An hour later, the TurboTrain slammed into a truck.
“The driver of an empty meat truck near Kingston was used to beating trains across a level crossing and tried to outrun the Turbo,” recalls John Downing, who reported on the maiden journey to Montreal. “We cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter.”
The hapless meat man survived. Canada’s efforts to develop modern passenger rail service did not. Four decades later, we remain the sole G8 nation without high-speed rail.
Japan’s legendary bullet trains now carry 410,000 people a day. France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), launched more than a decade after the Turbo, moves 268,000 passengers daily, at speeds exceeding 300 kilometres per hour. Altogether, high-speed trains dash across almost twenty nations. These include not only powerhouses such as Russia, China, and the United Kingdom, but Finland, Portugal, and Turkey. Many of these countries are spending stimulus funds to expand their networks.
New high-speed rail projects are in the works around the world. Argentina and South Africa are laying track; Iran and Brazil are laying plans; Morocco has landed partners. Saudi Arabia is building a line from Medina to Mecca, and may collaborate with neighbouring states to develop a 1,984-kilometre railway from Kuwait to Oman. There is talk the line could extend to Yemen, which would become the first nation served by high-speed rail but not a functional government.
Why are these countries planning and building high-speed rail lines? Because they’re a kind of insurance policy for the twenty-first century. High-speed rail ensures that cities remain connected the next time the price of oil rises, and in the event that $150-a-barrel oil returns for good. Because it is so much more fuel efficient, high-speed rail is far, far greener than flying, and in a century of dwindling oil it’s also far more economically sustainable — a fact Saudi Arabia seems to grasp, but Canada does not.
Canada possesses both the expertise to build high-speed rail systems — Bombardier is a global leader — and the population to support them, along routes such as the Quebec City–Windsor and Calgary–Edmonton corridors. What it lacks is the political will to act. As a result, Canada is failing to leverage the recent wave of infrastructure spending, let alone nourish its legacy as a nation built on the spine of its railroad.
“We’re so far behind the rest of the world,” says railway activist Paul Langan, “it’s like we can’t even see their tail lights anymore.”