The Station Polytechnique Committee and Polytechnique Montréal inaugurate Station Polytechnique-Alstom, a repurposed subway car that will serve to promote wellness and raise community awareness of mental health issues.
Station Polytechnique-Alstom, the culmination of three years’ work—including 18 months spent repurposing and installing a vintage MR-63 subway car in the Lorne-M.-Trottier Atrium of the Lassonde buildings—was unveiled to the Polytechnique Montréal community at a colourful ceremony on November 4, 2019. This one-of-a-kind project resulted from an initiative led by students who formed the Station Polytechnique Committee, and received support from Polytechnique Montréal as well as financial backing from Alstom.
The inauguration ceremony for the new space, destined for Polytechnique students and staff members, was attended by Philippe Schnobb, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Société de transport de Montréal (STM, Montréal’s transit authority); Souheil Abihanna, Vice-President and Customer Director, Alstom Canada, Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, Principal and Chair of the Polytechnique Montréal Board of Directors; Philippe A. Tanguy, CEO of Polytechnique; and Isabelle Péan, Executive Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Foundation and Alumni Association.
“You came up with the idea to dedicate a subway car to student wellness, and you found the backing to turn an idea that many people found quite daring into reality. This is a fantastic project, both in terms of the engineering challenge that it represents and its purpose,” Mr. Tanguy told the students.
An original project
Station Polytechnique-Alstom, which welcomes passengers on a stationary train journey suspended in the Lassonde buildings atrium, is a brilliant illustration of Polytechnique students’ penchant for daring initiatives. “There has never been anything like it!” enthused Érika Lajeunesse, the project’s general co-ordinator and a final-year undergrad in Industrial Engineering. She joined the Station Polytechnique Committee shortly after beginning her studies at Polytechnique, and has worked tirelessly ever since to help complete this highly complex project.
“It all started in 2016 when the STM, in keeping with its commitment to sustainability, issued a call for projects to upcycle its MR-63 subway cars, which had reached the end of their useful life and were being replaced by the Azur models,” Érika explained. The announcement attracted the attention of a group of students, who hit upon the idea of creating a space for relaxation and wellness for the Polytechnique community. Their project was one of seven selected by the STM out of some 30 proposals.
Complex logistical and technical challenges
Obviously, moving a 17-metre-long, 13-tonne subway car from its warehouse to Polytechnique, then installing it in the service space of a stairwell in the Lorne-M.-Trottier Atrium, wasn’t something that could be done with a simple snap of the fingers. The Station Polytechnique team faced its share of intense logistical challenges during the three years of the project.
Preparations for the conversion began as soon as the committee took possession of the car in May 2018. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck at the STM warehouse complex and transported across Montréal to a shop, where it was completely refitted for its new mission.
“One of the bigger pieces of the puzzle was making sure the steel structure would bear the car’s weight. We worked with architects, engineers specialized in structural loads, and the university real estate department. The support of Polytechnique through every stage of the project was also essential to this achievement,” noted Ms. Lajeunesse, who spent long hours poring over the plans and specifications, learning the languages of several specialized trades, and dealing with the various service providers—all of which provided invaluable hands-on experience for the aspiring industrial engineer.
The delivery of the subway car to Polytechnique in July 2019 was an event in itself. A glass wall adjacent to the atrium had to be dismantled before the behemoth could be installed.
An inclusive project dedicated to mental health and wellness
The interior of the car has been redesigned as a space for relaxation. During the school year, Station Polytechnique-Alstom will host various wellness promotion and mental-health awareness activities. These will include themed weeks, such as the “PAUSE : du temps sans écran” (BREAK: no-screen time) challenge, an initiative to get people to take time out from digital devices.
Having a space where they could talk about other things than their studies and accessing tools to better manage stress were among concerns expressed by the Polytechnique student community.
“There’s still a taboo around various topics related to mental health,” Ms. Lajeunesse remarked. “Station Polytechnique-Alstom will be a way to demystify the subject and encourage members of the community to look after their mental health.”
Studies conducted in recent years by several student associations in Québec, including the Confédération pour le rayonnement étudiant en ingénierie au Québec (CREIQ), the Fédération des associations étudiantes du campus de l'Université de Montréal (FAÉCUM), and the Association des étudiantes et des étudiants de Laval inscrits aux études supérieures (AELIÉS) have shed light on multiple factors that influence students’ mental health, like isolation, pressure to perform, excessive workloads, trivialization of suffering, and an incomplete understanding of what services are available.
A cross-Québec study on the psychological health of university students being conducted by the Québec Student Union is expected to provide a comprehensive picture of the situation in February 2020. Nearly 150,000 students in 14 university institutions, including Polytechnique Montréal, were surveyed using a questionnaire comprising 110 indicators.
The many initiatives introduced at Polytechnique in favour of psychological health and wellness in recent years include creation of a watchdog group trained to effectively detect signs of psychological distress, the opening of an office for action on and prevention of conflicts and violence, creation of a continuous improvement committee on mental health, and the organization of “Journées du bien-être” (wellness days). The opening of the new Station Polytechnique-Alstom, designed to be a strong symbol, is consistent with those efforts.
Designers in on the action
When it came to redesigning the car’s interior to suit its new mission, the Station Polytechnique Committee turned to students in the Planning Faculty at Université de Montréal. In keeping with sustainability principles, the challenge lay in reusing and transforming the original components and furnishings.
“We put the project to them as part of a multidisciplinary ‘charrette,’ which is the name given to competitions in the Planning Faculty,” Ms. Lajeunesse said. “The students whose project was voted the best, Kevin Lavernay and Laurent Trudel, are passionate design enthusiasts. They both graduated in 2018, but kept on working on the project.”
The project’s multidisciplinary aspect extended to the fine arts, as the Station Polytechnique Committee asked artist Marc-Olivier Lamothe to show his works in the metro car. A great way to stimulate creativity in the community!
Support from Alstom Canada
Besides the support of the Polytechnique Montréal Foundation and Alumni Association, this project to give a vintage subway car a second life received financial backing from Alstom Group last year, to the tune of $300,000.
As Souheil Abihanna of Alstom Canada mentioned during a ceremony to mark the donation last year, one of the company’s first projects in Canada was the refitting of the original MR-63 cars. Station Polytechnique-Alstom is therefore a link between the past and the future, connecting the engineers who designed Montréal’s subway to the emerging generation in engineering.
Part of Montréal’s DNA
Beyond the project’s social impact and spectacular visual appeal of the, the repurposing of an iconic piece of engineering heritage is a source of great pride for the Station Polytechnique Committee members. “Many graduates worked on the construction of the subway in the early 1960s, so in a way we’re paying tribute to them,” Ms. Lajeunesse said. “And those blue subway cars are a part of Montréal’s DNA—a lot like Polytechnique, actually!”
This communication was first published on 19 November 2019 by Polytechnique Montréal.