REM Control: A Visit to the Heart of a Transit Machine

AI generated representation of the REM control centre as photography wasn't permitted. Image generated with stable-diffusion 1.5 running on a Mac Mini M2. Surreality intentional.

There’s a certain mystique – dare I say opaqueness – which surrounds our local transit systems here in Montreal. Where wise transit sages plan our region’s mishmash of networks and arrogant politicians often ignore the advice of these experts, a miracle sometimes does take place and a system actually gets built. When that happens, there are those who operate and maintain them.

In contrast with the plethora of behind-the-scenes blogs and YouTube videos from transit enthusiasts in other countries where transit authorities invite the media in with open arms, in Montreal it’s harder to see what goes on behind closed doors.

A few weeks ago however, I was afforded an opportunity to peek behind the operational curtain of the REM – Greater Montreal’s modern light rail network – and visit their operational control centre in Brossard, and it was fascinating.

I wasn’t allowed to take many photographs, but I learnt a lot about the network and whilst there may not be any revelations here which can’t be found elsewhere, I certainly gained some unique insight into this specific system.

And whilst I’d typically litter a post like this one with liberal photos, in this instance you’ll have to let my words do most of the heavy lifting.

Alstom Managed

The REM’s main depot, service garage and control centre is in Brossard at the southern extreme of the system. Sensible use is made of the land around Brossard station as the track loops about the large car park with the main facility nestled up against the incoming side of the crescent.

The green line shows the route of the REM coming down into Brossard and looping around the station car park. The big red cross donates the location of the control centre. Image: OpenStreetMap and OpenRailwayMap

Our guide was an Alstom employee with experience of working on similar projects such as the Dubai Metro. Alstom are heavily involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the REM, handling tasks such as maintaining the trains, overhead catenary and the signalling system.

(As an aside, the REM is the one of only two operational rail systems in Canada to use overhead wires – the other being the Ottawa O-Train. Both were beaten to the pinch by the former Deux-Montagnes line which was electrified from its inception in 1918, and further modernised in 1995 to support electrical multiple units. This would make the REM the third overhaul of electrification on the line.)

A glance into the REM garage where trains are stored, cleaned and serviced.

We already know the system is fully automated, but did you know trains are driven on automatic all the way into the garage? At that time they’re taken under manual control. This means a train ready for service can just be sent on its merry way without someone needing to manually drive it all the way out of the depot and up to Brossard station.

Around a quarter to a third of the REM is elevated, putting it at stark contrast with the Montreal Metro which is entirely underground, and observers have noticed the parallels with other automated elevated systems such as the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Engineering hours amount to 3 hours during the night, which isn’t a lot of time to get work done.

The closest I'll probably come to a REM train without a glass panel separating me from the train.

Something I found interesting was hearing our Alstom guide consistently refer to the REM as a “Metro” system, which is a position I’ve heard others take as well. It makes me think the presentation of the REM as a separate mode of transport is merely a branding exercise at the end of the day.

Handling Montreal Winters

The pantographs of REM trains are unique in that they’re reinforced in such a way they can break and remove ice which has accumulated on the overhead wires. In fact, this is so effective they regularly keep trains running during the night at times when ice is likely to accumulate whilst the system is down. Obviously, this is only possible because the trains are fully automated.

When snow becomes an issue, there’s special equipment to remove it. And it’s not just snow on the track which needs to be taken into account. Along the track there’s a walkway which can be used if there’s a need to evacuate a train, and that also needs to be kept clear of obstructions.

These machines are used to blow snow off the emergency walkways.

In order to do this, they have special trucks which, using a second set of wheels, can run on the track itself rather than the road. These vehicles also include a dedicated snow blower to remove the white stuff from those emergency walkways.

This maintenance vehicle has a second set of wheels allowing it to travel along the track.

But there’s more. In operation, REM trains behave slightly differently in winter compared to warmer months. As when there’s the risk ice can accumulate on the brakes, trains will begin applying brakes early on the approach to a station in order to melt any accumulated ice, and then apply full breaks to slow the train down.

Safety First

Earlier this year, Greater Montreal was hit by a winter storm which caused widespread power outages in the region. At least one REM train ended up stranded on the new Champlain Bridge. Media reports focussed on the fact passengers were stranded on trains for hours, which must have been a frightening and desperate ordeal.

As our guide tried to explain, if it wasn’t safe to get staff onto the bridge and over to the stuck train to evacuate passengers, then it wasn’t safe to evacuate passengers in the first place. This was the reason rescue crews weren’t sent sooner.

Whilst this makes logical sense, such information would have been small comfort to passengers trapped on board waiting out the storm. I wonder if the REM would be prudent to proactively close the bridge when the weather introduces this kind of risk, rather than end up with trapped passengers.

The new Champlain Bridge as seen from the south in more agreeable weather

In terms of reliability, REM trains have a unique feature which I’ve not heard of before, although that is not to say this feature doesn’t exist elsewhere. On nearly all rapid transit systems, train doors are a common point of failure. I remember witnessing this first hand growing up in London as the doors on the extremely ancient 1959 stock of the Northern Line would become regularly jammed when closing. This was so common that passengers would get up to manually pull the door closed when it happened so the train could depart. It was a relief when they were finally replaced at the turn of the millennium.

Doors have gotten better since 1959, but they’re still a common point of failure on trains. On the REM, there’s granular monitoring of train door performance so they can preempt an oncoming problem and bring the train out of service for maintenance before a door set fails completely. This is important for system reliability, because a train with a defunct door set needs to be detrained and then manually taken out of service, leading to a blockage of the line and inevitable delays.

On the subject of doors, and as is the trend with new rapid transit systems, there’s double the fun with platform screen doors. No REM train can leave a station unless both the train doors and the platform doors are closed and locked. In cases where this doesn’t happen successfully – for example because someone has obstructed the doors – they will make three attempts to close. After the third attempt, a manual intervention will be required. I’m curious how often the platform doors get blocked, and it would definitely be interesting to see some stats on how often an obstructed door leads to a delay on the system.

Welcome to the Control Centre

Not the track diagram from the real REM control centre, but an old diagram for the Gare Centrale area which now lives on at Exporail. The platforms on the bottom left would now belong to the REM.

The REM’s control centre is in an otherwise inauspicious looking warehouse. After entering and climbing the metal stairs there were several signs warning visitors that mobile phones were not permitted, and so I set mine to silent and placed it securely in my pocket.

At the top of the stairs, we went through a fire door and entered a dimly lit room with a giant window looking down on another room, the control centre itself. More signs stated no photography was permitted in this secure area unless with express permission, and even then those photos were not to be shared on social media.

Everything described from here is from memory alone, as I wasn’t able to take notes on my phone (I can understand why a good journalist always brings a pen and notebook).

The room below consisted of several desks with screens and keyboards, and a multitude of people going about their business. On the wall was a signalling diagram showing the track from Brossard all the way to Gare Centrale, LEDs lighting up the stations, switches and occupied blocks. Monitors showed live CCTV from stations along the route as well as sections of track between stations.

Adjacent, another track diagram with the dormant route under the mountain and up to CΓ΄te-de-Liesse, still identified by its original name of “Correspondance A-40”. No LEDs were lit up on this board, and further to the side additional space for even more track monitoring and desks for when the rest of the system opens. The fact this space hadn’t yet been filled and the remaining track diagrams not yet installed was telling.

The floor of the control centre is staffed by some incredibly experienced and well qualified people. Ex-air traffic controllers, nuclear power plant workers and of course railway signallers.

In the event of a fire in the building, the control room locks down and remains safe for several hours allowing the system to continue running, although how you’d be able to focus on your job whilst the building you were in was on fire is a bit beyond me.

I did ask the manager whether they’d be providing any open data in the future. He didn’t go into specifics, but stated that there was no GPS available to identify the exact location of a train. I can understand for security reasons they don’t want to identify an exact location, but I hope that in the future they have a feed with live departure data which can be used to approximate a train’s location in real time.

When pressed for an opening date for the rest of the network, our guide would only confirm their team was working as hard as possible to get the system ready. When pressed further for a projected date, they just told us to visit the news section the REM’s official website.

A few days later, it was announced the opening date has been pushed again, and the feeling in my waters is we won’t see it open before late 2025, although I hope to be proven wrong.

Fleet Delivery

On the trip back to Gare Centrale, there was an opportunity to speak with a member of the team behind the design and rollout of the REM’s rolling Stock, which is a variation of the Alstom Metropolis family aptly known as the Alstom Metropolis Saint-Laurent.

The fleet is on schedule to be fully delivered by mid-2025, which affirms my theory we won’t see an opening of the remaining system until towards the end of 2025 (or we’ll see a phased opening). Why might this be you may ask?

New trains are required to run a number of kilometres without developing a fault before they can be brought into passenger service. Trains need trackage to be tested on, and with limited engineering hours the only place to do this efficiently is on the large sections of unopened line.

Furthermore, Transport Canada requires a period of notice prior to opening so all of this doesn’t seem to leave CDPQ with much flexibility to open the complete system before the end of next year if that’s even feasible.

Coming back to the trains themselves, one interesting tidbit I learnt was the seats are heated in the winter. I think that’s a nice touch.

Rather Enigmatic Mystery

It’s very hard to get an inside look into the REM. Its secrets seem to be closely guarded. If we take a trip over to London and the Elizabeth Line there’s so much more transparency into the construction and operational side of things, making it easier for journalists and writers to do a deep dive into the details of the system.

I also think CDPQ could show more media savvy than they do in explaining the challenges they face, but there’s no doubt the people who work day-to-day on the ground are highly qualified and motivated to deliver a system which meets a high standard

But its those people who have been taken out of the public domain and now work for what is essentially a privatised rail network. Those skills are much needed in the existing Montreal transit agencies such as the STM and ARTM, and if Montreal wants to press ahead with expanding its network without the need to rely on private operations such as CDPQ Infra, it now has a challenge ahead of it to rebuild that lost knowledge and experience.

And the REM isn’t as bespoke as you might think. I’ve seen the angle that the REM is gadgetbahn, yet the components of the system – signalling, trains, etc – seem to be reasonably standard, albeit customised for the extremities of local weather conditions.

The wider picture surrounding the REM’s story may be nebulous and definitely controversial – and oh boy, is the controversy a deep, deep rabbit hole. Yet if we look beyond the politics and controversies to take the system with respect to itself, I believe we’ll eventually find the technology to be proven and the day-to-day operation resting in reliable hands.

I ran out of photos. Have a cat instead.

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Edited on 16/05/2024 to correct an error which stated the REM was the only operational rail system in Canada with power supplied by overhead wires. In fact the Ottawa O-Train is also electrified in this way and was operational before the REM.