Wandering a Metro: Actor-Network Theory Research and Rapid Rail Infrastructure Communication

Nicholas Richardson

Abstract


Introduction

I have been studying the creation of Metro style train travel in Sydney for over a decade. My focus has been on the impact that media has had on the process (see Richardson, “Curatorial”; “Upheaval”; “Making”). Through extensive expert, public, and media research, I have investigated the coalitions and alliances that have formed (and disintegrated) between political, bureaucratic, news media, and public actors and the influences at work within these actor-networks. As part of this project, I visited an underground Métro turning fifty in Montreal, Canada. After many years studying the development of a train that wasn’t yet tangible, I wanted to ask a functional train the simple ethnomethodological/Latourian style question, “what do you do for a city and its people?” (de Vries). Therefore, in addition to research conducted in Montreal, I spent ten days wandering through many of the entrances, tunnels, staircases, escalators, mezzanines, platforms, doorways, and carriages of which the Métro system consists. The purpose was to observe the train in situ in order to broaden potential conceptualisations of what a train does for a city such as Montreal, with a view of improving the ideas and messages that would be used to “sell” future rapid rail projects in other cities such as Sydney. This article outlines a selection of the pathways wandered, not only to illustrate the power of social research based on physical wandering, but also the potential power the metaphorical and conceptual wandering an Actor-Network Theory (ANT) assemblage affords social research for media communications.

Context, Purpose, and Approach

ANT is a hybrid theory/method for studying an arena of the social, such as the significance of a train to a city like Montreal. This type of study is undertaken by following the actors (Latour, Reassembling 12). In ANT, actors do something, as the term suggests. These actions have affects and effects. These might be contrived and deliberate influences or completely circumstantial and accidental impacts. Actors can be people as we are most commonly used to understanding them, and they can also be texts, technological devices, software programs, natural phenomena, or random occurrences. Most significantly though, actors are their “relations” (Harman 17). This means that they are only present if they are relating to others. These relations and the resulting influences and impacts are called networks. A network in the ANT sense is not as simple as the lines that connect train stations on a rail map. Without actions, relations, influences, and impacts, there are no actors. Hence the hyphen in actor-network; the actor and the network are symbiotic. The network, rendered visible through actor associations, consists of the tenuous connections that “shuttle back and forth” between actors even in spite of the fact their areas of knowledge and reality may be completely separate (Latour Modern 3). ANT, therefore, may be considered an empirical practice of tracing the actors and the network of influences and impacts that they both help to shape and are themselves shaped by. 

To do this, central ANT theorist Bruno Latour employs a simple research question: “what do you do?” This is because in the process of doing, somebody or something is observed to be affecting other people or things and an actor-network becomes identifiable. Latour later learned that his approach shared many parallels with ethnomethodology. This was a discovery that more concretely set the trajectory of his work away from a social science that sought explanations “about why something happens, to ontological ones, that is, questions about what is going on” (de Vries). So, in order to make sense of people’s actions and relations, the focus of research became asking the deceptively simple question while refraining as much as possible “from offering descriptions and explanations of actions in terms of schemes taught in social theory classes” (14).

In answering this central ANT question, studies typically wander in a metaphorical sense through an array or assemblage (Law) of research methods such as formal and informal interviews, ethnographic style observation, as well as the content analysis of primary and secondary texts (see Latour, Aramis). These were the methods adopted for my Montreal research—in addition to fifteen in-depth expert and public interviews conducted in October 2017, ten days were spent physically wandering and observing the train in action. I hoped that in understanding what the train does for the city and its people, the actor-network within which the train is situated would be revealed.  

Of course, “what do you do?” is a very broad question. It requires context. In following the influence of news media in the circuitous development of rapid rail transit in Sydney, I have been struck by the limited tropes through which the potential for rapid rail is discussed. These tropes focus on technological, functional, and/or operational aspects (see Budd; Faruqi; Hasham), costs, funding and return on investment (see Martin and O’Sullivan; Saulwick), and the potential to alleviate peak hour congestion (see Clennell; West). As an expert respondent in my Sydney research, a leading Australian architect and planner, states, “How boring and unexciting […] I mean in Singapore it is the most exciting […] the trains are fantastic […] that wasn’t sold to the [Sydney] public.” So, the purpose of the Montreal research is to expand conceptualisations of the potential for rapid rail infrastructure to influence a city and improve communications used to sell projects in the future, as well as to test the role of both physical and metaphorical ANT style wanderings in doing so. 

Montreal was chosen for three reasons. First, the Métro had recently turned fifty, which made the comparison between the fledgling and mature systems topical. Second, the Métro was preceded by decades of media discussion (Gilbert and Poitras), which parallels the development of rapid transit in Sydney. Finally, a different architect designed each station and most stations feature art installations (Magder). Therefore, the Métro appeared to have transcended the aforementioned functional and numerically focused tropes used to justify the Sydney system. Could such a train be considered a long-term success?

Wandering and Pathways

In ten days I rode the Montreal Métro from end to end. I stopped at all the stations. I wandered around. I treated wandering not just as a physical research activity, but also as an illustrative metaphor for an assemblage of research practices. This assemblage culminates in testimony, anecdotes, stories, and descriptions through which an actor-network may be glimpsed. Of course, it is incomplete—what I have outlined below represents only a few pathways. However, to think that an actor-network can ever be traversed in its entirety is to miss the point. Completion is a fallacy. Wandering doesn’t end at a finish line. There are always pathways left untrodden. I have attempted not to overanalyse. I have left contradictions unresolved. I have avoided the temptation to link paths through tenuous byways. Some might consider that I have meandered, but an actor-network is never linear. I can only hope that my wanderings, as curtailed as they may be, prove nuanced, colourful, and rich—if not compelling. ANT encourages us to rethink social research (Latour, Reassembling). Central to this is acknowledging (and becoming comfortable with) our own role as researcher in the illumination of the actor-network itself.

Here are some of the Montreal pathways wandered:

First Impressions

I arrive at Montreal airport late afternoon. The apartment I have rented is conveniently located between two Métro stations—Mont Royal and Sherbrooke. I use my phone and seek directions by public transport. To my surprise, the only option is the bus. Too tired to work out connections, I decide instead to follow the signs to the taxi rank. Here, I queue. We are underway twenty minutes later. Travelling around peak traffic, we move from one traffic jam to the next. The trip is slow. Finally ensconced in the apartment, I reflect on how different the trip into Montreal had been, from what I had envisaged. The Métro I had travelled to visit was conspicuous in its total absence.

Floating

It is a feeling of floating that first strikes me when riding the Métro. It runs on rubber tyres. The explanation for the choice of this technology differs. There are reports that it was the brainchild of strong-willed mayor, Jean Drapeau, who believed the new technology would showcase Montreal as a modern world-scale metropolis (Gilbert and Poitras). However, John Martins-Manteiga provides a less romantic account, stating that the decision was made because tyres were cheaper (47). I assume the rubber tyres create the floating sensation. Add to this the famous warmth of the system (Magder; Hazan, Hot) and it has a thoroughly calming, even lulling, effect.

Originally, I am planning to spend two whole days riding the Métro in its entirety. I make handwritten notes. On the first day, at mid-morning, nausea develops. I am suffering motion sickness. This is a surprise. I have always been fine to read and write on trains, unlike in a car or bus. It causes a moment of realisation. I am effectively riding a bus. This is an unexpected side-effect. My research program changes—I ride for a maximum of two hours at a time and my note taking becomes more circumspect. The train as actor is influencing the research program and the data being recorded in unexpected ways. 

Art

The stained-glass collage at Berri-Uquam, by Pierre Gaboriau and Pierre Osterrath, is grand in scale, intricately detailed and beautiful. It sits above the tunnel from which the trains enter and leave the platform. It somehow seems wholly connected to the train as a result—it frames and announces arrivals and departures. Other striking pieces include the colourful, tiled circles from the mezzanine above the platform at station Peel and the beautiful stained-glass panels on the escalator at station Charlevoix. As a public respondent visiting from Chicago contends, “I just got a sense of exploration—that I wanted to have a look around”.

Urban Form

An urban planner asserts that the Métro is responsible for the identity and diversity of urban culture that Montreal is famous for. As everyone cannot live right above a Métro station, there are streets around stations where people walk to the train. As there is less need for cars, these streets are made friendlier for walkers, precipitating a cycle. Furthermore, pedestrian-friendly streets promote local village style commerce such as shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants. So, there is not only more access on foot, but also more incentive to access. The walking that the Métro induces improves the dynamism and social aspects of neighbourhoods, a by-product of which is a distinct urban form and culture for different pockets of the city. The actor-network broadens. In following the actors, I now have to wander beyond the physical limits of the system itself. The streets I walk around station Mont Royal are shopping and restaurant strips, rich with foot traffic at all times of day; it is a vibrant and enticing place to wander.

Find Dining

The popular MTL blog published a map of the best restaurants the Métro provides access to (Hazan, Restaurant).

Architecture

Station De La Savane resembles a retro medieval dungeon. It evokes thoughts of the television series Game of Thrones. Art and architecture work in perfect harmony. The sculpture in the foyer by Maurice Lemieux resembles a deconstructed metal mace hanging on a brutalist concrete wall. It towers above a grand staircase and abuts a fence that might ring a medieval keep. Up close I realise it is polished, precisely cut cylindrical steel. A modern fence referencing another time and place. Descending to the platform, craggy concrete walls are pitted with holes. I get the sense of peering through these into the hidden chambers of a crypt. Overlaying all of this is a strikingly modern series of regular and irregular, bold vertical striations cut deeply into the concrete. They run from floor to ceiling to add to a cathedral-like sense of scale. It’s warming to think that such a whimsical train station exists anywhere in the world.  

Time Warp

A public respondent describes the Métro:

It’s a little bit like a time machine. It’s a piece of the past and piece of history […] still alive now. I think that it brings art or form or beauty into everyday life. […] You’re going from one place to the next, but because of the history and the story of it you could stop and breathe and take it in a little bit more.

Hold ups and Hostages

A frustrated General Manager of a transport advocacy group states in an interview:

Two minutes of stopping in the Métro is like Armageddon in Montreal—you see it on every media, on every smartphone [...] We are so captive in the Métro [there is a] loss of control.

Further, a transport modelling expert asserts:

You’re a hostage when you’re in transportation. If the Métro goes out, then you really are stuck. Unfortunately, it does go out often enough. If you lose faith in a mode of transportation, it’s going to be very hard to get you back.

Commuting

It took me a good week before I started to notice how tired some of the Métro stations had grown. I felt my enthusiasm dip when I saw the estimated arrival time lengthen on the electronic noticeboard. Anger rose as a young man pushed past me from behind to get out of a train before I had a chance to exit. These tendrils of the actor-network were not evident to me in the first few days. Most interview respondents state that after a period of time passengers take less notice of the interesting and artistic aspects of the Métro. They become commuters. Timeliness and consistency become the most important aspects of the system.

Finale

I deliberately visit station Champ-de-Mars last. Photos convince me that I am going to end my Métro exploration with an experience to savour. The station entry and gallery is iconic. Martins-Manteiga writes, “The stained-glass artwork by Marcelle Ferron is almost a religious experience; it floods in and splashes down below” (306). My timing is off though. On this day, the soaring stained-glass windows are mostly hidden behind protective wadding. The station is undergoing restoration. Travelling for the last time back towards station Mont Royal, my mood lightens. Although I had been anticipating this station for some time, in many respects this is a revealing conclusion to my Métro wanderings.

What Do You Do?

When asked what the train does, many respondents took a while to answer or began with common tropes around moving people. As a transport project manager asserts, “in the world of public transport, the perfect trip is the one you don’t notice”. A journalist gives the most considered and interesting answer. He contends:

I think it would say, “I hold the city together culturally, economically, physically, logistically—that’s what I do […] I’m the connective tissue of this city”. […] How else do you describe infrastructure that connects poor neighbourhoods to rich neighbourhoods, downtown to outlying areas, that supports all sorts of businesses both inside it and immediately adjacent to it and has created these axes around the city that pull in almost everybody [...] And of course, everyone takes it for granted […] We get pissed off when it’s late.

Conclusion

No matter how real a transportation system may be, it can always be made a little less real. Today, for example, the Paris metro is on strike for the third week in a row. Millions of Parisians are learning to get along without it, by taking their cars or walking […] You see? These enormous hundred-year-old technological monsters are no more real than the four-year-old Aramis is unreal: They all need allies, friends […] There’s no inertia, no irreversibility; there’s no autonomy to keep them alive. (Latour, Aramis 86)

Through ANT-based physical and metaphorical wanderings, we find many pathways that illuminate what a train does. We learn from various actors in the actor-network through which the train exists. We seek out its “allies” and “friends”. We wander, piecing together as much of the network as we can. The Métro does lots of things. It has many influences and it influences many. It is undeniably an actor in an actor-network. Transport planners would like it to appear seamless—commuters entering and leaving without really noticing the in-between. And sometimes it appears this way. However, when the commuter is delayed, this appearance is shattered. If a signal fails or an engine falters, the Métro, through a process mediated by word of mouth and/or social and mainstream media, is suddenly rendered tired and obsolete. Or is it historic and quaint? Is the train a technical problem for the city of Montreal or is it characterful and integral to the city’s identity?  

It is all these things and many more. The actor-network is illusive and elusive. Pathways are extensive. The train floats. The train is late. The train makes us walk. The train has seeded many unique villages, much loved. The train is broken. The train is healthy for its age. The train is all that is right with Montreal. The train is all that is wrong with Montreal. The artwork and architecture mean nothing. The artwork and architecture mean everything. Is the train overly limited by the tyres that keep it underground? Of course, it is. Of course, it isn’t. Does 50 years of history matter? Of course, it does. Of course, it doesn’t. It thrives. It’s tired. It connects. It divides. It’s functional. It’s dirty. It’s beautiful. It’s something to be proud of. It’s embarrassing. 

A train offers many complex and fascinating pathways. It is never simply an object; it lives and breathes in the network because we live and breathe around it. It stops being effective. It starts becoming affective. Sydney must learn from this. My wanderings demonstrate that the Métro cannot be extricated from what Montreal has become over the last half century. In May 2019, Sydney finally opened its first Metro rail link. And yet, this link and other ongoing metro projects continue to be discussed through statistics and practicalities (Sydney Metro). This offers no affective sense of the pathways that are, and will one day be, created. By selecting and appropriating relevant pathways from cities such as Montreal, and through our own wanderings and imaginings, we can make projections of what a train will do for a city like Sydney. We can project a rich and vibrant actor-network through the media in more emotive and powerful ways. Or, can we not at least supplement the economic, functional, or technocratic accounts with other wanderings? Of course, we can’t. Of course, we can. 

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Keywords


media; communication; actor-network theory; social research; public transport; rail; metro



Copyright (c) 2019 Nicholas Richardson

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