Marc Dufour
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Rail and urban transit

Exploring the
Mount-Royal Tunnel ventilation shaft

A most interesting underground exploration
that ends-up with a good gag.

Historic background

Those who are curious about it will be glad to click the link above, to find more information on the tunnel.

Those who aren't will discover it later anyway, by clicking somewhere further down…

Prologue — History of an obsession

During one of my first trips through the Mount-Royal tunnel, in the railfan trip back in 1977 that made me turn into a FRN, I was looking through the coach window at the tunnel lights as well as the irregular rock tunnel wall.

Suddenly, I think I saw an opening in the wall, but that furtive vision soon got lost in the black, leaving me a in slight curious daze.

A few months later, coming back from another special trip, I was standing on the rear vestibule of the last car, determined to find the opening. Even through we ran on the other track, which means I would see it at a shallower angle, I was able to see in a slight widening of the tunnel two openings on either side of a concrete bulge.

There are openings in the tunnel wall!!!

How to nurture your obsession

Three years go by, until, by sheer excentricity, I decide to commute to work by train. Even though the trip is not convenient (it is a longer distance, and since the train fares were not "integrated" then, it was more expensive), the trip took about the same time as the bus and Métro trip.

It takes me only a few weeks to be admitted in the “17:20 train last vestibule gang”… Funniest thing about it was that the regular flagman, an old classmate that irregularly took that train as well as a friend who works at VIA Rail who, by chance, also takes this train have the same first name as I do…

So, everyday, we chat about this or that, standing in the last vestibule of the train, with the clickety-clack of the six-wheel trucks (it was during the time of the old roaring 20's cars, with the wooden interior) on the rail joints, all the while looking at the passing tunnel walls and vault. I even, one day, took a picture with a flash, and it came out nice, even revealing a fair quantity of graffitis. Those must be Montréal loneliest graffitis…

Of course you can bet that I was watching avidly the passing-by of the famous openings (oh, it's not that hard: I soon noticed section number plates on the tunnel lights. The shaft is in section 31), openings that I eventually connected to the ventilation shaft that emerges on Édouard-Montpetit boulevard.

A bicycle expedition there revealed a very small building, about 6m on the side, huddled besides a curiously isolated house. A wooden mast besides the building proudly sports a radio antennae; CN's ownership of the building is convirmed by the typically CN identification number: in black Helvetica type on a white background…

On each side, three windows plugged by louvers. A heavy door offers access to within, but since the whole thing is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, you soon think of other things…

Superficial changes

About near 1983, the construction of Métro line 5 starts to happen. A station is dug all around the ventilation shaft: Édouard-Montpetit. Of course, I pay a particular attention to this station… But, looking over the fences, I don't see much besides a mere widening of the shaft, widening soon covered by concrete forms.

The station construction has demolished the isolated house, at the place of which an odd rerouting of Édouard-Montpetit boulevard goes. The little building is reduced to a mere ventilation grate, itentical to the one ventilating the station besides it (see the picture below; the tunnel ventilation shaft ends in the grate, at the left of the bushes, whilst the Métro grate is on the right). However, the wooden mast for the radio antennae has been replaced by a handsome concrete mast that rises besides the station main entrance.

By chance, when line 5 was inaugurated in 1987, a buffet took place in this station. It took me less than two seconds to spot a door that was left open near the main entrance staircase: obviously, it leads to descending stairs, which I soon climb down.

Alas, it's only to get to a mere technical room, without access to the ventilation shaft. All there is to see is "black boxes" that are obviously radio repeaters, most probably for trains in the tunnel.

I get back up a little bit disappointed. Fortunately, meeting one of the engineers who worked on the original subway network, some 20 years earlier more than compensated for that…

Building up the obsession, notch by notch

In 1984, after 4 years of daily trips through the tunnel, I changed jobs. It was hard to justify the detour through the tunnel, since my new job was just one bus ride away from home… So I stopped meeting the tunnel and looking at the ventilation shaft openings go by. It did not do much good, since I started dreaming at night about the tunnel, and especially of the ventilation shaft…

But, a few years later, I made a friend in a master mechanic (who shall remain anonymous) who soon discovered the advantages of not parking dowtown but in the suburbs, and take the train to work, in Central Station… But my job at that time often let me some free time to ride the train with him. This was at the beginning of the 90's, and since the old electric engines would not last forever, all excuses were fine to ride the engine, with a guided tour of the tunnel, through which it was very easy to transfer my obsession to my friend (engine crews could not believe that one could be so much interested into a mere hole through a mountain)…

Let's go!

Finally, one fine day, not able to stand it anymore, the master mechanic went to see the section head who was in charge of the tracks in the tunnel. It was child play for him to arrange a not quite official nor quite clandestine visit…

Goal: the fabulous, extraordinary, fantastic Mount-Royal tunnel ventilation shaft!!!!

The great day!

So, one day, Central Station track 7 sees three stoodges that go directly into an electric multiple-unit train. After saying hello to the engineer, we wait for the departure. The engineers seems puzzled by my tripod, but says nothing.

"Medium to clear", says the master mechanic, when Wellington Tower lines us up, and the dwarf signal shows green over red. "Medium to clear", answers the engineer. Then time comes, and the conductor highballs us by the radio. The train snakes slowly on the switches towards the tunnel, then the master mechanic lays down his cards: "Can you drop us between sections 31 and 32"? The engineers glances back funnily, yet he says nothing.

Then after swallowing the tunnel (or rather the opposite), slowly at first, since the tunnel is curved for about 500 meters. Passed the curve, the tunnel reveals itself in respendant straightness: we dimly see the light at the end of the tunnel, 5 kilometers further, at Portal-Heights (now Canora). A few notches later, we go at a good clip; but since the motors are at the back of the train, we don't get to enjoy the grunting traction motors when they munch the 6 ‰ tunnel grade…

We watch the section markers go one by one. It seems that the more we get close to section 31, the longer the interval between sections lengthens… 2526… It's useless to talk about something else, I'm too nervous…2728… I half-heartedly laugh at the joke that just went around, but which I never heard, so busy I am watching for the famous section 31…

30… The train slows down, and just a bit after the 31 lamppost, it stops. Right after we open the trapdoor, the conductors comes into the cab to inquire what is happenning. "Oh, those guys get off here" matter-of-factlies the engineer… We get down on the raised sidewalk between the two tracks, and the conductor says nothing as he closes the door as the train slowly resumes it's northward journey.

There at last!

The train slowly vanishes in the nothern portal pinpoint of light. To the slowly vanishing rail joints clickety-clack and the traction motor grunts, a muffled, unreal silence succeeds. Not the least echo either: our voices are absorbed bby the rock walls and ceiling. We slowly walk towards the ventilation opening, about 50m further north.

I catch on film the immortality of the moment…

One of the two ventilation shaft openings.

General view of the tunnel.
The daylight is not close, it is some1500m away.
I barely dare to enter the shaft itself… We first make sure it is safe to do so. The section head tells us there is nothing to fear… The bottom is in fact a huge puddle of crystal-clear water that generously pours down from the shaft. In fact, I nearly got drenched when I took the picture looking up…

The ventilation shaft base.
The arched opening goes towards the tunnel.
The openings are about 1m50 high.

Looking up.
We see the concrete ceiling in the
Édouard-Montpetit Métro station, some 75m higher.

The tunnel walker

To come back, we'll stop the next Montréal-bound train. When we are through with our exploration, we have about 20 minutes to wait.

Suddenly, in the dark, we see a bobbing light, as if carried by someone. That someone gets clearer, and greets the section head: he's the maintainer responsible for checking-out the tunnel emergency telephones who does his rounds. He's a bit surprised to see us here, but not too much…

He probably saw others… One of my father's friends once told me, in his youth, having walked the whole tunnel with his gang, with a special CN Police welcoming committee at the other end… And, given the presence of some graffitis at that remote spot, there has to be more than one clandestine incursion…

The beginning of the end…

Then, suddenly, on time, the appearance of one of the two north portal half-tunnels suddenly changes: the train is coming. The previously white pinpoint of light becomes yellow: the headlights of the multiple-unit train.

It comes slowly towards us, and the section head tells us to stand on the northbound track, as he steps one foot on the southbound one as he slowly swings his lantern according to rule 12A (stop)…

The engineer has seen the signal, and he stops right where we are. The cab is full of visitors, but they step aside as we open the door to get aboard.

The gag

As there is no more room for me in the cab, I go back with the passengers and sit amongst them. As the cab door is noisily closed, the conductor comes along, checking tickets.

I show him my monthly pass, as if nothing happenned.

Boy, you should have seen the face of the other passengers!!! The train stops in the middle of the tunnel, a passenger gets on and sit down quite normally… Hilarious!!!!

This more than compensates for not finishing the trip in the cab… Bah! Anyway, I fulfilled a very old dream: have a look into the Mount-Royal tunnel ventilation shaft!


During the 1994 and 1995 summers, the Deux-Montagnes lines has been radically rebuilt from scratch. In the first summer, the track got replaced, and the second summer, signals and catenary were replaced. The tunnel didn't escape the rejuvenation effort… Tunnel walls were peppered with hooks to hang electrical cables and the lamp posts have been replaced by wall-mounted lights. Alcoves have been blasted in the rock near signals to house the signal bungs.

The ventilation shaft is still there, but the openings have been blocked by heavy grates. Go figure!

It is therefore no longer possible to explore the ventilation shaft…

And I have stopped dreaming about the tunnel at night…

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