Montreal threw a party underground Friday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the metro system.

It was on Oct. 14, 1966 that the first metro stations were grandly opened by Mayor Jean Drapeau and Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger.

It's estimated that one million people tried out the metro during the first week it was open.

Friday's anniversary was marked by a series of concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Place des Arts metro. .

Metro enthusiast Matt McLauchlin says the entire system is a masterpiece.

"I see a space that is a really good example of the brutalist architecture. I see the artwork here. I see the beauty. I see the beauty..and the flows of people," said McLauchlin.

He is the creator of a Montreal metro fan page,, that has extensive background of the tunnels, the stations, and the trains.

McLaughlin has even rated every station for artwork, design, and ease of use, with Lionel Groulx, the intersection of the Green and Orange lines, being one of his favourites.

"People will ask me about my favourite stations. This station for one for its planning, Acadie station for its colour scheme and its homage to the art deco style, and Champ de Mars for the most beautiful artwork, Marcelle Ferron's stained glass," said McLauchlin.

50 years of history

The metro's unofficial historian is Benoit Clairoux.

"I was just seven years old the first time I took the metro to go see the Expos and it was love at first sight," said Clairoux.

That passion eventually led him to write two books about the history of the transit system, including Le Metro de Montreal, 35 ans deja.

"They talked about the metro maybe 50 years before it was built," said Clairoux.

Figure 1

The plan for the metro, as conceived of in 1944

He explained how the very first plans for the tunnels followed the same routes as the tramways that crossed the city, but how everything transformed under Mayor Jean Drapeau in 1961.

Drapeau is commonly known as the father of the metro, but Clairoux said that's not quite true

"The father of the metro was Lucien Saulnier, his righthand man," said Clairoux.

This was due in part to a viewpoint that is still very common today as people argue companies like Uber can improve transportation.

"Like many people in his day Drapeau thought all problems could be solved with cars," said Clairoux.

Saulnier convinced Drapeau to get on board and launch construction of an underground network for smaller metro cars on rubber tires.

"With the smaller cars you could have only one tunnel but you could save a lot on construction," said Clairoux.

It cost $213 million -- that's $1.6 billion in today's money -- to build the first 20 stations within five years.

"They didn't waste much too time on studies and stuff like that. They Yellow Line was decided in one night. They decided well we're going to have Expo, it's going to be on the islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence river, so let's have it start at Berri de Montigny, the old name for Berri-UQAM, and let's have it go all the way to the south shore. So they asked the engineers 'Can you do it? And by the way, you have to answer within the next few hours. That was the way in those days," said Clairoux.

"It was a window of opportunity. Everything was in full flight."

As the system expanded construction pushed west of Decarie, but the cost for the system ballooned with the economic crisis of the 1970s.

"They started the Blue Line but what happened in those days with inflation and everything the metro started to cost a lot of money. And in the interval the Quebec government started to pay a part of the metro, and of course when somebody starts to pay something, they decide 'well since I'm paying, why don't I decide where it goes?'" said Clairoux.

The result is that plans for a western expansion to the Blue Line were shelved by the Parti Quebecois government of 1979, and after several stations were completed in the 1980s, expansion came to a halt.

"If they had started a little earlier we would have metro to Montreal North and the west end. It's a window. and when the window closes, it's closed," said Clairoux.

Planning for the future

The three stations on the Orange Line extending the system to Laval were the first new stations in 20 years.

Now, the federal government is offering a new window of opportunity by offering billions for new infrastructure.

In July Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Philippe Couillard signed an agreement to spend $650 million on public transit in Montreal over the next three years.

"Over the next year, we'll be developing the second phase of public transit investment to build bridges and new subway lines," said Trudeau on July 5.

With Ottawa offering financial support, the Couillard government is calling the Blue line's eastward extension a top priority -- but one that still needs study. "

With the possibility of hundreds of millions more in funding in the next few years, the STM will continue to devote its efforts to maintaining existing infrastructure.

"It's a neverending process, maintaining the metro," said STM chair Philippe Schnobb.

Part of the work is replacing the oldest cars with the new Azur trains.

Fifty two should be running on the rails by the end of 2018.

"When I look at Azur I think this is the best way to look at the future of the metro. More room, more light, better ventilation. More service because we will be adding 14 trains to our fleet. That will give us the opportunity to put more tranis on the track every morning and add capacity every morning at peak hours," said Schnobb.

McLauchlin is very happy with the incremental changes "over the past ten years to make small, unsexy adjustments that still improve the commuter experience."

And with major highways being rebuilt in Montreal in the next five to ten years, along with a plan to double the urban core's population by 2050, the STM is hoping more commuters will come undreground.