University of Toronto
GGR 324
Professor M.S. Gertler

Suburban Commuter Rail in Toronto and Montréal

Justin Bur

April 1984

Commuter trains have run since a market developed for them at the end of the nineteenth century. Commuter service is intermediate in volume of passengers carried and distance travelled between urban rail – high volumes over short distances, carried by street cars or, later, subways – and intercity trains. Most commuter trains use rolling stock similar to that in intercity trains (but without large spaces for baggage, or reclining seats) and run on rail lines shared with other passenger and freight trains. The main purpose of commuter trains is to carry people from their homes in middle and outer suburbs to their workplaces in the central business district of a city, usually within walking distance of the train station. Thus the greatest need for the trains is during rush hours on working days, but many lines also offer off-peak and weekend service.

Commuter service was introduced by both steam railways and electric interurban radial railways for the purpose of making a profit. However, the automobile industry has existed for almost as long as the suburbs that provide the market for commuter rail. The result has been that commuter rail has spent most of its existence fighting a (usually) losing battle against cars and expressways. The electric radial railways were killed completely:\footnote{See Due, The Intercity Electric Railway Industry in Canada on the decline of the radials.} they started to decline badly in the mid-1920s and disappeared one by one until 1959, victims of the proliferation of cars and good roads. They were unable to renew equipment and rebuild tracks because of insufficient revenue, so their situation became worse and worse. The remaining commuter lines, run by the main-line railways, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, had the best routes, including those through areas that had become built-up because of the presence of the train, and remained profitable until the mid to late 1960s. At this time the Ontario government started its own service in the Toronto area (GO Transit) and guaranteed the continuation and expansion of commuter rail despite operating deficits. In the Montréal area the railways were left to pay their own deficits (with occasional subsidies). The commuter services would have disappeared by 1980 if the Québec government had not revived interest in them at the last moment.

But if commuter rail transit is only viable when it is subsidized, why was it not left to die naturally during the 1970s? One reason is that commuter rail is still less expensive to run than other high-capacity modes of transportation. Another is the need to transport more people than could be handled if the trains were eliminated. And of course trains reduce the number of people taking cars, and therefore reduce pollution and traffic congestion. Finally, since many communities along the lines have been with train service from their beginnings, some people have become dependent on the train. This is more the case in Montréal, where suburban service was much better (at least until the 1970s) than in Toronto.

Another problem commuter rail has had until recently is the lack of integration with local transit systems. Commuters who did not live within walking distance of a train station who could not drive or be driven to the station had to pay an additional fare to take the local transit company’s bus. Another related problem is that transit commissions may ignore the presence of commuter rail in their territory when planning bus routes or making long-range plans, since the train is run by a different agency. And if even the local transit commission ignores the train, a significant portion of its potential market may not be aware of its existence. When a provincial government becomes involved, the train benefits not only from new money but also from new publicity.

The experience with commuter rail in Toronto and Montréal has been very different. Montréal had good rail service which deteriorated as its passengers were absorbed by other modes of transportation. Toronto had very little rail service until the provincial government created it in 1967. Both cities are now planning to replace and improve parts of their commuter rail systems. The history of the systems and the reasons for the renewal will be discussed here.


Montréal was Canada’s largest city until 1976, and is the location of the headquarters of both CN and CP (as well as VIA Rail, the intercity passenger rail crown corporation since 1976). This may be part of the reason that commuter rail developed in Montréal to the extent it did.

CP Rail’s Lakeshore line started running in 1893.\footnote{See CP Rail’s short article, ‘Lakeshore service has long history’.} The line runs from Windsor Station in downtown Montréal along Lake St. Louis (a wide part of the St. Lawrence River) to the southwestern tip of the island of Montréal, then west along the Ottawa River to Rigaud. Urbanization along the line, which resulted in a built-up strip all along the lakeshore, was certainly encouraged by its presence. A divided highway and the CN tracks (part of the Toronto-Montréal main line) run parallel to the CP tracks on Montréal island.

The second major commuter service, CN’s Deux-Montagnes line, was built as part of a major suburban and downtown development plan. The Canadian Northern Railway (absorbed by CN in 1919) in 1912 needed a terminal in downtown Montréal to be competitive with the Grand Trunk (also later part of CN) and CP. The most direct route downtown available to the Canadian Northern was through Mount Royal, the large hill around which Montréal is built. A tunnel was therefore built, and opened in 1918. It was financed in part by turning the land on the northwest side of the mountain into a ‘model city’ called Mount Royal centred around its railway station. The tunnel would make Mount Royal an ideal suburb, only a few minutes from downtown by train.\footnote{The history of the tunnel is described in detail in Clegg, The Mount Royal Tunnel and Middleton, ‘CN (of all roads) under catenary’.} The downtown development, including the new terminal, was not completed as planned: only a ‘temporary’ terminal was built, which lasted until 1943, when Central Station was opened; and no spectacular development took place until Place Ville-Marie in the 1960s. The Deux-Montagnes line is run by electric traction power. Some of the passenger cars include motors so trains can run like rapid transit without locomotives.

From the 1940s to the 1960s the tunnel line was very well used. As many as 77 suburban trains per day were run during the second world war. Forty-four were run daily until 1967. The areas adjacent to the line, from Mount Royal outward, have become highly urbanized largely because of the presence of the train. During the heyday of the Deux-Montagnes line, another electric line used the tunnel, which turned northeast to serve Montréal-Nord (instead of going west like the other line). This service was introduced in 1945 and last ran in 1969.

CN’s other Montréal suburban service, still running today, runs over the St. Lawrence on the Victoria Bridge to Ste-Hilaire. Until September 1982 the one commuter train per weekday per direction was supplemented by a VIA Rail Sherbrooke train. This line is evidently much less important than the Rigaud or Deux-Montagnes lines, and has received very little attention from transit planners; nevertheless, its maintenance was recommended\footnote{COTREM, L’état de la situation, p. 58} and it has survived. Perhaps a reason for its having received little attention is the fact that it runs almost entirely outside the territory of the Communaute Urbaine de Montréal (CUM; the metropolitan government) and is therefore of little concern to CUM planners.

Two more CP lines did not survive the 1970s. The Ste-Thérèse line ran north from downtown, across the Rivière des Prairies into Laval, and across the Rivière des Mille-Îles to Ste-Thérèse. However, since the tunnel belongs to CN, this CP train had to circumnavigate the mountain. The absurd routing, far out of the way towards the west, made the line hopelessly uncompetitive in travel time. The single train in each direction nevertheless ran until 1979. VIA trains to Québec City via Trois-Rivières still use the route around the west side of the mountain! The other train, to Farnham on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, quietly disappeared in the 1970s and no plans have been made to revive it.

The Montréal and Southern Counties Railway, Montréal’s only radial railway, ran from 1909 to 1956 from a terminal south of downtown Montréal across the Victoria Bridge to several south shore communities. It became part of CN when CN took over the Grand Trunk. The line accumulated deficits every year from 1931 until its end.\footnote{Due, p. 97–99.} Although plans were made to bring the line into Central Station, they were never carried out; this probably helped the line’s demise. Alterations to the Victoria Bridge finally caused the end of this service.

The Decline

The commuter trains declined during the 1960s and 1970s as other modes of transportation became available. At the same time the train service did not improve, and fares increased. The metro, Montréal’s subway system, opened in 1966; one metro line runs parallel to the Deux-Montagnes train, and has the advantages of lower fares, complete integration with the buses, higher frequency, modern stations and rolling stock, and the ability to serve the population to the east of and on the mountain, while the train is deep underground without stations. The disappearance of the Montréal-Nord spur line was closely linked to the metro opening. The 1960s were also the time of expressway building in Montréal. Boulevard Décarie was converted to an expressway, providing yet another route parallel to the train in the tunnel; autoroute Ville-Marie provided access to the city core; boulevard Métropolitain became a high-capacity east-west route north of the mountain; new expressways served Laval, beyond the Rivière des Prairies. Laval is a low-density suburb best suited to car transportation.

The CP Lakeshore line did not suffer such a great rate of passenger loss as the Deux-Montagnes line. Unlike CN, which is still using its original electric equipment, CP even introduced new double-deck coaches in the late 1960s. Still, increasing fares and increasing car use had their effect.

The municipal planners did nothing to help the trains; until 1976, it was generally assumed that the trains were a relic of the past and would fade away as their ridership switched to other modes. The original plans for the metro included a line 3 which would use the Mount Royal tunnel. When Expo ’67 was planned for Montréal, it became more important to build an Expo line (line 4). Line 3 was never built; it was decided that an extension to line 2 paralleling boulevard Décarie would be more useful: the tunnel had lost its importance.

A further handicap that the trains suffered was their lack of connection with municipal transit systems. It may seem strange, but no effort was made to route buses in front of train stations or to schedule buses to meet trains. Downtown, the walkways between Windsor and Central Stations and Bonaventure station on the metro are long and full of turns and stairways. And until 1982, the fare systems of the trains and other modes of transit were completely independent. With infrequent service, aging rolling stock, high fares, and no integration either of fares or with other modes, it is little wonder that the trains suffered.\footnote{COTREM, La ligne de Deux-Montagnes, had this to say about bus-train connections: ‘Il ne suffit donc pas que l’autobus s’arrête à un carrefour près de la gare pour laisser descendre les usagers qui devront se frayer un chemin pour accéder au quai de la gare.’}

The Revival

The revival of Montréal’s commuter trains was instigated by the Québec provincial government. In 1976, the government imposed a moratorium on construction of new metro extensions and expressways, because the costs were getting out of hand. A committee (Comité des transports de la région de Montréal (CTRM)) was set up by the provincial Ministère des Transports. Among the recommendations of this committee were that the construction of expressways be stopped, that different modes of public transit be integrated, that future rapid transit should be built in already-developed areas to inhibit urban sprawl, and that wherever infrastructure existed, it should be used instead of building new facilities.\footnote{CTRM, Le transport des personnes.} This last recommendation especially favored the commuter trains. The Ministère des Transports then created the Conseil des transports de la région de Montréal (COTREM) to study further and implement the recommendations.

The COTREM’s transportation plan of 1979 promised a wonderful future for the train lines, both the existing ones and those that had already been abandoned. The Lakeshore line was to be retained, with improvements to the stations. The Deux-Montagnes line (line 3) was to be renewed, and the Montréal-Nord line (extended east to Pointe-aux-Trembles and Repentigny; line 6) and the Ste-Thérèse line (cut short in Laval, but rerouted under the mountain; line 7) were to be revived as the three lines of a regional metro system. The regional metro idea was based on the RER (Réseau express régional) in Paris, MARTA Rail (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) in Atlanta, and other systems.\footnote{See chart in COTREM, La ligne de Deux-Montagnes.} Regional metro trains would provide larger seats and a greater proportion of seated passengers than a regular subway system, and run less frequently. However, the service would be more frequent than commuter trains. Other improvements over commuter trains include fare-paid station platforms (no ticket collection on board the train) and platforms at the level of the vehicles’ floor, like a normal subway.

The CUM and the transit commission (Commission de transport de la CUM (CTCUM)) were not particularly pleased by this plan. It was imposed from above by a provincial agency; it did not agree with their own plans, which foresaw more underground extensions (some of which were cancelled by the COTREM); and they did not think the proposed regional metro lines were in the best places to serve the maximum number of people.\footnote{A memo to the president of the CTCUM (appendix 2 to CTCUM, Observations) had this criticism: ‘… nulle part [in the transit plan] on s’intérroge sur la valeur rélative des corridors utilisés pour implanter le réseau de métro régional. … On a pris pour acquis que du seul fait que les emprises étaient éxistantes, on devait les utiliser.’}

The COTREM continued to work on the planning of the regional metro. By 1981 the routes had been slightly modified: the Laval and Repentigny lines would not go through the tunnel to Central Station, but instead would terminate at metro stations, from which people could get downtown. This idea, intended to reduce congestion under the mountain, was not well received by the CUM. Also in the 1981 progress report\footnote{COTREM, Rapport d’étape} the Laval line was set aside until some time when either the demand became much greater or the plans for transit to Mirabel airport had been made. On the other two lines, station locations were decided upon.

The Ministère des Transports completed the transit plan in June 1982 with a regional integration scheme.\footnote{Le transport en commun: un choix régional} The main idea of this report was that fares in the entire Montréal area should be on a single concentric-zone system, no matter what mode or what transit company is used. Also in the report was a formula for financing transit that included a contribution from car drivers: they benefit from the presence of transit (it reduces traffic congestion) so they should help pay for it.

At the same time negotiations were being concluded between the CTCUM and COTREM and CN and CP to make the Deux-Montagnes and Rigaud lines part of the CTCUM system, run under contract by the railways. The CTCUM purchased CP’s rolling stock but not CN’s (since it was dilapidated and eventually to be replaced by the regional metro). Fares on the island of Montréal became simply double regular CTCUM fare, with free transfer to buses or the metro. Thus part of the government’s fare integration plan was implemented, though in a much simpler form. Ten trains per direction were added to the Deux-Montagnes line on weekdays, bringing the total back up to 28. The ridership on both lines experienced its first significant increase since the mid-1960s. But the cost of this revival is high. The new fares are far lower than before and more trains are being run, so municipal and provincial taxpayers are subsidizing the lines very heavily.

The provincial government’s transit plan has not yet been implemented because the political squabbles over it are still going on. In the matter of fare integration, even small-scale agreements between two transit commissions are hard to reach (an agreement for joint Montréal-Laval passes was in danger of being cancelled\footnote{The situation was summarized in an editorial in Le Devoir, ‘Adieu, carte inter-rives’, 8 Sep. 1983, p. 6.}). Transit commissions fear they will lose their autonomy if they are joined in a regional fare integration plan.

The debate over the regional metro is more heated. The COTREM decided priority should be given to the Repentigny line, line 6. The CUM would rather extend underground metro line 5 to the east (the rest of line 5 is currently under construction). A CUM report in September 1983\footnote{by Gérard Gascon, head of the CUM’s Bureau du transport métropolitain} suggested an additional north-south underground line in the east end, and an LRT (light rail transit) line to Pointe-aux-Trembles. The COTREM’s line, in the CN right-of-way, runs along the southern edge of the residential area of Montréal-Nord, then passes through industrial and sparsely-populated areas, and has been referred to as a white elephant. The other proposed lines would be more expensive and have not been studied in as much detail. To add to the confusion, the opposition transport critic in the National Assembly is urging the immediate conversion of the Deux-Montagnes line to a regional metro instead of any east-end line.

Quite independent from the matter of line location is the concern to have a Québec company (which would be Bombardier) gain expertise in building rolling stock for a steel-wheel-steel-rail urban transit system. The existing metro runs on rubber tires, but the international market is mostly for steel-wheeled vehicles, so the provincial government wants to build a steel-wheeled line to give Bombardier a showcase. The lines suggested by the CUM do not satisfy this criterion.


The Toronto situation is much simpler and less acrimonious. There was no major commuter rail line until 1967, when the provincial government started GO Transit (Government of Ontario Transit). GO Transit has become very successful. In addition, the presence of the provincial government in regional transit is established and accepted by the municipalities.

The electric radial railways provided commuter service at the beginning of the century. Lines were operated to Port Credit in the west, Guelph in the northwest, and northward all the way to Lake Simcoe. These lines were not able to run into downtown Toronto though: the city did not permit them to. The necessity to transfer to a city streetcar greatly diminished the appeal of the radial railways. In 1921, the city took over the private company that had been providing transit within the city and the radial railways, to create the Toronto Transportation Commission. Parts of the radial lines were retained; the outer parts were turned over to Ontario Hydro, which operated them for a few more years before abandoning them.\footnote{Due, p. 82–87}

Some intercity trains were run at times suitable for commuters. CN had lines along the lakeshore and from Stratford and Georgetown, Barrie/Bradford/Newmarket, and Stouffville and Markham; a CP line ran from Havelock and Peterborough. All were transferred to VIA Rail in 1976. Since then the Bradford and Stouffville lines have joined GO Transit and the Havelock line has been abandoned. Until the 1950s, four commuter trains in each direction ran on the CP tracks to Streetsville.\footnote{‘Ontario greases CP line for GO’, The Globe and Mail, 17 Jan. 1981} There were also two CN commuter services, both also running in rush hours only, to Hamilton and Georgetown.\footnote{A report on GO Transit did not consider these lines important: ‘The Lakeshore project [i.e., GO Transit] is different, first of all, in that it will provide commuter service where to all intents and purposes none exists today.’ (MTARTS, Design to Measure the Impact, p. 7)}

In 1962 the Ontario Government created MTARTS – Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study – to suggest ways of improving transportation to meet the demand expected as the population increased. It was hoped that regional public transit would reduce the number of cars on the expressways so the government would not have to continue building new ones and could spend the money elsewhere. Like the CTRM in Montréal, MTARTS examined the usefulness of existing infrastructure. All the rail lines leading into downtown Toronto were studied to determine the market for commuter rail and the feasibility of implementing it. In 1965 MTARTS recommended rail service from Oakville through Toronto Union Station to Pickering with trains running every hour in off-peak hours and every 20 minutes in rush hours. (Two trains in each rush hour were to serve Hamilton to continue the existing CN service.) The new service, GO Transit, was designed to be modern and comfortable to attract people away from cars. New rolling stock was designed (on the model of rapid transit more than standard passenger train equipment), stations were provided with heated shelters, paved platforms, and parking lots, and a system of color-coded tickets to be collected in the stations, not on board the trains, was developed. The government owns the rolling stock and specifies the service level and fares; the railway operates the trains.

Thus around the time the commuter trains in Montréal were going into decline, commuter rail was just becoming an important mode of transit in Toronto. GO Transit was immediately successful: within three months, ridership had reached the level predicted for the end of the second year of operation. CN’s Georgetown line was added to the GO system in 1974, then a line to Richmond Hill in 1978, and to Milton (on CP tracks) in 1981. These new train lines run in rush hours only. To provide a complete regional transit service, GO has run buses since 1970 to connect with and supplement the trains. The bus system grew throughout the 1970s by taking over the commuter bus routes of private operators.

GO Transit has its own fare-by-distance structure; until 1979 there was no fare integration with any other transit system. Even in 1967 when the new system was still under study, many people who filled out survey forms asked for integrated fares.\footnote{MTARTS, Analysis of the November 1, 1967 Train Survey} The first agreement, in 1979, was for free transfers to and from Brampton Transit buses. Since then free transfers or combined monthly passes with several other municipal systems have been introduced. There is still no integration with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). The government has even considered amalgamating the TTC and GO, with unfavorable response from the TTC. Some fear that any closer connection between the two would result in the TTC’s subsidizing GO Transit.


When the Lakeshore line became overcrowded at rush hours in the mid-1970s, the number of trains could not be increased because of other users of the rail line. Instead, GO experimented with bi-level coaches by running some of CP Rail’s Montréal stock for two weeks; then GO ordered its own bi-levels. These were unusual in that they had a complete upper level, not just a balcony. The Milton line, once it opened, also helped to take some of the load from the Lakeshore west line.

Ridership is expected to continue to increase, though, and if it does, the existing Lakeshore line will be incapable of handling the extra load. Extending full rail service west to Hamilton and east to Oshawa would require major improvements to the railway line – improvements which would have to be paid for by the provincial government but which would become the property of CN. And already GO Transit pays a considerable amount of money to rent the tracks it uses. To avoid having to upgrade the railway, a new GO service was announced in October 1982: GO–ALRT, for Advanced Light Rail Transit. Three phases of GO–ALRT are planned: first, lines from Oakville to Hamilton and Pickering to Oshawa; then a replacement of the Lakeshore train service from Oakville to Pickering; and finally a northern line from Oakville to Pickering linking suburban city centres. Across the top of Metro Toronto, the north line will be shared with a local rapid transit line.\footnote{See the GO–ALRT Semi-Annual Report and the October 1982 newspaper articles.} The new system will invove new track adjacent to the existing railway along the lakeshore, and in a new right-of-way (yet to be determined) for the northern line. Public meetings are being held to make decisions on the exact alignment. The vehicles for this service will be electrically operated, fully automated, and articulated – very long but bendable in the middle. They will be designed by Ontario’s Urban Transportation Development Corporation. The system has a secondary purpose as ‘a practical demonstration and showcase for the technology. … This is intended to promote Ontario’s high-technology industries in the design and manufacture of vehicles and equipment…’\footnote{Semi-Annual Report, p. 5}

Comparisons and Conclusions

GO–ALRT and Montréal’s regional metro are very similar in their capacity, intended market, and area of service. Both systems are intended to upgrade and supplement commuter rail services. They will carry more passengers than the trains, but have a lower capacity than a subway. They are intended primarily for suburban commuters, and also for people wishing to get from one suburban centre to another. GO–ALRT is intended to demonstrate Ontario’s capability to build automated light-rail systems, while the regional metro will demonstrate Québec’s abilities in steel-wheel-steel-rail urban transit. Both systems’ capital costs are to be paid entirely by the provincial governments, along with a good part of the operating costs.

But whereas GO–ALRT was announced in 1982 and is now under construction, the regional metro was being planned in 1979 and has not yet been started. There are two main reasons for the problems in Montréal. First, the provincial government is an unwelcome intruder into transit planning. Unlike in the Toronto case, there is not an established provincial transit company like GO Transit, and the regional metro will be operated by the CTCUM. Regional cooperation in GO Transit is ensured by its structure: it is ‘a voluntary association (empowered by legislation) of the Regional Municipalities… and the Province of Ontario’.\footnote{GO Transit Annual Report 1982-83, p. 24}

The second problem in Montréal is that the commuter rail system was allowed to deteriorate for 15 years before anything was done to try to regain the lost riders. The regional metro will not be providing relief to a well-travelled corridor, as GO–ALRT will be; it is rather an attempt to bring former train travellers back to the train. Its alignment, and even the justification for its existence, are matters of contention between the province and the CUM.

If the regional metro is finally built and becomes successful, Montréal will have an excellent integrated urban and suburban rapid transit system, and will have demonstrated that good transit facilities can attract lost riders back again, even when the facilities are not in ideal locations. Unfortunately, the results cannot be determined until after the lines are built. In the Toronto case, the success of GO–ALRT can be predicted with much more certainty.


Books and articles

Newspaper articles

This is a selection of a few of the more important articles read.
GM: The Globe and Mail; TS: Toronto Star; Dev: Le Devoir; Gaz: The Gazette (Montréal)
GM 1981 01 17
‘Ontario greases CP line for GO’
GM 1982 10 08
‘Rapid transit to link Hamilton, Oshawa’, p. 1
TS 1982 10 08
‘$3.6 billion GO Transit extension unveiled’, p. A1
GM 1982 10 09
‘CN’s bill switches extension for GO to new cars, lines’
GM 1982 11 29
‘Transit link goes forward into past’, p. 1
TS 1982 12 16
‘Rapid transit ring predicted by TTC’, p. A6
TS 1983 11 08
‘Work to start next spring on extended GO line’, p. A6
Dev 1983 01 06
‘Les transports collectifs’ (editorial), p. 12
Dev 1983 03 24
‘Un éléphant blanc sur rail’ (editorial), p. 16
Dev 1983 04 23
‘Les élus de la CUM et le métro de surface’ by Michel Clair, minister of transportation, p. 15
Dev 1983 06 23
‘Le débat sur le transport a Montréal’, two articles by Michel Clair and Andre Bourbeau, opposition transport critic, p. 11
Dev 1983 09 08
‘Adieu, carte inter-rives’ (editorial), p. 6
Dev 1983 09 10
‘Bombardier a-t-il vraiment besoin d’un métro de $600 millions?’ by Andre Bourbeau, p. 15
Dev 1983 11 23
‘Le dossier du métro de surface est valable et solide, estime le ministre Clair’, p. 3
Dev 1983 11 30
‘Un veritable métro de surface pour une somme d’environ $70 millions’, by Andre Bourbeau
Gaz 1983 12 05
‘Metro extensions may be new white elephant’, p. B-3
Gaz 1983 12 06
‘Civil servants clamber onto Metro gravy train’, p. B-3

MTARTS reports

COTREM reports

Miscellaneous reports