner says:

    Great article, Chris. Montréal lost its streetcars the same year as Ottawa, and it looks as though since its politicians are far more forward-thinking than the Capital’s, it will regain a streetcar system well before Ottawa does. Even though Montréal is well-serviced by underground rapid transit, light rail can prove to be an important part of an integrated transportation network. Here’s hoping the city pulls it off!

    – Ken

  • An update: Les Amis de la montagne, a Mount Royal watchdog group, is going to ask the city to consider extending the proposed tramway from Dorchester Square right up Peel Street to Pine Avenue, at the entrance to Mount Royal Park. La Presse has the details.

  • Owen Rose says:

    The Nouveau Tramway idea is also a central element in Projet Montréal’s, the new Montréal municipal party, platform. France is a brilliant example of the reinvention of the tramway and cities like Strasbourg, Montpelier, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Lyon and many others are witnesses to this transit/urban renewal success. Paris is actually behind the rest of France.

    The Nouveau Tramway is also an ecological method of encouraging public transit and creating urban design to limit automobile use. Stockholm, Helsinki, and Oslo all have tramways and similar climates to Montréal. Stockholm also has a métro and suburban rail service.

    Montréal needs a global urban transit vision that includes tramways.

  • Justin Bur says:

    Last week’s articles in La Presse were written on the occasion of the release of detailed feasibility studies by the Société du Havre de Montréal (havremontreal.qc.ca) on its plan to replace the Bonaventure Autoroute through Griffintown. The Old Port tramway comes up because it too is part of the Société du Havre’s plans. That tram project is an ideal pilot project, being the simplest, cheapest, and quickest to bring to fruition. As Christopher points out, it would also be very useful.

    On Wednesday evening this week (18 April), as part of the AMT’s regular monthly public seminar, the LRT/tramway studies of the past few years were finally shown in a public forum. I missed the presentation since I was away, but the slides from the talk are on the AMT’s web site at amt.qc.ca/corpo/colloques/mercredisamt/ (see 18 avril 2007 and download the PDF). That presentation also mentions the Nouveau Tramway idea, which Richard Bergeron developed and spoke eloquently on for several years while working at the AMT, before he founded Projet Montréal.

    The Park Avenue plan is by no means failed or dead, but it has been stalled for over five years. Now that we have the Société du Havre project, the interest in a line to Nuns’ Island and Brossard, the Lachine Canal idea, and the upcoming City of Montreal transport plan coming in the next couple of weeks, I think chances are good that there is critical mass and consensus for going forward with building these systems. It’s now a matter of *when*, rather than *if*.

  • Myrtone says:

    I have checked the location on a map and noticed the route is an indirect unidirectional one, so I wonder whether a circular route might be a better option.
    A circular route will not need (dead end) termini, so the capacity is greater. It also offers the potential for using unidirectional trams, and if all platforms are on the right (kerbside) then they will only need doors on one side. There will thus be more seating and most of it will be fixed front facing.
    Given that Montreal’s previous system had balloon loops, wyes and unidirectional trams, and that Toronto still retains unidirectional trams, with no intentional of converting the legacy system to bidirectional running.
    And turnback capability could be handled by means of reversing loops or wyes too.

  • John Fearns says:

    I am a 72 yr old man from Liverpool. England.when I was 19 in 1959 I worked on the Empress of Canada sailing to Montreal .returning back to the ship from a party with friends we caught a tram, during the journey I played guitar and the passengers sang along, imagine the delight when the next night we were on TV news.it was the last tram ever to run in the city.