LRTA logo Light Rail Transit Association
Light Rail for better public transport

Montreal, light rail proposed to complement expanding metro

A new light rail scheme is proposed to complement the Canadian city's expanding metro system.

Montreal today is a bilingual metropolis, at peace with itself, now that an effective balance exists between the French and the English communities. Visitors to Montreal will like the French cuisine, found everywhere in this city with 5000 restaurants and 1500 bars. There is a Latin flavour in Montreal, with two million inhabitants (3.8 million in the greater Montreal area) the largest French-speaking city after Paris. Here one finds a French-inspired metro network. Not to be missed is the electric commuter line to Deux-Montagnes. Interesting are three diesel commuter rail lines. With plans for light rail, this city is a hot-spot for rail fans.

Montreal tops the list of the United Nation’s 1998 Human Development Index. This index is a yardstick of the quality of life. This means that according to the UN, Montreal is the best city to live in on earth. A youthful city, home of four big universities and the most concentrated student population in North America. This is a cosmopolitan place, where no one can afford to think or work in just one language or culture. This gives Montrealers a flair for creativity. Montreal is the second-largest city in Canada, after Toronto.

In this 350-year old metropolis, one finds cathedrals overshadowed by modern-day skyscrapers. The city is spread over a vast island, surrounded by rivers, among them the St Lawrence River. To the west and the north, there are lakes, where landscapes resemble the wide, open spaces of Sweden. The inner city is North American in outlook, a grid of rectangular blocks, high-rise buildings, and many car parks on the sites of demolished 19th-Century edifices. The North Pole seems to be nearby. Over the northern plains cold winds sweep, and overnight, temperatures at Montreal can plummet 30 degrees. Under the streets of central Montreal lies 30 km of interlinked underground shopping malls. When it is cold outside, commuters and visitors descend to the heated malls for a comfortable walk from offices and hotels to the Central Station.

Rail infrastructure

The Central Station of Montreal should not be missed. It boasts a very spacious central hall, where the traveller finds all he needs, from a shoe-shine (CAD 3) to restaurants and airline-style check-in counters for the Amtrak trains to New York, and VIA trains to Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax. Several suburban rail lines use the Central Station as their terminus, including the Deux-Montagnes line. But the station hall, with room for thousands, is mainly empty. One train per hour, that’s all. Underneath the station hall is a 20-track complex, reached by stairs and lifts from the main concourse. Mostly all that can be seen is a lonely commuter train.

However, platforms, tracks, station hall, trains - everything looks invitingly clean and well-maintained. When asked to comment, most Montrealers will say that their railroads are not dying, that Canadians use their trains more and more (probably true since 1990). After all, this nation was united when the Eastern provinces promised a 4000-km long railway to the Western provinces. Canada is now the second largest country in the world, with an area of 10 million square kilometres, but a population of only 30 million.

Transport history

Nothing remains of the vast urban and interurban tramway networks that once served the Greater Montreal area. At its peak, the local tramway undertaking of Montreal ran more than 1000 trams over 500 km of tracks. Between 1942 and 1958, Montreal operated a handful of modern PCC trams, numbered 3501-3518. For a long time, Montreal wavered, as it actually needed hundreds of PCCs for fleet renewal, but there was no money. In 1959, all trams were withdrawn, followed by the closure of the trolleybus network in 1966. Some say that trams and trolleybuses could not cope well with the steep gradients of many city streets of Montreal. Others say that occasional freezing of the overhead wires caused problems. But the main reason behind the tramway closure was the politicians’ dislike of 'ugly' overhead wires.

There is an alternative. This is a 750 v dc-powered, standard-gauge rubber-tyred metro, resembling the rubber-tyred metro lines in Paris. Montreal has a network of four metro lines, all inaugurated in the late 1960s. The metro lines follow the rectangular street pattern. Line number 3 is not used; it had been allotted to the commuter line to Deux-Montagnes (which runs through a tunnel linking it with the Central Station). But the Deux-Montagnes line was never upgraded to metro standard.


A planned metro line 7, to serve North and East Montreal, will not be built, as high-standard bus lanes on reservation in those areas have proved to be a satisfactory alternative. In particular the long bus lanes over Boulevard Pie-IX have proved so efficient, that they have become the virtual substitute for a metro line. The bus lanes on 'Pie-IX' are surprisingly simple, just a white stripe on the road surface and a collection of small 50 cm high plastic sticks, to mark the bus lane. The 'Pie-IX' bus lane cost only CAD 5.8 million, it was completed in 1998, and has a length of 7.8 km. Some 5 000 passengers are carried in buses over the 'Pie-IX' lane. The bus reservation means that each passenger saves an average of 14 minutes travel time.

By late 2000, Montreal possessed a total of 42.1-km of bus lanes on reservation. These are growing, and STCUM plans to link them, which would result in a vast system of through-going bus priorities. STCUM also envisages bus lanes straight through the city centre. This shows that the bus system is perceived as a full network, and not as a collection of feeder lines for the metro. The longest stretches of bus lane are:

The first-mentioned bus lane, Jean-Talon to Rene-Levesque, is a candidate to conversion to light rail, as explained at the end of this article.


The metro system of Montreal is entirely underground. The metro lines are run separated from each other, nowhere is there any joint running over the same tracks by two or more lines. The same strict separation can be seen at Paris. So in fact there are four different metro operations, linked by service tracks. Tunnels are preferred, because of Montreal’s raw climate. All future metro extensions will be fully underground as well, and the operation of rubber-tyre rolling stock will be continued for a long time to come.

Montreal is happy with the four existing metro lines, including line 2, which, with a length of 25 km is among the longest underground routes in the world. Three lines will be extended in coming years. Plans are now to extend the metro system beyond the island on which Montreal lies, to surrounding suburbs. There are no plans to build a two-tier metro, such as seen at Paris, where there are urban metro lines, separated from suburban express metro lines. The Montreal metro stations look pleasant, very clean, with little graffiti. No aggressive drugs addicts are seen loitering on the platforms or in the long connecting pedestrian subways. Before entering the platforms, all passengers must have their tickets checked in the slots of the turnstiles at all stations. Tranquility prevails. It is a pleasure to ride this professional metro.

The metro as well as the city buses are run by STCUM, Société des Transports de la Communeauté de Montreal, which has a fleet of 1 600 buses in service on 173 routes, including 20 night services. There are 7 000 persons on STCUM’s payroll. A total of 344 million passengers were carried in 1999. The rolling stock of STCUM’s metro is composed of 759 cars, of which 336 MR-63 class and 423 MR-73 class. All metro cars were built by Canadian Vickers, which no longer exists. Of course, Bombardier, with its world-wide HQ at Montreal, would very much like to become the provider of the next generation of metro cars for Montreal.

Metro Facts table

After a series of extensions over recent years, the 4-route metro network now has a length of 65 km, and there are 65 metro stations in use. The metro fleet has remained unchanged for over twenty years. The vehicles are now in their mid-life. They will soon need a thorough overhaul. A programme of station modernization is well underway, with 25 metro stations already refurbished. The remainder will follow soon.

The metro tunnels are much broader than is required by the profile of the trains. Likewise, the metro stations are spacious. A typical product of the 1960s, when it was fashionable to think that all people are nice, and that everyone should be welcome at all times. One of the universities is particularly well served with an underground pedestrian subway, which connects with the Berry/UQAM metro station. Berry/UQAM is the focal point of the metro system, served by three metro lines. At Berry/UQAM, interchange between lines is facilitated by 26 mechanical escalators. Accessible by pedestrian subway from Berry/UQAM is the Montreal bus station. There are seven daily buses to New York, one of them continues as far south as Miami.

photo: STCUM
Class MR-73 motorized car 79-678 of the rubber-tyred Montreal metro.

Montreal metro lines have numbers, but colours are used most. The Orange Line (line 2) is in the form of a huge U. The Green line (or line 1) runs almost in a straight line from the northern urban areas to Angrignon in south Montreal. It crosses the Orange line at two different points. The Blue line (line 5) is a connecting line between the upper ends of the Orange Line. The most remarkable line is theYellow Line (line 4), which starts at Berry/UQAM (interchange with the Orange and Green lines). The Yellow Line is the only metro line that leaves Montreal island, to connect with areas on the opposite bank of the St. Lawrence River.

According to STCUM Planning Director Robert Olivier, the following metro extensions are in the pipeline:

Local rail

Since 1982, STCUM also co-ordinates suburban rail transport. It has concluded contracts with Canadian Pacific and Canadian National for modernizing and running of such lines. A triumph has been the reconstruction of the 40-km long Deux-Montagnes line. This 25 kV 60 Hz ac electric line starts under the main hall of Central Station, then runs through a 5-km long single-track tunnel to the north. This tunnel is not shared by any other line. Then it goes further to the north, most of it over double-track. Some stretches run parallel to freight rail lines, and near the station Montpellier, there is a 90-degree level crossing with a busy freight line.

Looking like tramway shelters, all stations en route are renovated or entirely new, eight out of the line’s twelve stations have park-and-ride facilities. The signaling system is new, and so are the line’s 58 (29 motor cars, 29 trailers) cars delivered by Bombardier in 1996. A total of CAD 300 million has been spent between 1992 and 1998 on the upgrading of the Deux-Montagnes commuter train line. The project is such a success, that, according to Robert Olivier, many suburban areas are now demanding a rail line of the same quality.

Over the Ligne des Deux-Montanges, graffiti-free trains run fast, smoothly and comfortably, with 26 return trips per work day. Many in Montreal feel that a fuller use of this Ligne des Deux Montagnes should be made, by building a 10-km branch to serve Dorval international airport. From the city centre to this very busy airport, a taxi ride takes at least 30 minutes: all road transport is slow during rush hours. But the Canadian State is reluctant to finance such an airport branch line, and the province of Quebec feels it has already enough to pay for in Montreal’s rapid-transit renewal.

High on the list is the construction of double-track over the full length of the Ligne des Deux-Montagnes, in order to introduce much shorter headways on what is one of North America’s most successful regional rail lines. A doubling of the tracks will also facilitate the much-needed airport branch line.

Apart from the Ligne des Deux-Montagnes, there several diesel suburban commuter lines, all thoroughly upgraded. They are operated by a regional operator, AMT, which owns the rolling stock. This includes former Amtrak diesel locos, and a collection of passengers cars purchased second-hand from several American railroad companies. But Montreal does not possess a coherent suburban rail system. The sharp curves in several lines are easy to explain: trains make use of freight rail lines as well as connecting tracks. These lines are:

Montreal-to-Rigaud (via Dorion): 13 return trips daily, of which twelve have their terminus at Dorion. Only one train per day goes all the way to Rigaud;

Montreal-to-Blainville, 12 return trips daily;

Montreal-to-McMasterville (Saint-Hilaire), 1 or 2 return daily trips only.

On 17 April it was announced that a Montreal-Delson commuter rail service would be introduced from 4 September 2001, with investment of CAD 6.7 million financed 75% by the Quebec Ministry of Transport and 25% by AMT. Two peak trips wills run each way offering a 30-minute journey time to 1800 passengers/day.

Light rail plans

Mr Olivier discloses that there are two plans for modern light rail currently under review:

photo: STCUM
This is how Montreal light rail could look on the Champlain bridge in a few years time.
Mr. Robert Olivier, Director of Planning, STCUM, Montreal
Mr. Robert Olivier, Director of Planning, STCUM, Montreal

There are good prospects that Montreal will become a light rail city in the years ahead. Within STCUM, he is one of the advocates of a light rail solution to Montreal’s congestion problems. Most congestion is caused by huge flows of 150 000 commuters entering Montreal each day, from the east and the west, over long bridges. It seems probably that the Canplain Bridge in the east of the city will be reconverted into a bridge for light rail, and the idea is to build a medium-sized network of 23 km, composed of several light rail lines, all using this bridge. It has been calculated that commuters can save more than thirty minutes per ride (or one full hour per day), once the Canplain Bridge light rail link is available as an alternative to the private motor car.No less than 26 000 light rail passengers daily are forecast, of whom 53% will be new public transport customers. Construction costs of this light rail scheme will be CAD 640 million. On the drawing boards are several plans to further extend the light rail line over city streets through the central area. Grins Mr Olivier: 'Transport demand is such that Montreal has no choice but to build this light rail network as soon as possible'. It is an appropriate point on which to thank Mr Olivier for his help with the preparation of this article.

photo: STCUM
Montreal PCC car 3511. The city of Montreal participated actively in the development of the PCC concept. When it came to ordering this revolutionary, all-electric tram, Montreal backed out. Finally, the city ordered 18 PCCs, numbered 3501-3518. They ran on the tram line through the Outremont area in West-Central Montreal. In 1958, with the closure of the tramways, the PCCs became redundant. Only 3517 has been preserved. The 17 other cars were scrapped in 1963, after years of unsuccesful efforts to find a buyer for these excellent trams.

Montreal: top