High Speed Rail in Canada

High Speed Rail in Canada is characterized by being in the past. It’s something that was (the Turbo, the Bombardier LRC), or never was but perhaps could one day be (the JetTrain). It’s also characterized by existing, but not really existing (many Via trains hit 100mph in normal service, but their overall schedules are hardly “high speed”). It could also be part of the future, if certain lobbying groups get their way. It is not the only option, however, for a future, expanded vision of passenger rail in Canada.

The UAC TurboTrain was an extension of 50’s optimism. When development began, private automobiles had not yet achieved their car-culture dominance which, seen retrospectively, appears inevitable. The watchword was “faster without any infrastructure modifications” – in other words, to achieve an average 100mph running speed with the same track and station configurations which limited previous trains to 60 or 70mph. The main obstacles to running faster on existing track was the weight of the train, and the tightness of the corners. The impact a train has on the rail-bed and tracks is a function of its weight and its speed, so to run faster, diesel engines were replaced by turbines which produced the same power but weighed only 300lbs. Also, individual train cars were replaced by a system of permanently connected cars which share boogies (wheel-sets), so as to reduce weight and rolling resistance. Unfortunately, however, this meant that train sets could not be lengthened or shortened as per customer demand – the size of each train was fixed. As for the corners, the Turbo employed a tilting mechanism so the train would lean into the corners, increasing both the safe speed turns could be taken at, and passenger comfort.

The Turbo ran between 1968 and 1982. Plagued by technical difficulties at its outset, it developed a reputation for unreliability. This was somewhat unfair – after their 1973 rebuilds the the Turbos were available 97% of the time.

It’s commonly asserted that when the Turbos were scrapped, this was the end of high speed rail in Canada. This is completely untrue – the Turbo was actually replaced by a Bombardier product called the LRC, which stands for “Light, Rapid, Comfortable”. The name was literally a set of values, the same values emphasized in their advertising of the time. The LRC was initially meant to be faster than the Turbo at up to 125mph. This never happened, however, since the LRC engine’s conventional diesels proved too heavy, and track wear at over 100mph too costly, so the LRC trains remained restricted to the same 95mph service speed as the Turbo. Like the Turbo’s, they employed active-tilt, so both the engine and train cars leaned into corners. Unlike the turbo, however, the cars had their own wheels, so the length of trains was not fixed. Unlike the Turbo, LRC trains could be lengthened or shortened taking into account passenger demand.
The LRC is in a sense a thing of the past, since the engines have been scrapped, sold off, or are still for sale on Via rail’s website. The LRC passenger carriages remain in service, but most have had their tilting permanently de-activated. On straight track, however, they still reach 100mph in normal service when pulled by Via’s new P42DC GE diesels. I’ve actually clocked a Toront0-Montreal train at 165km/h with my GPS, although it reached that speed only briefly and cruised mostly at 130-140km/h.

The JetTrain was the third, last, and most complete failure of high speed rail in Canada. It never went into service, and was never built. It was in essence a continuation of Bombardier’s LRC system which addressed the issue of heavy engines by reverting to turbines, specifically a proven Pratt and Whitney unit which had been in service, mostly aeronautical, since 1984. In the JetTrain the Turbines turn generators to power electric traction motors which are the same as used in Bombardier’s high speed electric train, the Acela. In fact, the JetTrain is really just a diesel-electric version of the all-electric Acela. Train cars would have been the same as on the Acela, which are an evolution of the LRC series. Twin engined JetTrains were to have service speeds of 150mph, with 165mph top speed (still lower than the record set by a US turbotrain of 170.8 mph). Since the Acela is a reality and uses much of the same Bombardier equipment a JetTrain would, it cannot be ruled out as impossible in the future.

High speed rail, however, is only one possible form of time-efficient rail travel. Another is night trains, which take advantage of the sleeping hours to cover distances while using up less daylight, less time where we’d like to be out doing other things. Rather than build a train which can travel between Windsor and Montreal very quickly in the daytime, it’s also logically possible, for example, to leave Windsor at 9pm and arrive in Montreal in the mid morning. By spending the night hours on a train, the voyage need not be as fast to maximize the number of daylight hours at your destination.  Such a service is absolutely a possibility for Via, since they actually purchased the entire railset of the “Nightstar“, a planned sleeper version of the London to Paris “Eurostar“, but which never went into service. Via rail purchased 139 pieces of Nightstar rolling stock for 130 million, a significant discount over it’s original price of 500 million. 29 sleepers remain inactive according to Via’s own website, and are sitting in a Thunder Bay facility. These railcars are also capable of high speed travel, since they would have been required to move at 186mph in European service.

Another option is to simply disregard speed and time efficiency entirely and focus on comfort. This is the route take by Via’s trans-continental train named “The Canadian“, when it recently increased its schedule form 3 days to 3 days, 12 hours. This combined with the fact the Canadian travels only 3 times a week, is priced for rail-destination tourists (the cheapest sleeper fare is almost 1000$), and leaves only from Toronto in the East, means it is hardly a convenient travel option for most Canadians.

This has not always been the case – up until 1990 the Canadian operated in two sections east of Sudbury – one to Toronto, and another to Montreal via Ottawa, and with Daily departures heading both East and West. Furthermore, when CN’s Super Continental was still in service (which also split into two sections in Sudbury to serve Toronto and Montreal), there were actually two trains continental passenger trains in Canada, providing service across Canada though the lower and higher prairies. The Canadian took the Canadian Pacific route through Banff, Calgary and Regina, and the Continental took the northerly CN line through Jasper, Edmonton and Saskatoon. With such breadth of service, one can firmly say the rail travel was a real transportation option for most urban Canadians East of Montreal.

One day it will be time to replace The Canadian’s railset (although the old heavy cars are so durable, this likely won’t be for 25 years or more). At that point, but hopefully before it, we could start building a modern rail system in Canada that meets the needs we need to have as the automobile loses its dominance. Such a rail system would need to take advantage of many possibilities for improved service in Canada – higher average speeds, more night trains, daily departures, and pricing competitive enough to get people out of their cars.



  1. Faster trains will be more energy intensive and thus, all else being equal, more emissions intensive.

    Via Rail’s figures are about 0.129 kg of CO2e per Passenger Revenue Kilometre. That is actually worse than flying, between Toronto and Calgary at least.

    Arguably, there is little point in getting people onto cross-country trains, until they have a significant climate advantage over air travel.


    1. Sorry, but the numbers you post are completely bogus. Train travel is about four times as efficient as aircraft:


      Fuel use on any trip is a combination of four factors: acceleration, rolling drag, air drag, and altitude changes. In the case of a long trip, the acceleration portion is so short as to be able to be eliminated. Rolling resistance of a train is very low, and zero for an airplane. Air drag is a function of the square of forward speed.

      So think it out: consider a train on the Toronto-Calgary route travelling at (say) 200 mph climbing 1000 ft vs an airplane travelling (say) 400 mph climbing 35000 ft. Which do you think uses more energy?

      Now consider that an electrified line in Canada means that well over half of the power used will come from hydro, and a significant portion of the rest from green sources. An airplane runs on kerosene.

      Really, there’s no comparison in ecological terms, not even remotely.



  2. Admittedly, those figures come from a study that had conclusions that were suspiciously positive towards air travel.

    It has been maddeningly difficult to get reliable emissions data for different forms of passenger transport in Canada.


  3. “Arguably, there is little point in getting people onto cross-country trains, until they have a significant climate advantage over air travel.”

    No. There is no reason for this priority. You can get them on first, and then electrify. Politics is about the art of the possible, not the art of the logically-most-ethical-solution.


  4. “Faster trains will be more energy intensive and thus, all else being equal, more emissions intensive.”

    Sure, but I didn’t only talk about high speed rail in this post – I also talked about night trains, and about the value of slow travel. This post also is purposely not only about global warming.


  5. Also, Via’s trainsets between Toronto and Calgary (Via doesn’t actually travel between Toronto and Calgary – what study is this anyway?) are from the 1950s.

    A more fair, modern comparison would be to look at emissions from Montreal to Halifax when Via is running its new Renaissance trainsets.


  6. According to this wikipedia article, the absolute conventional wheel train speed record between 1963 and 1972 was 159mph. The Turbo train proved capable of 170.8 mph (on US tracks, and it never attained this speed until after 1972 and the record had moved on) – and was in service in Canada starting in 1968.

    So, Canada had, at the time, in some sense at least, the fastest train in the world.


    1. > So, Canada had, at the time, in some sense at least, the fastest train in the world

      Sorry, that’s not true. The Japanese bullet trains were pulling a consistent 130 mph in service, and had max speeds closer to 200. They entered paid service in 1964.

      Turbo was fast, but not the fastest at any point.



  7. In the early 2000s, VIA was offering overnight service on “The Enterprise” between Montreal and Toronto, but it was eventually cut in 2005 after government cuts.

    What would it take to get that service started again? Simply money, or a change in attitude?


  8. Montreal is only 5 hours from Toronto on the milk run train. How is that appropriate for an overnight? The Turbo did it in under 4 hours. That’s a daytime run.

    How was that marketed as an overnight run? What was the schedule? Did it just go very slowly?


  9. A way to re-introduce overnight service might be to extend the Ocean to Toronto, even if the Toronto-Quebec City portion was just a coach and a few sleepers which connected with the bulk of the train in Quebec City.

    The Canadian and Super Continental use to swap sleepers in Winnipeg so that travelers from Montreal could head onto destinations along the CP line, or from Toronto to the CN line, without having to change trains. That’s the kind of logic that needs to be used to get overnight sleeper service going in Canada – lots of middle of the night car shunting meaning few trains serving lots of destinations.


  10. Hey Vivian,

    So, it does look like Enterprise service made a lot of sense. People could see a show, or go out on an evening in Toronto, and leave for Montreal late – getting in in time for work the next day. That’s a valuable service. The 2 hour layover in Kingston makes it sensible.

    How to get it back up? Three things.

    Price – it has to be affordable. In terms of overnight Toronto-Montreal travel, the bus oppertunity cost is very low – megabus trips start (and actually do start) at 2$. So, basically every dollar above free has to reflect how much better a travel experience Via is than the bus – since people can already effectively travel for free if they are willing to have a shitty experience. What does this mean? No coach. Or, maybe, Coach cars from overnight trains like the Canadian that have leg rests No day trip coachs. Period.

    Scalability – it has to be able to run with very few people, or very many. I realize RDC cars are inappropriate, but you need some kind of way of moving just 2 or 3 carriages that isn’t a full 200 ton locomotive – or the weight to passenger ratio is just crap. Perhaps more important than the fuel costs are the staffing costs. Limit the amount of staff required to a minimum. I don’t know how to do this – but its essential to be able to keep a service operable even when its popularity is in a drought. The fact the service exists is the best advertising the service can have. Maybe the Turbo was onto something with Engines that also had passenger space.

    Variety – don’t just have Montreal to Toronto service. Have overnight service on the entire Corridor. Leave Windsor at 5pm, connect with sleepers from Sarnia at London at 7:30, pass through Toronto picking up more sleepers and coach passengers at midnight. Drop off sleepers and coach passengers in Montreal at 5:30am, and be in Quebec city in time for work at 8:30am. I think that schedule is do-able, roughly.


  11. Hello northernsong–

    The overnight service did make a lot of sense for many people. As you mentioned, it was a nice alternative to people who wanted to enjoy the city nightlife and who maybe didn’t want to pay for a hotel room.

    It was a nice compromise.

    When it comes to competing with the bus – the train can’t. It’s always going to be a little more expensive than the bus, and some travellers are always going to take the bus because of that price difference.

    The train can compete on the basis of service and experience, which this kind of service would have to offer in spades. Although it wouldn’t require much staff, any overnight train would have to offer a unique, cosy environment. Are current train cars — and budgets — in Canada equipped for such an upgrade? And then wouldn’t that drive the ticket price up?


  12. ” Are current train cars — and budgets — in Canada equipped for such an upgrade? And then wouldn’t that drive the ticket price up?”

    Well, via owns something like 29 sleeper cars which are in storage, I think in Thunder Bay. So Via certainly has the capacity to run daily, long sleeper trains in the Corridor. To start it could be offered in summer-only to avoid costly retrofits if the cars in storage are not yet Canadian winter-ready.

    But, to be truthful, Via should be investing in different Sleeper equipment. In Europe sleeper trains are not so notoriously expensive because they do not all offer private one or two person cabins – a six person bunk is normal, and is available for only a slight surcharge over a coach seat.

    Higher capacity sleepers would make sense in a Corridor overnight service, and would even make sense on the Canadian and the Ocean as the re-introduction of second class sleepers. I’ve seen very old pictures of odd looking “The Canadian” consists, which include 4 to 6 awkward looking heavyweight sleepers in addition to the stainless steel cars. There were also open observation cars for second class passengers – unrelated to this discussion, but cheap, and no doubt would be a selling point on the Jasper-Kamloops or Jasper-Vancouver section of the Canadian if the schedule permitted daytime passage of those areas.


  13. The Turbo used a licensed version of the Talgo suspension. This was a passive system, not active. The main problem with it was that it would swing on any “curve”, including switches in the tracks. When it was pulling out of the stations it felt really weird.

    The LRC used an active system patterned on the one developed in the UK as part of the APT project. APT ended up being pulled from service, leaving the LRC as one of a very few tilt trains in operation. It was very famous as a result, and appeared in almost every general railway book in the 1970s and 80s.

    It’s a bit sad that they didn’t replace the LRC with something a little more interesting than the P40’s. The JetTrain wasn’t ready, and was more expensive. Yet it would have allowed for better schedule times due to its much higher accelerations. Lower on-rail weights would also allow higher speeds on the existing rails, allowing them to get back to the 95-100 mph rather than the 85 they generally peak out at now. I find it rather sad that the GO trains on the Lakeshore West often hit the same speeds as VIA’s inter-city service.



  14. ” rather than the 85 they generally peak out at now. ”

    I’ve clocked the Toronto-Montreal train at 165km/h on my GPS. However, this was for quite a short stretch.

    Also, I was on a Montreal-Toronto run once which left over 3 hours late, but had to arrive less than 3 hours late in Toronto or Via would have had to give full refunds. Also, it had to make every stop because it had been combined with another train, whereas the original schedule called for just one stop in Kingston. Unfortunately I did not have my GPS, but a few in-head calculations showed that the train ran much faster than normal.


  15. “It’s a bit sad that they didn’t replace the LRC with something a little more interesting than the P40′s.”

    To me, what is really sad is that electrification remains off the table. Electrification of Canadian rail is needed on our mainlines to help meet CO2 targets. And the pricetag (10 billion dollars for the CN and CP


  16. Do you know if anyone has cooked up a serious proposal for electrification? I mean one with serious costing estimates for altering the track, adding transmission lines, and adding new electricity generation facilities?

    Also, how much would the cost depend on what sort of power generation facilities were selected? Gas would probably be cheapest from a capital cost perspective.


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