Montreal Radio Blog

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Comfort on board buses and in the Metro

The STM has worked hard over the past few years to revamp their image. It’s hard not to notice the new logo, paint scheme and “green” publicity campaign that they have been going with. There have also been many increases in bus service. Whether or not you have or will benefit from any of these improvements depends on where you live. According to Wikipedia stats, Montreal has the 4th most used public transportation system in North America. New York is number one, of course…

Back “in the day”, you waited for the bus and it arrived whenever it arrived. There were no fancy Apps or even signage to indicate when the next bus was coming. Schedules obviously make it a lot easier to plan your trip in advance. It’s also a lot easier, especially in the winter, if you live relatively close to a Metro station. The other biggest change you have obviously noticed is the relatively recent addition of the OPUS card. Gone are the days when you could simply buy a booklet of tickets or a monthly disposable pass. In its place is a complicated system who’s development clearly made some people a lot of money. To be fair, Quebec public transit systems are not the first or the last to migrate to that type of a system, but it is far from user friendly. Now, we learn that these cards only have a four year lifespan.

With all the improvements the STM likes to talk about, the one thing you don’t hear much about is actual comfort. Comfort was never a priority when the Metro was conceived, as it was thought the “masses” would take whatever they were given. Therefore, customer comfort has traditionally been low on the priority list.

Engineers believed that it was going to be freezing cold in the tunnels during the winter and installed heaters in the original Metro cars. They were caught completely off-guard by the sweltering heat that was supposedly caused by the trains. They did what they could to make it more bearable, but the problem of heat in the Metro and on board the cars has never been dealt with. That was true even with a second generation of Metro cars that were delivered in the 1970s. It is likely going to remain the case with the new Metro cars that are to be delivered in a couple of year’s time, since they were ordered without air-conditioning. The STM is promising that the new trains will have a fantastic new ventilation system that will eliminate the need for A/C. They also claim that it would be impossible to have A/C on the Montreal Metro because of all kinds of technical reasons. Somehow, all those reasons don’t seem to exist elsewhere. If riders end up finding the new ventilation system inadequate, they will be stuck in the “heat” for another 30 years.

The Montreal Metro system prides itself on the beauty of its stations. The Metro was also built to run entirely underground and on rubber tires. While there are advantages to this system, when it comes to the actual limitations this all causes for the system’s possible expansion, it probably was a mistake. There could have been a network built with less fancy stations and rolling stock that could run above ground when necessary. This would have solved a great many of the problems that exist today, most notably the incredible and sometimes prohibitive cost of expansion. But there is nothing that can be done about that now, especially since the new rolling stock will not have the capabilities to be exposed to the elements.

Speaking of being exposed to the elements… Montreal’s bus fleet is another interesting contradiction in comfort. The buses that serviced the STM through the mid-90s were basic transportation. They were not fancy and they had stairs. They did however seem spacious and gave you the impression of having a little bit of breathing room. That was true even if they too did not have A/C in summer. In 1995, we began to see low floor buses hit the streets of Montreal. They looked pretty nice on the outside, but the first generation of Nova LFS buses were a disaster from the minute they went into service. Not only was their interior layout poorly designed, but the transmission was so crappy that you had to hold on for dear life every time the thing accelerated. People universally hated these buses, so naturally, the entire fleet has since been filled by future generations of that bus model. Although mechanically, the buses have come a long way since then, they are still uncomfortable and disliked by a sizable number of users.

In the summer of 2011, the STM bowed to pressure and began a so-called pilot project to determine if A/C would be ordered on new buses. A year earlier, opposition Projet Montreal had made a big deal of the issue of adding air to buses and the new Metro cars. At the time, Montreal officials responded with every known excuse. What they couldn’t explain however, was why A/C could and was working elsewhere, like in Toronto and Ottawa and why it couldn’t work here. Back to the pilot-project: The STM sent a dozen or so A/C-equipped buses on various routes and then supposedly asked riders to answer a survey. Among the questions asked was whether people would be willing to pay more to have climate-controlled rides. The project ended and we were told the STM was not done with its test evaluations, including how much extra it would cost in terms of fuel. Either way, they would make an announcement regarding the issue during the winter. And by the way, they would make their own decision no matter what the survey results would show. We are still waiting…

What the A/C survey kind of proves is that the STM is interested in hearing your opinion, as long as your answer already re-enforces their own plans. Most of the time, they ask the public to help determine frivolous things like already-determined colour scheme possibilities for the new Metro trains.

Finally, the increase in ridership in recent years has almost certainly had everything to do with the economy, high price of gas and war on the automobile waged by both levels of government. When users say their ride is uncomfortable, the people in charge should do everything in their power to change that. It is not obvious that either the STM or too many municipal politicians see it that way.

If the STM was really interested in getting people to leave their cars at home, they would make the system as pleasant as possible and make it a viable alternative for those who really have a choice. The plain fact is that the vast majority of people who use public transit do so for financial reasons. The number of people with a choice who will decide to take a jam-packed bus with an interior temperature of 40 degrees Celsius in July is almost null. The number of people with a choice who will switch to public transit because they see an STM pro-environment billboard or corny TV ad is next to null. There are however, many people (with a choice) who would leave their cars at home if the public transportation system was efficient, reliable and comfortable.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We need a local English-Language cable news channel in Montreal

There ought to be an English-language local, or at the very least regional cable news television channel in Montreal. It’s all good and fine to have local newscasts, however when local news breaks, there is nowhere to turn. Right now, there aren’t any fully functional 24 hour newsrooms in English in Montreal, period - on any electronic medium.

There are nearly 4 million people in the Montreal area and live news events can occur at any time. Whether it’s a major accident, protest or weather situation, you should be able to hear/see it as it happens and not be expected to wait for it to be summarized later on.

You may also notice that local Anglo newsrooms in Montreal almost never interrupt programming for local bulletins or coverage. There was a time when it used to happen with events like this past week’s provincial budget. If you watch American stations often enough, many affiliates will not hesitate to break in with live local events.

In French, there are two channels that cover local breaking news, RDI and LCN. The latter is far and away the place you turn to when something is happening in Montreal.

We can argue about the true population numbers when it comes to the Montreal English-language market, but it should be large enough to sustain one regional news channel. There has to be a way, even if it means that a good portion of its schedule might be devoted to a wider national news network. That it still doesn’t exist is a damn shame.