Montreal Traveler Advisory: Coin-Eating Machines At Subway And Potholes On Major Roads

There are two things that are terribly wrong with Montreal, one of the best cities in Canada, and City Hall would admit to one. The city has the distinction of being the only Canadian city to ever host the Summer Olympics. Whereas Toronto is much larger than Montreal in terms of size and the number of inhabitants, the latter does have a more interesting topography and lifestyle.

Toronto is relatively flat in comparison, and is comprised mostly of office buildings and big houses. Montreal, in contrast, has three faces. There is old Montreal, comprised of old architectural buildings which are eerily similar to Paris, France. And then there’s the new Montreal, which is a fashion hub, a financial district, and a hi-tech haven marked by a Google facility. For its third face, there is the so-called Underground City, which is a sanctuary during winter and fall. As most frequent travelers are probably aware, Canada is a snow country, being close to the Arctic. Montreal residents shield themselves from such harshness by staying submerged in the underground.

STM has become synonymous with Montreal Transit, although the latter term is hardly ever heard of in these parts. STM stands for Societe Transport Montreal. The company slogan is Movement Collectif, or Collective Movement in English. It’s a rather fancy term to call a major metropolitan area’s mass transportation system.

No wonder everybody calls it the Metro, in the same manner that New Yorkers refer to their very own public transit system as simply The Subway; while Torontonians refer to their own as the TTC or subway. It’s always good to have hands-on knowledge of major public transportation networks in Canada, especially for travelers who wish to frequent the second-biggest country in the world.

montreal traveler advisory coin-eating machines at subway and potholes on major roads
Montreal subway stations are notorious for eating coins.

Try getting from point A to B is via collective transportation, to borrow a term from STM. This will dramatically reduce any traveler’s carbon footprint. Of course, the added benefit will be the financial savings.

Montreal’s very own Metro is a creatively-designed network of trains and buses that deliver day in and out; the buses being the exception, as they look rather standard, white and blue. And these buses don’t talk yet, when the buses in Calgary and Vancouver, announce the streets through a GPS system. For example, if going to a specific address such as 6240 Sherbrooke West, asking the bus operator to buzz oneself when the nearest stop is reached could well be like pulling teeth.

Chances are, the driver will flatly advise that he cannot tell the exact numbers on the street. In Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto, asking the bus driver to buzz you for the closest stop is pretty standard. In Montreal, you get a reply that there is no GPS system, or you can get lost in the translation, the major language being French, not English.

Be prepared to be amused when entering a subway station. There is one that looks like a World War II German bunker, an artist’s commune, a sports coliseum, or a castle with vast hanging chandeliers. Most of the time, traveling by Metro gives the feeling that one is submerged several stories underground, in a bomb shelter. And waiting for an old, light blue train can remind one of the dragon, Smaug in the Hobbit movies. The trains are as old as they are efficient, with many huge tires that look rather worn out from years of service, yet still going like the Energizer Bunny. It is a long train: While Calgary trains are three or four cars, Montreal trains look almost triple that length. The latter is quite efficient and reliable, but that doesn’t mean that these transportation conduits are 100 percent reliable.

Last Christmas, while people were rushing in downtown Montreal, the Cote Vertu line, or the so-called Orange line, broke down at the Berri-UQAM station, one of the busiest stations in the transportation network. The trains just stopped and the doors wouldn’t open for 30 minutes. When this happens, it is time to figure out an alternative route, instead of cursing the darkness. Translation: when taking the Metro, always be prepared for the worst. Always plan ahead. To illustrate, someone who has a job interview at 9:00 a.m., shouldn’t push it by taking one’s sweet time.

On January 3, 2016, at around 7:20 a.m., a passenger goes to the Lucien L’Allier Metro, part of the Montreal downtown core, to buy a ticket at the kiosk. And guess what, the machine ate all his coins, all $3.25 of them, then the same machine had the nerve to prompt the passenger for an alternative mode of payment, whereupon he had to pay by debit, the way he usually did.

The moral of the story is, don’t pay by coins with these machines, as one never knows when these old vaults will gobble up hard-earned loonies and quarters, like the greedy dragon Smaug. He ended up paying double without any hope of a refund. He did approach the ticket agent at the booth in the Lucien L’Allier station to report the incident. The operator did appear to look concerned and took the time to get out of his perch in order to examine the hungry machine.

Alas, he would tell the valued customer that this is the first time it happened, a statement that is hard to believe. The STM employee likewise flatly said that he could not reimburse the customer because he didn’t have the key to open the vault. All he did was apologize for what happened. Lucky for him, the passenger was in a good mood that morning, and decided not to pursue any refund claim.

Just the day before this incident took place, on January 2, at approximately 4 p.m., the same passenger tried to pay by coins at the Berri-UQAM station, one of Montreal’s busiest spots. This time, the machine would not take the loonies and the quarter, no matter how many times he tried. Noticing the line behind him, he had no choice but to pay by debit. All these experiences only bolster his decision never to pay by coins again at any STM terminal.

Riders be warned, somewhere in the Montreal subway system lurks an unseen, greedy dragon just waiting to devour Canadian coins without issuing a ticket. It will take coins faster than the Montreal Leprechaun, when least expected, and worse, a refund is a foregone conclusion. By now it is profoundly clear that coin eating is not only limited to snack and soft drink vending machines.

And for all the hassles of the daily commute with the Montreal Metro, most passengers have no other recourse except to ride again. After all, a taxi would be too expensive, and secondly, they would not want to drive this winter because there are so many damaging potholes on the streets and highways. Hence, one can only start wondering if choosing to minimize one’s carbon footprint on the planet is a wise decision after all.

No wonder many Montreal passengers still buy a monthly pass for $88, tax included. Actually, the pass is only $82. The extra six dollars is for converting the pass into what is called an Opus card. The card works like a refillable card, one that can be used month-after-month by simply loading with cash.

There are many advantages to using the card as opposed to paying for every trip. One of these is the unlimited one-month usage. A passenger doesn’t have to pay $3.25 every time he or she takes a trip, where such amount is only good for a one-way trip. Aside from not having to feed the Montreal dragon or the Leprechaun, the smart commuter will be able to save 50 percent in monthly transportation cost, which is very significant.

The Weather Network reports a mild winter weather for the city this week. However, potholes and coin-eating machines at Metro stations are two major things that presently ail Montreal. While the STM has been around for many years, there is a lot of room for improvement. It may look massive and sturdy, after all this system is Montreal’s Underground City and bomb shelter rolled up into one. Still, there are a lot of things to be desired about this transit system, based on the daily experience of a Montreal commuter who only wants to diminish his carbon footprint on the planet.

[Image by Plutarc Sicat]