Montreal’s subway and bus operator undertook a six-year modernization effort, rebranding itself, rebuilding stations, replacing track, buying new buses, and developing new ways to communicate with riders. Hopefully WMATA’s newly-minted Metro Forward campaign can emulate this success in the Washington region.

Last month, WMATA launched Metro Forward, a six-year action plan and media campaign. Metro’s infrastructure has suffered badly from decades of underinvestment and deterioration, and Metro Forward is all about changing that.

It’s an ambitious plan. It will take serious time and money, and riders will face disruption along the way, but it is absolutely essential for the system’s longevity.

Metro Forward resembles Mouvement Collectif (”Society in Motion”), a similar program by the STM, Montreal’s public transit authority.

When I arrived in Montreal in 2005, the STM struck me as being, well, good enough. The buses and metro ran (usually on time), and most buses ran frequently enough, but there was still a lot of room for improvement. STM’s old trip planner was a fiddly home-grown affair. There was very little real-time information available for rail passengers, and no real-time information for bus passengers.

This was before Twitter, but the STM didn’t post disruption information on its Web site—even in the case of major disruptions. The fare collection system wasn’t ancient, but it wasn’t modern, either. There were some new buses in the fleet, but no hybrids or articulated buses, and the new buses were catching fire.

Then, in May 2009, the STM launched Mouvement Collectif. Mouvement Collectif signified big changes at the STM, not just a marketing gimmick. How has the STM changed? Its bus fleet now includes hybrids and articulated buses, improving the STM’s carbon footprint and increasing capacity on high-ridership routes. They’ve fixed the incendiary problems with the first-generation LFS buses, too.

The OPUS fare collection system was launched, providing riders with a contactless smart card which can be used across the services of the STM, as well as other regional bus systems: STL, RTL, RTC, and others. The subway doesn’t have new rolling stock yet, but the MPM-10 rolling stock is now in the design stage.

The STM has a public presence on social networks, and a new Web site which is a lot better than the old design. Passenger information is getting better, too; there are now MetroVision screens in more stations across the network.

The STM has made tangible improvements to its bus network, with the réseau 10 minutes max (a network of bus lines boasting 10-minute headways), a better night bus network, and an airport shuttle which is more convenient for riders than previous options and which has proven to be a real success in its first year of operation.

It takes longer to make real changes to a rail system than a bus network; it’s going to be a few more years before the MPM-10s start running. But the STM continues to work on renovating the rail system, too; elevators have been installed at key transfer stations, among other improvements. Tous azimuts (“Full Circle” in English), the STM’s trip planner, is still there (although it, too, has gotten better), but more importantly, the STM’s schedules are in Google Transit now.

Mouvement Collectif is also about making public transit a more attractive option. Sustainability is a major component of Mouvement Collectif: not only mass transit as a sustainable transportation choice, but also the sustainable operation of transit services, through the use of biodiesel and other energy-saving measures. This advertisement conveys the authority’s green messaging:

Thanks to Metro Forward, tomorrow’s WMATA has the potential to be a far better transit agency than it is today. For the STM, Mouvement Collectif has paid off; in 2010 the STM was recognized as an Outstanding Public Transportation System in North America.

Metro Forward puts WMATA on the right track to celebrate a similar achievement six years from now. It will take time, and there will be a lot of disruption along the way, but we’ll get there.

Crossposted at Raschke on Transport.

Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems.  A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus.  He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone.