Train de l-Est

In a country that for all its many virtues does rail travel really badly, any new line opening is big and exciting news. Late last year after long delays and to muted fanfares, Québec’s soon to be disbanded Agence Métropolitaine de Transport (AMT) opened the much anticipated Mascouche line serving the North shore of the island of Montréal and the off island suburbs of Repentigny, Terrebonne and Mascouche.

Back in January, I had the opportunity to make the journey to Repentigny. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a train journey, although in this instance the travel time is considerably shorter, and the destination a lot less glamorous.

So, how do things stack up?

So many exciting destinations!

Buying a Ticket

The first obstacle to overcome was managing to purchase the correct ticket. There are a couple of ticket machines scattered around the station concourse, but before you do anything you need to know what zone your station is in. If you don’t know this beforehand (and there was nothing on the ticket machine to indicate this information), then you’ll have to take out your smartphone and navigate the AMT website. The information you need is buried deep within, and not in an obvious place.

Once you know your zone, you’ll find navigating the ticket machine’s interface an equal challenge. The single fares are well past the first couple of pages, and are repeated in variants such as TRAM (includes a Metro journey in the cost), TRAIN, Opus, paper tickets. The order is seemingly random and you’ll need to scroll through pages to find what you want. Travelling with someone else and need two tickets? Tough, you can only have one, and you’ll need to make another transaction to buy another.

I am left to conclude that this whole diabolical system was designed by committee, and no one on that committee ever actually had plans to use the train themselves (OK, so this article isn’t about software, but there’s a great post from Coding Horror which talks about how we end up with poor user experiences like this when the designer is probably never going to be an end user)

The pricing is a bit ludicrous as well. All ticket options stretch from zone 1 to your destination zone, meaning that if you want to travel from a station in zone 6 to one in zone 5, you also have to pay for a ticket covering zones 1-4 as well. Of course, the lack of useful services for non-commuters means that this situation is probably moot.

Once you’ve bought your ticket, you have to remember to validate it at one of the freestanding machines near the platform entrances. This is the equivalent of touching your Opus card to the turnstile before you get on the Metro. Failure to do this is equivalent to not having a ticket at all if you’re caught by an inspector.

On the Train

The trains themselves are modern with both upper and lower floors. They’re comfortable and provide a smooth and silent ride with lots of space. There’s even a quiet coach where passengers can get some peace from mobile phones on their way home from work. Each station is announced automatically (in French only, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most people using the service).

Comfy seats for your journey to the suburbs

Even with a number of stops on the island, it seemed most of the passengers were heading to the final three off-island stations. The journey was perfectly on-time, and we arrived in Repentigny in the 50 minutes promised by the schedule.

A dark snowy evening, there wasn’t a lot to take photos of from the train

Repentigny station was a functional space, with good services for mobility impaired users and places to shelter from the cold. There’s a connecting bus, which will spirit you to the town centre where you can connect to other bus routes. However, Repentigny is a long and thin town with the station at one end, meaning it’s probably not realistically accessible for residents who don’t have a car.

Getting off the train at Repentigny
The train continues its journey of brand new track to Terrebonne and Mascouche

Route Details

The route sadly isn’t going to win any awards for providing a scenic journey. The first leg of the the Mascouche line shares its track with the Deux-Montagnes line. This means that the initial 3 miles takes the train under the Mountain. For this reason, the locomotive uses the existing overhead wires to draw its power.

After emerging from the tunnel and passing through the two stations of Canora and Mont-Royal, the locomotive switches to diesel and diverges East from the Deux-Montagnes line along the northern edge of the island. This takes it through the boroughs of Ahuntsic, Saint-Michel, Montreal North, Saint-Leonard, Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles. Most of these boroughs haven’t had a train service until now.

Let’s talk about accessibility for a bit. Any track frequented by fright trains has to be at ground level, which is why most stations in North America require you to climb up onto the train, where as in Europe platforms are level with the train. In Ottawa, they even have platform extensions which retract at night when freight trains run.

What this means is that the platform at Gare Centrale is level with the train, the other stations are not. Once off the island, the track is dedicated for passenger trains meaning platforms at Repentigny, Terrebonne (on a side note, the town of Terrebonne is really worth a day trip) and Mascouche are level with the train.

The route does seem to be in conflict with itself over what it wants to achieve. On one hand, it wants to give the neglected Lanaudière region communities on the North Shore a direct link with downtown Montreal, so people start leaving their cars at home and can have commutes to work that don’t involve being stuck in Montréal’s notoriously awful traffic. On the other hand, it wants to provide a connection to the equally neglected northern boroughs of Montréal’s island so people can get downtown without having to take convoluted bus rides to make connections with the Métro.

The upshot is that it makes compromises in both areas. For people living in Terrabonne and Mascouche, they have to take an indirect route that instead of heading directly North through Laval instead doubles back on itself. There are no express trains, so they have to stop at each station along the way.

For Montrealers along the North of the island, they risk getting a train that’s already packed to capacity with off-shore commuters by the time the train reaches their neck of the woods. And that’s not to mention it’s much more expensive than existing transport options, such as they are.

Let’s add to that the fact that the schedule is next to useless for someone using the line for non-commuting purposes. This is not a turn-up-and-go service. Trains mostly run towards Montréal in the morning, and away from the city in the evening with only a few going against the flow. More so, there’s little service during the day and none at the weekends, making this a redundant service for many.

As with many rail services in Canada, this can probably be chalked up to the fact that most track is owned by CN or CP, and passenger trains only travel where they fit in with the much more profitable freight schedules.

Controversy

Everything in this section is a matter of opinion, but my feeling is that taxpayers have been a bit ripped off by this service.

As it stands, it’s better than what came before (which was nothing), but what we’ve ended up with is something of a political compromise. As already mentioned, it attempts to do multiple things (serve the neglected Northern boroughs of the island, provide a direct service to downtown for those off-island), but it does neither particularly well. There are also the following problems with the line:

  • It was supposed to open in 2008, so that’s nearly 7 years of economic benefit lost.
  • It was supposed to cost around a third of what it ended up costing.
  • At the time I travelled, two stations hadn’t even been completed.
  • Scheduling issues mean trains going against the rush hour direction were skipping stations on the island for a while.
  • Ticketing is difficult to understand and poorly explained, and doesn’t lend itself well to casual travellers.
  • A planned station in Charlemagne was dropped from the plan, meaning residents of that town need to drive to Repentigny.
  • Project was mired in the usual corruption scandals typical of this otherwise fine province, which no doubt contributed to its inflated budget and late delivery.
  • Although I had a good experience, the service is apparently prone to delays.

Anyone who lives in Montréal knows how the city and its ever-sprawling suburbs desperately need more public transport, especially at the extremities of the island. More Metro, more trams and a real “turn up and go” style train service to places like The West Island. Inexplicably for a city of this importance, there isn’t even a way of getting to the airport without road transport.

As someone who’s lived most of his life in the UK, I know full well how much these new transport links benefit people, transform communities for the better and improve quality of life. I also know how quickly and efficiently they can be built when there’s good political will behind it. All this makes the Train de l’Est seem doubly baffling.

If this is really the best that can be managed in the last decade, I’d better start praying I never have to live outside of Montréal’s downtown core, because it’s a truly sad wilderness out there for anyone without a car.

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