Montreal’s Fastest Transit?

This year, and also in 2019, Montreal piloted a boat service from its Old Port in the city centre out to Pointe-aux-Trembles in the East of the island. Coming from London where we have a similar service along the Thames, it made me think about how the river here in Montreal is an underused transit resource.

Let me preface this by saying this trip was a lot of fun. There’s always such novelty as a city-dweller taking a ride on water, especially at high speeds. And there’s something thrilling about overtaking a gargantuan container vessel on something which is intended to get commuters to and from work.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the short video below in which our little boat overtakes a the aforementioned giant container ship!

Travel Experience

What’s it like actually using the service?

The boarding point is in Montreal’s Old Port, a short walk from Champ-de-Mars station on the Metro.

Getting to the boat service involves walking to the end of a reasonably long pier which consists mainly of luxury yachts. My immediate observation was it would have made more sense to have the departure point nearer the bank to improve accessibility, but I imagine it would have costed a pretty penny to rent a more convenient spot.

The company operating the Pointe-aux-Trembles ferry seems to have done a really good job with limited resources and what appears to be a shoe-string budget – passengers have to wait in a tent, and pay for tickets using a card reader connected to an iPhone.

When making the purchase, you’re issued with an ARTM ticket which counts as your proof of purchase and is hole-punched before you board the service.

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You’re also issued with separate boarding tickets which are used to count the number of people on the boat for safety reasons. Because of this, if you’re with a child you’ll need to make it clear the total number of travellers and have a matching number of tickets, even though the child will go free of charge.

Information about this service is a little hard to find on-line unless you know where you’re looking. Likewise, the boarding point is also a bit hidden away and we had to ask where it was. This is the kind of service which doesn’t appear to be heavily advertised, and it feels as if you kind of have to be in the know to be aware of its existence.

This lack of publicity is a bit of a shame, as we’ll discuss later on.

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Racing the Metro

So, let’s get some actual stats on whether the river option is really better than the traditional STM approach.

Famous transit vloggers would personally run and time all the routes and upload a video so you could live the experience with them, or they’d race a friend to see who makes it the first. Alas, I’m neither famous nor a vlogger, and I also forgot to time the boat trip when I did it – Although don’t count it out that I won’t coerce a friend into a race one day, because transit races are fun.

So, I’m going to fall back on the estimated boat travel time from the website. For the Metro / bus combo, I’m going to rely on the effervescent Transit App for a ball-park, and it gives us a couple of minutes shy of an hour:

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For comparison, here’s the geographic route the boat takes (tracked with Out-Run from the day I did the actual trip):

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The website claims a journey time of just 30 minutes, which feels about right. Transit App claims an 11 minute walk from the Metro station down the quay:

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So, let’s add that 11 minutes to the projected 30 minute boat ride to get a total of 41 minutes for the boat option.

Below are the full results for a journey beginning at Metro Champ-des-Mars in downtown Montreal and ending at St Jean-Baptise Quay in Pointe-aux-Trembles. For the river service, this involves a short walk from the Metro station down to the quay in the Old Port.

Transit Mode Time
River Shuttle 41 minutes
STM (Metro + bus) 58 minutes

Here’s how the breakdown of the route looks:

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With the timing above for the STM route, TransitApp factors in walking time between connections. However, each time there’s a change of line, there’s an increased risk of missing your connection or a delay of some kind. As such, I’d take that 58 minutes as an “ideal” amount of time assuming everything runs like clockwork and luck is on your side.

So, the riverboat has the advantage in terms of the reduced number of connections, but it also has the advantage in avoiding congestion. It’s true there are other ships on the river, but the Saint Lawrence is wide and it’s easy to navigate around them. Buses are prone to road congestion and even the Metro makes multiple station stops en route whereby there’s a risk of delays, especially during rush hour.

Finally, the riverboat is a better transit experience overall, assuming you don’t suffer from motion sickness of course! You can take a seat and sip a coffee as you look out over the river, or go stand on the back deck and take in the fine views. It seems to be a no-brainier that if you have to do this route every day, the riverboat wins out over other public transit methods.

There are of course other transit options such as cycling and Uber. In terms of time, cycling from Point-aux-Trembles is not a fast option, and besides the boat will allow you to transport your bike anyway. I’ve not checked the timings for Uber. I suspect if the traffic is good Uber could complete with the riverboat, but during rush hour forget it. There’s also the matter of cost, where an Uber trip is going to cost several times more than the other transit options discussed.

Transit Integration: Comparing Montreal with London

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It’s probably never fair to compare Montreal with London, but I’m sticking within my own lived experience here as these are two cities I know well, and both have a river.

They also both have a Nelson’s column, and bell in the clock tower of Montreal’s old port is a replica of Big Ben.

Getting back on topic, London’s riverboat service known as the Thames Clipper has been a massive success with large and fast modern boats with comfortable seating and a cafe on board.

(As another aside, many years ago I photographed a trip on the Thames Clipper if you want a feel for what it’s like but be warned; The photos are about as low-res as you can get!)

Comparing this service with London’s is an exercise in mild frustration. There’s so much opportunity here for rapid integrated transit, which seems to be getting missed. See this map of the Thames Clipper to get an idea how it could be implemented: www.thamesclippers.com/plan-your-journey/route-map.

I also noticed the same company appears to run several other ferry services, including from Pointe-aux-Trembles to Repentigny, but this service goes from a completely different part of Pointe-aux-Trembles. Since the train from Repentigny to Montreal is infrequent – and doesn’t even run at all at weekends – why not join up this to form a full service? Repentigny is a destination I visit reasonably frequently, and a full boat service from Montreal out to the commuter towns of the Lanaudière, making stops along the way would be incredible.

Perhaps it’s also not profitable to run a large integrated service which can only run for part of the year, with indeterminate starts and ends of seasons. That said, my personal view is a river service could fall under the STM’s mandate in the same way Transport for London (TfL) manage The Thames Clipper and have integrated it into their brand identity with a dedicated roundel.

Conclusion

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With a successful 2021 for this service, its overall future appears to be in flux. With Winter coming soon, the Saint-Lawrence will freeze over, but I have hope the authorities will see the potential in utilising Montreal’s most prominent asset to form a reliable network in the coming years.

After the thaw, I might set myself a challenge of seeing just how far up-river I can get from Montreal by only using services like this, and if I do I’ll report back here.

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