11 January 2012


The Montréal metro is a marvel of technology. Or at least it was, back when it was inaugurated in 1966. Unfortunately, since the sixties, very little has changed in both stations and trains. Consequently, a ride on the metro transports you straight back to the time of orange, round shapes, tiled floors and green-dot displays. There is ongoing talk of renovations and even new rolling stock, but so far, the only sign of innovation was the 2009 introduction of the RFID-based Carte Opus.

The creators of the city's subway built it to Canada's harsh winter climate: The entire 70km of tracks is indoors, so as to protect the system from snow and ice. Unfortunately, either by accident or by some design that is too clever for me to comprehend, the entire network also seems to be completely devoid of ventilation. Heavy doors shield each station entrance from the outside, and there appear to be no air stacks at all. Which results in an ambient temperature in stations and trains (no air conditioning in the sixties, remember!) oscillating between a sudatory 38C in summer and a no less absurd 25C in winter.

In other words: On an icy day like today, the difference in temperature between the street and the station can be close to 40 degrees. All that separates these entirely different climate zones are a few meters of escalator between the station entrance and the platform below. And on those escalators, nimbleness is key.

On the stairs moving down, red-cheeked survivors unzip jackets, remove balaclavas and start digging for their Opus cards in their pockets, praying to have the tickets ready by the time they are deposed in front of the fare gate.

Escalating upwards, the stakes are higher still. From the moment you step on the travelator, the clock is ticking and the mad dash to get ready for the cold is on. I have gradually optimized my sequence of movements for stowing my magazine, tying up my scarf, putting on my tuque and slipping into my gloves, just in time to push open the air-tight door and brave the cold.

There is no margin for error: If your zipper gets stuck or your shoelace comes undone, you're sent off to the penalty box - the little alcove between escalator and door where you are left to fix yourself up in the company of equally clumsy fellows. But look at it from the bright side: You've just been offered the very best vantage point to marvel at Montréal's bi-directional escalator ballet!

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