STM: From the Ice Age to World-Class Service

In the past, to be a manager at Société de transport de Montréal, you had to be an engineer. And Chief Executive Officer Carl Desrosiers, an engineer himself, said that’s not necessarily a good thing. He said STM of the past was more focused on the technology while today, due in part to benchmarking and more customer interaction, there has been a shift in how it operates.

“I am an engineer; I know about those guys … we are quite focused on the machine, on the technical aspect,” Desrosiers said. “Now, we’re much more based on the customer.”

Desrosiers was born in a small town about 600 miles from Montreal and when he was 15 years old he came to visit. “For us, Montreal was the solar system,” he said. “I came here as a tourist in 1975 and I fell in love with the subway.”

He worked for two years in the mining industry and then was hired by STM as a tunnel installation engineer. He laughed and said, “At that time I made the promise that I would never become a manager because for me, managing wasn’t a good thing.” He moved up from tunnel installation to a specialist in technical support for the control center and then in charge of the control center, then train and metro operation, then overall operations and finally, the last two years in his current position as CEO.

“I’m the first one that made all the steps at STM from the bottom one to the top,” he said. “I was born here, basically, so it’s a part of me.”


How to Measure Up

Desrosiers has seen STM change over time, including that it is much more customer based today, than in the past. One part of that shift was that 15 years ago, STM became a part of international benchmarking groups through the Imperial College of London, to learn best practices from others.

“We started first on the metro side,” Desrosiers explained, “and now we’re doing it also on the bus side.”

As an example of what it’s done for them, he cites their rolling stock. “We have the oldest rolling stock fleet in the world — older than Moscow, older than Paris or London. The average age of the fleet is 41 years old. Average age.” He continued, “Still, we have wonderful, reliable rolling stock. Our efficiency this year, we’re the second best around the world. Last year, we were the first.

“Even given that, the old rolling stock, all the equipment, we are quite efficient. Having that would be impossible without international benchmarking.”

He said it’s important to tell the employees where you are in comparison to others. “You know what? They like to be winners.”


A Modern Fleet

An example he gave where the engineering side can take over was with the procurement of their new Azur rail cars from Consortium Bombardier-Alstom. “The thing with engineers,” he said, “and I’m one of them, we’ll say this is really nice and I want it, so I’ll have to find a problem to fit it.

“You have to work the other way, from the customer. What’s the priority to the customer and how can I solve that?” He stressed, “We changed a lot having said that.”

STM bought the new rolling stock with the customer. The customers decided on the look, the interior layout, even the name of the train. He said they consulted with them on everything so that when the train arrives, it will be their train.

“I know my business. I know it very well,” said Desrosiers. “And my managers know about it. But the trickiest thing is thinking because you know the project, that you know what the customer wants. You don’t know,” He stated. “We did a lot of focus groups and we were amazed by certain things.”

There was some apprehension with customer involvement and to what extent the involvement should entail, but there are ways to keep the process efficient.

“If you do a survey and ask what should be the color of the next train, it will take you four years.” He continued, “You have to plan it.

“When you go to the customer with three choices you have to be sure that you can live with the three choices. If you cannot do that, you are in trouble.”

He also said most of the time they found the customers select the option that they liked. A specific example from their experience was in regard to the seats. The experts selected three seats that were the best options for them and they put the seats at one of the busiest stations for a week for customers to try. By an 85 percent margin, the customers selected one seat. “Of course 15 percent won’t be happy, but if they come to me, they will say, ‘I’m not happy about that seat.’ I may say, ‘Me neither, but 85 percent think it’s a good thing,’ and that’s the way it works,” said Desrosiers.

The look was important because they had received a lot of emails from customers saying they didn’t want a stainless steel box; it looks bad. “For an engineer like me, a beautiful train is not really important,” he said. “But the customer is. If it’s important to the customer, it’s important to us.”

That level of involvement has created excitement for the riders. “This is their train,” Desrosiers said. “It makes a lot of difference because they have ownership about the product. They’re waiting for their train.”

The new cars started delivery in April. The current fleet is 759 cars and they will be receiving 468 to replace 336. With the increases in ridership, there has been a limit as to what they can do to accommodate ridership. They removed some seats to improve capacity by 10 percent but if you’re at some of the busiest stations during peak times, you will be standing on the platform for one or two trains. The current headway is 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

The new cars are longer — 9 cars — with a continuous gangway and the capacity is much higher. To speed up boarding, they reduced the number of doors from the current trains. “We learned that from Asia and South America,” Desrosiers stated.

The current cars have four doors; the new cars will have three wider doors. The time to disembark the platform is lower because with the narrower door, there is only one person at a time that can get on or off but with the wider door, two people. “Four times one is four, two times three is six,” said Desrosiers. “It’s simple, but it works.” He added, “Without benchmarking, we would never have been able to find this out. At first sight it might be scary, we’re losing a door.”

Desrosiers said they’ve had positive train control since 1976, it works really well, and can reduce the headway. “Technically, if I had enough train, my signalling system would permit me a 90-second headway, which is out of this world.” However, he said, “But the power system, I don’t have enough power for the trains to do more than 2 minutes.”

New cars meant a change at the maintenance garage to accommodate them. There were originally nine bays but the new rolling stock requires more width between the cars so there are now six. While the old cars were individual cars, with the continuous gangway, they needed a 500-foot bay where they could lift the entire train on 18 synchronized lifts.

The new cars also have a completely enclosed undercarriage so the new train wash by NS Wash has an undercarriage spray.

While the new rolling stock comes with the latest technology, Desrosiers said there was one thing they wanted like their current trains: the brake shoes. The brake shoes used to be made of wood and today are composite. “Much more expensive,” said Desorsiers. He also said, “The problem with those new brake shoes is they burn the wheel so you have to change the wheel every four years.

“My 50-year-old trains are still running on the same wheels.”

He explained Consortium Bombardier-Alstom imposed some specs and STM did some testing of the wood shoes they produced. Of the wood brake shoe he said, “They don’t wear, the noise is quite low and you don’t produce the dust. He added, “New technology’s not always a good thing.”

Last year STM replaced its operations and control center. “We learned a lot,” he laughed. Of the major project he said, “Building a new control center is a nightmare. It’s always a nightmare.

“You cannot shut down a system for two years so have have to have two systems working at the same time.”

The original equipment was installed in 1966 and the manufacturer that did that is out of business. The new system built was in 2012 so there were challenges. As for the results, he said they’re quite proud. There are 2,000 cameras on the system and tunnel intrusion detection software so they can see everything happening on the metro.

Desrosiers said. “… when you put in service a new train or new control center, you have to know that for the first 18 months it’s going to be a nightmare. It is like that.” He added, “You have to tell the customer after 18 months, it’s going to be quite good but for the 18 months, it’s the price to pay to have good products.”


Modern Bus Service

STM is also looking to run the latest technology in the bus fleet. They recently finished a 6-month test of an all-electric bus from BYD and next year, will begin a 3-year test with an all-electric Nova bus with a drivetrain from TM4 Electrodynamic Systems.

STM’s goal is it won’t buy a bus that has fuel in it by 2025. Desrosiers said everybody thinks the biggest issue is the battery cost and life. He said it’s the impact of the need to charge on operations.

For an electric bus, it always has to be parked near the charging station for at least four or five hours. STM engineers explained that all the buses in the garage are parked one behind the other at night. If you need one, you can fuel it in five minutes. The electric bus will need to be there for four or five hours.

The other change is how long it can run. Currently the buses can do more than 500 km (310 miles) and they can stay out more than 24 hours. Sometimes the buses can go out and they switch drivers four or five times before it comes back. The electric buses can go out for 200 km (125 miles). Bringing a bus back two or three times a day is a lot of lost mileage.

For out on the run, “A solution for a big city like here is a fast charge,” said Desrosiers. “Having said that, you need 4, 5 minutes. Four, 5 minutes with one bus is not a big issue but with 1,700, it is really a big issue.” He continued, “This is really why we want to be the first to do those tests to understand how we will operate with that process.

“It is a big problem.”

If it’s charging 5 minutes per hour, it is almost an 8 percent loss of productivity. If applied to all of STM, that would mean requiring 8 percent more buses.

“Everyone that comes to us saying we want to do a pilot project, come here,” he said. “We are ready to learn.”


Paying for Transit

“I think it’s quite impossible right now around the globe to have an interview with a CEO without having them talk about dedicated funding,” Desrosiers said. And, he’s right.

People don’t know the real costs of transit and they don’t know the positive impact on the economy from transit, he explained. He had two pictures of the same location, 40 years apart, around one of their metro stations on the South Shore. The first one is before the station was there. And there wasn’t much more in the picture — parking lots, vacant land, a few 2 and 3-story buildings. In 2006, there are a half dozen high-rise developments.

“Do you really think those would be there without that [metro]?” Desrosiers asked. “Impossible. Somebody’s making some money. And it is not me.” He stressed, “The people paying for the system are not benefiting from the money.”

A rule of thumb in the industry is to put aside 50 percent of the operating cost, he said. In the case of STM, that’s $150 million a year in 2014 dollars. “We didn’t do that,” he said. “Nobody does that.” While it’s important to have dedicated funding now, it’s also important to increase with time because the real cost is twice the cost to build, he explained.

He said they can’t double the fares, they can’t double the income tax coming from property, so they need another source dedicated for funding. “You need that, but to explain that, it’s not like opening a new line,” he said. “The thing that happens right now around the world is it is much more easy to get money for a new line than to repair the base system.

“Many systems — and I won’t give you names — are collapsing because they decided to put new money on the extension but not on the base system. Then you’re in trouble.”

The previous provincial government transferred $1 billion from the investment of the roads to transit and basically 90 percent of that 1 billion has come to Montreal for the Metro system. While this is a good thing, they pay for 75 percent of the bill and that leaves STM to pay for 25 percent. With 468 new cars and the overall cost of the cars, garage, upgrapdes, it is close to $2 billion. “For me, it’s $500 million,” said Desrosiers. “That’s a lot. We have to find some money to do it because the worst thing that can happen to a transit system is to lose its core.

“Here in Montreal, when 950,000 passengers use the system every day, you don’t want to lose that.”