Adieu MR-63: A bit of Montreal history goes off the rails

That’s it, it’s done. After almost 52 years, the last train of the model that launched the Montreal métro system — including the first cars ever built and delivered — were pulled out of service at 6:51pm on Thursday, June 21, 2018, at the Saint-Michel station on the blue line, to applause from chairperson Philippe Schnobb and a few dozen transit enthusiasts. The video above shows its last in-service stop.

The MR-63, the model number reflecting the year in which they were designed and ordered from Canadian Vickers in advance of the 1966 opening of the system, wasn’t the world’s best-designed vehicle. It had a lot of faults that were quickly rectified after the opening, most famously a problem with temperature control. Engineers greatly underestimated how hot the cars would get, and built a heating system that was never used. The driver’s cabin got so hot that a driver fainted, so the motor cars were retrofitted with an air conditioning unit replacing one of the seats in the passenger cabin. New fans were also installed in the ceiling, and one door in each car had its glass window replaced with a grill.

Air conditioning unit

MR-63 ceiling fan

Door grill

The interior design, which underwent a few changes in the half-century of operation, wasn’t exactly eye-catching in the end. Everything from the ceiling to the floor to the walls to the seats to the doors were either grey or beige. Modifications made to remove seats for more standing space left unsightly panels, and decades of use and abuse long ago wore away its lustre, despite impressive maintenance efforts.

MR-63 interior

The trains’ similarities to the MR-73, built a decade later by Bombardier, kind of dulled the nostalgia factor. Those with untrained eyes might not even have noticed the difference. When a man stopped me at the Saint-Michel station and asked what was going on that had captured people’s attention, I tried to explain. He confessed he had never noticed the difference between the models.

MR-73, left, and MR-63, right.

MR-63, left, and MR-73, right.

But to transit buffs, and many STM employees, it was a bittersweet moment to see the last of these old trains head into retirement. The agency decided to make it into an event, scheduling a final tour of all four metro lines, and outfitting the final train with vintage advertisements, information panels and a bit of special branding.

Vintage advertisement

MR-63 trivia

Fidèle au poste depuis 1966.

An acknowledgement of the MR-63’s reliability.

It also saved the first trains for last. The final nine-car train included the very first ones delivered to the STM, with vehicle numbers 81-501, 80-001 and 81-502 (501 was the first one built, but 502 was the first one delivered and was used for ceremonial activities before the opening the métro — 502 is the one that will be headed to the Exporail museum this fall). The train also included 81-506/80-003/81-505, and 81-532/80-016/81-531.

Amazingly, this model of train was never used in regular service on the blue line until its final day.

There were 369 cars, or 123 three-car elements, originally built of this model. Eleven of these elements (33 cars) were destroyed in fires in 1971 and 1974. Most of the rest lasted until the Azur trains began arriving and were subsequently phased out of service.

Transit NNNNNNERRRRDS!

More NNNNERRRRDS

Another NNNNERRRRRD

The final tour attracted a lot of amateur photographers, transit enthusiasts and curious onlookers. The final day was particularly busy, with fans by the dozens crowding the six-car train as it made its way from Saint-Michel to Snowdon and back again.

Open cabin door for photos

The operators at each end — hand-picked for the occasion — were generous but still professional, letting people take pictures without allowing them to actually enter an in-service cab.

STM staff join the final ride. Benoit Clairoux, with the Ikea bag, distributes buttons and historical tidbits.

For the final trip, from Snowdon to Saint-Michel, the transit fans were joined by STM staff, including chairperson Philippe Schnobb and historian Benoit Clairoux, both of whom handed out souvenir pins.

Philippe Schnobb would like to give you a pin.

Like many transit fans before him, Schnobb ran from one car to the next as the train stopped along the route, greeting people in each car.

There was applause as the train made its final stop, a bit of organizational confusion as staff figured out the organization of some photos and videos, and the train headed to the tail tracks to park.

Out-of-service MR-63 parked in the tail tracks behind Saint-Michel station, behind an MR-73 switching platforms.

At that point, the crowd dispersed, most of them taking the métro back home.

Pop quiz

If you’ve read this far you’re probably pretty interested in this stuff. So can you spot the difference between the métro’s three train models solely by the sound of it arriving?

I’ve put the sound of each of the three models’ arrivals at a métro station in this clip in a random order. Can you figure out which is which?

5 thoughts on “Adieu MR-63: A bit of Montreal history goes off the rails

  1. Michael Black

    I guess I should have taken a last ride, but it slipped my mind when it was.

    We started using the Metro from the start. I can just barely remember the time before it, but it was a neat thing and big change when it started. You could take off your coat once inside a station, that was a big change. Expo ’67 wouldn’t have been the same without the Metro. Expo was forward looking, and the Metro was almost brand new. It was great at the time, but limited in retrospect. In 1971 I started going to electronic parts stores around Victoria Square, and soon made the trip by myself. Etco, Corenet, the electrical store with the snarly owner and Payette Radio (with a ham radio department), started by a descendant of Francois Payette, who my great, great, great grandfather must have known in 1811 in the Pacific Northwest. But it was so roundabout, go to Berri from Atwater, then switch to the orange line and travel back west. We soon learned of the tunnels that would almost but not quite get you from about University down to Victoria Square, which was faster than going to Berri and back, but useful in the winter.

    Then there was the tunnel from Westmount Square to the Atwater station, just “to be on the Metro”, maybe the first example of deliberate underground tunneling. It was much later, the eighties with lots of downtown construction, when there was more deliberateness to the “underground city”.

    The cars may look tired now, but they were great at the beginning, not just brand new but a totally new thing. The rubber wheels made it different too, but if I’d been on a subway elsewhere, it was a limited experience. I had barely gone anywhere on the bus, but the Metro, even in the first set of stops, got me all over.

    It’s still relatively new, because I remember when it first arrived

    Michael

    Reply
  2. Dimi Koutsoufis

    MR-73, Azur, MR-63 ?
    I remember when the Metro first opened up on Oct. ’66. I was just a little kid. It was so modern and new. I was fascinated by the unusual rubber tire construction technique, and the unforgettable smell they emitted. At the time, it wasn’t just the new trains that impressed, but also the individual stations with their unique architecture. Thanks for the memories Steve!

    And just for a little pathos, a good friend committed suicide in the Beaubien Metro station Oct. ’88, thirty years ago.

    Reply
  3. Jon

    My guesses in the order they were played:
    MR-73, MPM-10, MR-63.

    As someone who takes the Metro on a daily basis, there’s enough of a clue in the last few seconds for the first two clips.

    Reply

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