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.