Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tunnel Visions: The Montreal Metro

One Dude's Comparison (Rather Exhaustive, It Seems) of the Merits and Flaws of the Toronto Subway and Montreal Metro

There's a joke that makes the rounds about Toronto and Montreal, a joke that's been going around for so long I don't know who first told it. Toronto and Montreal are like two brothers, one of whom is an accountant while the other is a womanizing alcoholic, and both cities know full well which one is which. It's something that can be seen in their cultures, in their architecture, and even in their transit systems.

Toronto and Montreal are the only cities in Canada that operate subway systems, although the Vancouver SkyTrain fills the same transit niche with primarily elevated rail. Both have been the "first city" of Canada, and both rely on public transit to a degree that's not reflected in many other North American cities. I've always felt that you can learn a great deal about a city from its public transit system.

When it comes to public transit systems themselves, though, you can't understand them in isolation. You need to be able to compare them to each other.

I recently had the opportunity, thanks to the 67th Worldcon, to spend five quality days in Montreal. While I was there, one of my goals was to explore the Montreal Metro as much as I could, to compare and contrast it with what I was familiar with in the Toronto subway system. While both systems have their positives, they also have their flaws. I like to think that I'm being fairly objective, for a Torontonian; if anything, the novelty factor may well bias me toward Montreal.

I've divided my evaluation of the two systems into four categories: System, looking at the underground network as a whole; Stations and Wayfinding, looking at the designs of stations themselves; Equipment, looking at the rolling stock used by the two systems; and Ease of Access and Ease of Use, looking into the ease of getting into and navigating within stations.

For the purposes of this comparison, in Toronto I'm basing my opinions off the Yonge-University-Spadina, Bloor-Danforth, and Sheppard subway lines, but not the Scarborough RT, as nothing equivalent to it exists in Montreal. My experience with the Montreal Metro was of the Orange Line less the three Laval stations and those west of Bonaventure, save Lionel-Groulx and Snowdon; the Yellow Line, less Jean-Drapeau station; the Blue Line, less the three stations from Édouard-Montpetit to Côte-des-Neiges; and the Green Line, less Angrignon, Lasalle, Charlevoix, Atwater, Guy-Concordia, Peel, Place-des-Arts, Saint-Laurent, and Beaudry. This works out to thirty-six of sixty-eight stations, slightly more than half of the total system.

If you're interested in looking into these systems yourself, two invaluable sites I've found are Transit Toronto and Le métro de Montréal - Montreal by Metro.


For the first twelve years of its operation, 1954 to 1966, the Toronto subway - such as it was, a single line and twelve stations from Union to Eglinton - was unchallenged in Canada. This may well have redounded to the Montreal Metro's advantage. All the time I was there, I couldn't help but imagine that in the early 1960s, a delegation from Montreal had travelled to Toronto, rode the subway, and said to themselves, "okay, let's not do what they did." As a result, while subway service in Toronto began with a mere fragment of the current system, Montreal's first straphangers could choose from three different lines to speed them around the city. An accurate map of the system can be found here.

Montreal operates four subway lines to Toronto's three, three of which are "downtown" while the Blue Line is "suburban," broadly similar to the Sheppard line if it had been built in the 1980s and ran beneath St. Clair Avenue West. The U-shape of the Yonge-University-Spadina line in Toronto's downtown vaguely echoes the manner in which the Metro's Orange and Green lines serve downtown Montreal, but to far less of an extent. The Yellow Line, a short three-station link between Montreal and the mainland city of Longueuil, can't be easily compared to anything on the Toronto subway.

The hub of the Montreal Metro is Berri-UQAM station in the heart of downtown. Passengers can transfer between three of the four lines here; nowhere in the Toronto subway system is this kind of interchange even remotely possible, given the current layout of its three lines. It is tightly integrated, with line transfers possible at four stations, and the Green and Blue Lines effectively bridge the east and west arms of the Orange Line. Montreal's metro network appears to be the denser of the two, but it is also geographically restricted to downtown Montreal and its immediate environs; much of Montreal Island lacks metro service.

The Toronto subway system

By contrast the Toronto subway, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as "efficient but somewhat skeletal," extends more limited subway service to the city as a whole - at least one subway station exists in each of the six former cities of Metropolitan Toronto. Toronto also lacks a heavy-rail connection between the eastern and western arms of the Yonge-University-Spadina line north of the Bloor-Danforth line; early TTC plans suggested a westward extension of the Sheppard Line to Downsview station to remedy this, but this seems to have been superceded by the city government's interest in the Transit City light rail plan.

Unlike the Toronto subway, the Montreal Metro operates entirely underground. This is because its trains run on rubber tires which were not intended to handle the extremes of Montreal winters, a technological limitation which led to the cancellation of the planned Red Line. A significant portion of the Toronto subway operates on the surface, most notably the section of the Yonge-University-Spadina line between Eglinton West and Wilson stations.

Both cities are served by interurban commuter railway systems, GO Transit for Toronto and the Agence métropolitaine de transport for Montreal. One thing I noticed in Montreal is that the Metro seems to be far more closely integrated with the AMT network than the Toronto subway is with GO's network, to the extent that AMT routes are marked on the Montreal Metro route map.

One definite flaw I found early on, though, was the difficulty in getting between Montreal-Trudeau International Airport and downtown Montreal via public transit. In Toronto, regular service to Toronto Pearson International Airport is provided by the 192 Airport Rocket bus, which runs an express route departing Kipling station every twenty minutes. By contrast, in Montreal the 204 Cardinal and 209 Des Sources buses connect the airport with the AMT station at Dorval, where a traveller would either have to pay an additional AMT fare ($4.75, as of this writing) or transfer to another bus, which in turn connects to the Metro system.

It seems to me that the Montreal Metro is less integrated with its bus system than the Toronto subway. Most subway stations in Toronto have dedicated bus terminals; the only bus terminal I found in my Montreal travels was the AMT's Terminus Longueuil, attached to Longueuil—Université-de-Sherbrooke station. Montmorency and Angrignon, termini on the Orange and Green Lines, respectively, also have attached bus terminals, but they seem to be the exception to the rule. The Metro-to-bus interchanges I saw were limited to on-street transfers.

Toronto also has the advantage in headways - that is, the separation between trains. While riding I observed a seven-minute headway between Angrignon-bound Green Line trains at 2:40 PM on Friday and a ten-minute headway between Blue Line trains in both directions shortly after noon on Saturday and another ten-minute headway between Green Line trains in both directions on Sunday morning, between 9 AM and noon. The longest scheduled headways in Toronto are on the Sheppard line, with a 5-6 minute frequency.


Préfontaine station on the Green Line

Considering that Montreal is a UNESCO City of Design, it shouldn't come as a surprise that stations on the Montreal Metro are, for the most part, well-designed. No two stations are built to the same design, and there's none of the "mid-20th century bathroom" aesthetic that characterizes many of Toronto's earlier stations.

Where Montreal is a city of churches, Montreal Metro stations are practically cathedrals of transit. Experimental architecture and public art was integrated into the Metro system from the very beginning, and it runs the gamut from monumental stick-figure statuary at Monk station to Olympic designs at Pie-IX and stained glass at McGill.

One thing immediately distinguishes Montreal Metro stations from Toronto subway stations: their scale. I only visited a handful of stations that could not, in a pinch, be used as bomb shelters. The Honoré-Beaugrand-bound platform at Charlevoix station is, at 29.6 meters (97.1 feet), the deepest platform on the line. Most of the stations I visited required multiple sets of elevators from the platforms to the surface.

Montreal's stations are also very open; Monk and Crémazie especially stick in my mind for their high, high roofs and vast internal volume, whereas most Toronto stations are tightly-built with only a couple of feet of clearance between the roof of the subway train and the roof of the tunnel. As a result, I found that the Montreal stations had far weaker wind gusts as a result, as the greater open volume provides more space for air displacement.

If you're familiar with the Toronto subway system, St. Clair West station is, in my mind, the station most reminiscent of the Montreal Metro aesthetic, and perhaps the only one in Toronto that could be dropped bodily into the Montreal Metro system and not stick out too much.

Montreal earned a great deal of points from me for having a consistent signage motif. In Toronto, station name and signage text vary from the unique system font visible in older stations, to Helvetica and Arial, all-caps and sentence-cased. Montreal's station names aren't written on the platform walls, just on narrow bands at the top of the walls, but they're effective and don't change from station to station. The lack of this consistency in Toronto is something that the Joe Clark who wasn't prime minister has been complaining about for a while now.

One aspect of Montreal's station design that struck me was the nature of the garbage cans. In the Toronto subway, "garbage can" is a misnomer; it's more of a "garbage frame," with a see-through bag secured to a metal lid. Presumably this is to prevent bombs from being hidden there. The Montreal Metro instead uses solid metal garbage cans, firmly affixed to the platform walls.

The Montreal Metro is also ahead of Toronto when it comes to video advertisements. Around the end of July, Torontoist reported on a video ad screen installed in Bloor-Yonge station as a TTC Marketing test project. Montreal doesn't limit itself to piddly wall-mounted screens, barely more than the size of a man; they project their video advertisements on patches of the walls, like this one I encountered at Lionel-Groulx station.


It was the last day of Worldcon, comfortably into a Monday afternoon, and my friend Alex and I were rushing from Place-d'Armes to Berri-UQAM in order to catch the next shuttlebus to the airport. We boarded the train, already crammed with people, and Alex summed it up thus: "It says something about a subway when you step onto it, and the air immediately becomes hazy."

To be blunt, Toronto won this category hands-down. Toronto's rolling stock is, in my opinion, superior to Montreal's in every manner that matters. This can be traced back pretty easily to the age of the two systems' equipment - the oldest cars still in operation date from 1974, while the heavily-used T1 cars were delivered from 1996 to 2002. By contrast, Montreal still uses the same Canadian Vickers MR-63 cars as it did when the Metro was opened in 1966, and its newest cars were delivered in 1976.

As a result, to the best of my knowledge, there are no air-conditioned cars on the Montreal Metro. In Toronto, a subway car that lacks air conditioning is a relic and a rarity. This was especially galling when my Blue Line and Green Line photo tours consisted of alighting from one train, dashing to the surface to take photographs, and dashing back to the platform before the next train arrived - aside from cost savings, this is actually the only direct advantage I can think of for the Metro's long headways.

While the Toronto and Montreal cars aren't greatly different in terms of size, they do differ greatly in seating. Though I didn't do a comparative count and thus can't be totally certain, my impression was that there is far less seating room in a Montreal Metro car than a Toronto subway car, and standing-room-only trains are far more frequent.

I mentioned previously that Montreal's is a rubber-tired metro, whereas Toronto's is a steel-wheeled heavy rail subway. What that means is while Toronto subway cars look and act just like ordinary trains, Montreal Metro cars instead have this:

There's nothing objectively wrong with rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels, but they distinguish Toronto and Montreal trains in three main ways. First, they're quiet, and coupled with station architecture that makes incoming trains enter uphill and the more open nature of Montreal stations, they can easily sneak up on waiting passengers. Second, they're a lot bumpier than Toronto trains when in motion. Finally, on powering up their traction motors produce a three-tone sound reminiscent of thunderous applause following a trumpet solo, or the first three notes of Fanfare for the Common Man. It's particularly evident in the next video, though you may want to turn your volume down a touch before starting - my camera's microphone is a bit sensitive.

One of my greatest acts of stupidity on the Toronto subway came some time ago, charging down the stairs to the Bloor-Danforth platform at Bloor-Yonge station where a westbound train had already halted. I hit the platform and the first chime rings - no problem! I can make it! I dash madly toward the still-open doors, and hold that thought until the doors close on me, half in and half out of the car. I make a sound like "gawooof" and stumble aboard after the doors automatically reopen.

Toronto subway trains all have guards aboard who are responsible for opening and closing the platform doors. Three chimes, the TTC's equivalent to the Montreal Metro's departure sound, signify that the doors are about to close. Metro trains, in my experience, had neither of these. The only time I've ever heard Metro trains chime is when they're about to depart from a terminus station. Automatic train control in the Metro means that the trains drive themselves and the operators open and close the doors, but I never saw one observe the platform the way Toronto subway guards do.

Moreover, on the subject of doors, one slightly disturbing thing I noticed was that the car doors frequently opened before the train had come to a complete stop. This would've been interesting enough on its own, but at no point in my travels on the Montreal Metro did I observe new boarders wait for people to get off the train before trying to get on themselves.

The interior of Metro cars have some interesting differences from their Toronto counterparts, beyond seating. There is far, far less advertising. This may, however, be counterweighed by the Alstom Telecite video passenger information and advertisement system installed in some, but not all, cars. When departing stations it displays next-station information, accompanied by an audio announcement, and between stations it plays advertisements.

If I'd done this comparison only a couple of years ago, Montreal would've earned more points from this category. Though the Toronto subway has ubiquitous audio next-station announcements today, Montreal has had its Telecite screens in service since at least 1993.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

My first real experience with the Montreal Metro was making an ass of myself at one of the turnstiles. In Toronto, if you're not paying with a Metropass or token, you drop your fare into the farebox at the collector's booth and push through the turnstile. Not so in Montreal. When I, still slightly addled from the flight, dropped my $2.75 into the farebox at Berri-UQAM, I was presented with a paper card with no immediate significance.

Maybe this is my proof of payment, I thought, and made for the turnstile. Locked, as I found out with a thunk. I look around for a moment and find a slot in the turnstile, just the same size as my card. I push the card in, turn to the turnstile, and thunk again. It was only then I noticed the card sticking out of a second hole on the top of the turnstile. Removing it unlocked the thing, and I was able to proceed without anyone laughing at me. They probably, I figure, see it all the time.

Getting around with my three-day tourist card was substantially easier - I had only to show it to the collector, who opened a specialized turnstile-gate. On the whole, it seemed a bit more complex and hands-on than the Toronto subway's method.

Where the Montreal Metro really shines, though, is its signage. Practically the only standard on the Toronto subway I can think of is that signs are white text on a black background, and sometimes not even then. Simple, direct wayfinding is important in Montreal for two reasons. First, its bilingual population, even though the exit signs only say "SORTIE," and second, the fact that at transfer stations like Lionel-Groulx, the two sides of a center platform serve trains running on entirely different lines. Montreal's line interchanges are laid out vertically, unlike horizontal interchanges in Toronto - at St. George station, for example, northbound and southbound Yonge-University-Spadina trains are on one level, and eastbound and westbound Bloor-Danforth trains run on the other.

Furthermore, unlike the Toronto subway, the Montreal metro never defines platforms by cardinal direction. For example, rather than being signed as eastbound and westbound, Green Line platforms are signed as Honoré-Beaugrand-bound or Angrignon-bound. Even where the Toronto subway does this, in antiquated roof-mounted flipper signs originally installed due to a short-lived interlining experiment in the 1960s, the signs are compact and easy to miss. By contrast, it's hard not to see a directional sign in the Montreal Metro.

Directional signs at Joliette station (Montreal) and Rosedale station (Toronto)

Where the Metro fails completely at ease of access, though, is disabled accessibility. The three Laval stations, designed and built in the 21st century, are currently the only ones in the system with elevators. Coupled with the extreme depth of many Metro stations, the barriers to disabled persons' access to the system are significant. At least one new elevator, in Berri-UQAM, is currently under construction with completion scheduled for September, but it'll take a lot more than that for the network to become truly accessible.

Bicycle accessibility is another issue that both cities, with substantial transit-using cyclist populations, have to grapple with. In Toronto, bicycles are allowed on the subway at all times save the morning and evening rush hours on weekdays, with no other limitations. On the Montreal Metro, not only are the bicycle blackout periods on weekdays longer, but bicycles are restricted to the first car of the train, which can only accomodate four at a time.


I came into this enamored with the novelty and newness of the Montreal Metro, of all the ways it differed from the Toronto subway sytem and how superior some of those differences were. I still think that way, in some respects - there are some ideas, particularly in terms of consistent signage and design motifs, that the TTC would be well-advised to adapt. Neither of them are, in my opinion, greatly superior to the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and everything balances out.

Now, if the benefits of both could be combined into one system and their failings dropped, the result would be like two turtles duct-taped together: unstoppable.


  1. A good read Andrew.

  2. Yes it was interesting to read. But to be quite honest, both systems suck. For the size of both Montreal and Toronto, there really needs to be a lot more stations. I think that the worst subway system in the world has to be Rome. The best is probably Tokyo. New York is slightly bigger and a $2 flat rate is awesome, but a lot of the stations in New York are far dirtier than any other system I have seen in the world. TTC or GO really ought to build a rail link for the airport to connect downtown just like most major cities.

  3. Funny, I actually have been on the Rome subway once - back in 1998, but even so. The only thing that really sticks with me is how much graffiti there was on it.

    As for myself, the Toronto and Tokyo systems have no basis for comparison other than that they're both subways. There are more people in Greater Tokyo than there are in Canada; I would hope it has a damn good subway system.

  4. What I was trying to say is in my experience Tokyo's was probably the best. But for the Toronto and the volume of people, at least another east/west line would be great. I found when I was living there, it was convenient for people who lived close to the subway, but it covers such a small area of the city.

    I would have to say in terms of population to station ration, I would have to say Athens was the best. I was there in 2007 and it was very clean, punctual and had many lines.

    The worst like I said is Rome. Melbourne was also pretty bad. The doors are not even automatic. It was a real pain to open them. In terms of cleanliness, Paris was by far the worst. Every station stunk of urine.

    In Seoul, most stations are 3 or 4 stories deep into the group. The idea is that they can be used as bomb shelters if North Korea ever attacked.

    I would love to see an airport line in Toronto. The SkyTrain in Vancouver has a link to the airport now.

    I think I am a closet train nerd:)

  5. I second the comment about Tokyo being the best system in the world. It's not just that it has more lines because its bigger. The network of subway and private rail lines is far more extensive, frequent and convenient than any city subway system I've rode. The new system in Seoul may now be comparable. But, back when I lived in Seoul, it was limited to only four lines.

    Absolutely agree that Toronto needs far more lines and far more comprehesive coverage. Last time I was in Toronto, I stayed in a hotel on Lakeshore Blvd. West. The nearest subway station was Runnymeade -- about a 1/2 hour inconvenient walk away. Or you could wait 20 minutes for a bus which would take you another 20 minutes to cover that distance, assuming the bus showed up on time. Theoretically, the new Transit City light rail network should solve this problem, at least for getting from the hotel to downtown Toronto. Of course, if you want to get to the commercial section of Swansea along Bloor Street, it won't be much more convenient.

    Montreal has got to add air-conditioning to its trains and improve disabled access. Thankfully, it's starting to make improvements to the latter. No sign of progress on the former, however.

  6. Having recently moved from Mtl to TO, this is one service I wish the TTC would provide (simple but great when you need to find your way around the city):

    Also ... I never had problems going to the airport in Mtl ... however I must admit that a direct link should be provided perhaps from Berri .... instead of Lionel Groulx

  7. I agree that the two systems are comparable. I rode the Métro when it was new in the sixties. As for the stations, the original designs were assigned to different architects, though with obvious co-ordination is styling elements (signage, for example).
    While it is true you always have to use a transfer to move between buses and trains, at least the punch-holed transfers received on the buses can be used in the automatic turnstiles whereas on the TTC they must be handed to a kiosk clerk. Still, that's only an issue downtown and at isolated stations elsewhere.
    I agree that the TTC doesn't have a sense of style, not only in its system, but also in its literature. I like the way the Métro refers to its lines by colour and number rather than the awkward Yonge-University-Spadina type of coinage.
    Montréal, being built on rock (cf. the clay under Toronto), required boring and blasting to dig the tunnels. For the original system, almost the only surface excavations were at the stations, the tunnel-digging business being hidden underground. Compare Toronto, where much of Yonge Street was dug up to lay the tunnel beneath it. The geology led to the tunnel profile where trains descend when leaving the station and "surfaced" when entering. This profile, by the way, gives assistance for both braking and accelerating.
    I apologize for rambling. This is a good review.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Wow, that sound on the Montreal Metro was made by the wheels? I used to think it was a chime of some sort.

    1. Actually, the sound you hear is made by the electrical "chopper" used to feed electrical power to the motors. Emitting 5 tones of which only the last three are audible, the "chopper" slowly rises the current to the motors so as to avoid surcharge of the feeding elements, providing a smooth rise in speed of the tram.

  10. Simply marvelous!!! Your article provides a fresh new insight to this topic which was yet undiscovered. I must say your research skills are sharp and your narration is interesting. Splendid work…

  11. Wow, great article. Mid-century bathroom :) (Although in fact, there is method, with a well-thought-out cycling of colours, although as it turns out, it's more of an intellectual exercise than anything else, and somewhat destroyed by renovations.)

    A few updates: there is now a 747 bus to and from Montréal's airport, which stops at both Lionel Groulx and Berri-UQAM (and various spots in downtown close to hotels). And that the orange line now has an audible warning before the doors close -- one that mimics the doo-doo-doo of the motors.

    For the 3-day pass: you place it on top of the turnstiles where the Opus card picture is (just like if you had an Opus card). Your single trip ticket still goes in the slot as mentioned, and must be removed before the turnstiles open (and no, you're hardly the first person to have that happen to you :).

    Alas, Montréal's métro won't ever be retrofitted with air conditioning: apparently, the fact that it's a closed system and built at a time when no thought was put into making it air-conditionable makes it prohibitively expensive. However, they ARE working at improving ventilation, and the new trains will produce less heat and have better air circulation within the cars, so while not perfect, it will be more pleasant.

    As well, there are now elevators in 7 stations -- admittedly, not many. However, it may be heartening to know that the decision to retrofit the stations slowly was made with input from disabled groups, who said it was more important to keep the current system of specialized shuttles and taxi vouchers than to funnel the money into making the métro more accessible. The STM already revamped its fleet of regular busses and most are low-floor and accessible, and while you need to book your trip in advance to use the shuttle busses and they don't always arrive on time, they do pick you up at your door. All in all, it means the disabled can get around town, just not many will find the métro the easiest way.

    Interestingly, the rock from the tunnelling was used to build up Sainte-Hélène and create Île-Notre-Dame for Expo 67. And a sign of the times: Montréal's métro was blessed by the Cardinal Léger at its inauguration. When you know your métro was sanctioned by God, rather than TTC's heathen subway inaugurated only by politicians, well, now. No more comparison is required, is it? :)

  12. They have a very sophisticated set up. Can't be said about other cities.

  13. Well, you can add an update on travel from Trudeau (Dorval) airport to downtown.

    There is now the 747 bus running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week between the airport and Berri-UQAM Metro.

    The $8 fare gets you 24hrs of travel on the entire bus and Metro system. Or you can get on the 747 with the multi-day card or weekly or monthly passes.

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