Artists and architects in Montreal are upcycling old subway cars

An older generation MR-63 train is in the Beaugrand Garage. Image: Wikipedia.

Montreal’s Metro system celebrated its fiftieth birthday this October. And for a limited time its first-generation “MR-63” cars were available to buy for the bargain price of C$C750–1,000 (£445-£593), along with a C$4000 (£2,370) shipping fee. The two-ton, baby-blue cars make up the oldest fleet in North America. They are gradually being decommissioned.

Out of 30 submissions, the Société de transport de Montreal (STM) has picked seven projects that will receive cars. These include a high-rise community centre built from multiple cars stacked on each other; a 13-story building that will encase over one hundred cars; a car plonked in a botanic garden in remote northern Quebec; and an art-installation made of 16 sets of sliding doors. Submissions were evaluated by the STM on criteria that included optics, heritage value, feasibility and sustainability.

“We wanted to do something crazy, but not too “in-your-face” crazy,” said Frédéric Morin-Bordeleau, co-founder of Projet MR-63, one of the lucky finalist projects. “So we thought, let’s get eight metro trains, create a building out of it, make it self-sustaining and generate revenue, and showcase the culture of Montreal.” He expects the sculpture, which will house a café, bar, gallery and community space, to be complete in 2020.

Artist’s impression. Image: Project MR-63.

Morin-Bordeleau acknowledged that his love of the metro carriages, like many Montrealers’, is steeped in nostalgia for the “glorious era” of the sixties, when Montreal hosted Expo ’67, the world fair that marked Canada’s centennial and attracted fifty million visitors to the city.

On top of the metro system, which was hurriedly built to accommodate Expo crowds, remnants of this era include Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67 complex, the Montreal Biosphere (capped by a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller) and two large man-made islands in the St-Lawrence river, created and reshaped using rubble dug out by the subway construction.

While he was not alive in the sixties, Morin-Bordeleau’s mother was a photographer for Expo ’67 and “would talk about [it] with stars in her eyes,” he said. He sees the project, which he founded with his brother, as an homage to this period. “We want to make Montreal proud and the metro trains were exactly the symbol we needed. It’s a mix between the glory of the past and visions for the future,” he said.

The brothers were initially inspired by the Village Underground arts centre in Shoreditch, London, which rents out studio space in four upcycled tube carriages to artists and designers.

Parts of MR-63 cars will travel internationally in the form of a travelling art installation. Another finalist of the STM’s call for proposals is interactive art piece Thresholds, a corridor of 16 opening and closing subway doors that people can walk through. Created by Montreal artist Michel de Broin, it was exhibited in Montreal’s this summer and he plans on taking it abroad.

While he acknowledged that the “distinctive” doors of the metro were likely to have a particular effect on a Montrealer, he believes the experience of the piece “will work anywhere”. His website describes the experience as “recalling the digestive tract’s ingestion process as the installation breathes and swells”.

MR-63 cars that are not being upcycled are slowly being retired, a process that is anticipated to finish in mid-2018. Montreal-based metal recycling firm American Iron and Metal is recycling the cars at the rate of one a day, with a new car ferried each morning to their headquarters on a specifically-designed trailer.

The invitable metro map. Image: STM.

The question of what to do with old subway cars has been approached in a variety of ways by different cities. In England, tube cars shuttle passengers down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, while a 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage hosts a monthly supper club in Walthamstow.

In 2015, over 2,500 New York subway cars were dropped into the Atlantic to create an artificial underwater reef for fish and crustaceans. Two of Buenos Aires’ iconic 1913 wooden cars have been converted into diesel-electric buses, and Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore wants to transform his city’s old metro cars into one-bedroom prefab apartments for the homeless.

Back in Montreal, the subway is receiving a new generation of trains – but like their predecessors, the city’s new underground cars will arrive at stations accompanied by the faint smell of burning wood. That’s because designers have opted to continue making the tyre brake pads out of yellow birch sourced from Quebec’s forests. According to the STM, wooden brake pads are quieter than steel or graphite disc pads, and environmentally safer, given that they do not release of carbon dust into the atmosphere. To prevent friction or burning, the wood is saturated in hot peanut oil, left to drip-dry for 30 days, and soaked in salt water.

Montreal commuters have come off lightly with their subway’s trademark fragrance. Washington DC’s subway cars organic brake pads are often blamed for a lingering fishy smell.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.