Off the Rails

How Canada fell from leader to laggard in high-speed rail, and why that needs to change
Illustration by Guy Billout
On the morning of December 10, 1968, a shiny new locomotive left Toronto’s Union Station, pulling a gleaming train packed to its “power dome” with journalists. Just four short years earlier, Japan had rolled out the world’s first 200-kilometre-per-hour bullet train, and now scores of reporters were aboard to witness North America’s technological response: the TurboTrain, designed by Sikorsky Aircraft, built by Montreal Locomotive Works, and proudly operated by Canadian National.

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.

Related LinkRead Monte Paulsen’s companion series at The Tyee, “Derailed: How BC’s Chance for High-Speed Rail Jumped the Tracks
Even the Americans are spending billions to extend high-speed rail beyond the Boston–Washington corridor. The stimulus bill passed by Congress in February includes $8 billion for new passenger rail projects. California is likely first in line for that money, with construction slated to begin in 2011 on a statewide high-speed network that promises to whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours. Also fighting for a cut of the billions are Texas, with its T-Bone Line connecting Dallas to San Antonio and Houston; Florida, with a bullet train that would fly along the shores of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico; and New York, seeking a link from the Big Apple through Albany to Toronto.

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.”

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17 comment(s)

AnonymousMay 15, 2009 18:17 EST

Argentina is not building any high speed line. The government played with the idea - that is all. The plan has been scrapped. The country can't get it together to run the most basic rail service. Trains run without heat or air conditioning, many in a state of utter decay. A Bullet Train was an absurd pipe dream.

Al BrownMay 16, 2009 11:28 EST

Canada is at least thirty years behind in its rail technology and rail transit thinking. A whole industry is missing that bridge the aviation, autombile and hi tech industries. In fact some of the Canadian hi tech sector would be well advised to look at this area and see where synergies lie

Stephen Harper states that Canada is not ready for high speed rail. I say it is. TGV may not be suitable but Pendolino style trains will stimulate ridership and give Canadians a taste of modern high speed rail travel.
However the biggest challenge is the poor state of the railway which is barely maintained for the freight traffic and will not be suitable for safe high speed travel.

The two provinces need to invest in a trial line between Ottawa and Montreal and learn before embarking on a Quebec Windsor corridor.

But is Canada ready for all this?

As in Europe, this will mean massive migration, long distance commuting, competition for employment, more choice, Canada will become more of a stronger nation and we will be able to share more readily our ideas and cultures.

Perhaps Harper is right: Maybe we are not ready!

Al BrownMay 16, 2009 18:20 EST

Canada is at least thirty years behind in its rail technology and rail transit thinking. A whole industry is missing that bridge the aviation, autombile and hi tech industries. In fact some of the Canadian hi tech sector would be well advised to look at this area and see where synergies lie

Stephen Harper states that Canada is not ready for high speed rail. I say it is. TGV may not be suitable but Pendolino style trains will stimulate ridership and give Canadians a taste of modern high speed rail travel.
However the biggest challenge is the poor state of the railway which is barely maintained for the freight traffic and will not be suitable for safe high speed travel.

The two provinces need to invest in a trial line between Ottawa and Montreal and learn before embarking on a Quebec Windsor corridor.

But is Canada ready for all this?

As in Europe, this will mean massive migration, long distance commuting, competition for employment, more choice, Canada will become more of a stronger nation and we will be able to share more readily our ideas and cultures.

Perhaps Harper is right: Maybe we are not ready!

Richard SobermanJune 03, 2009 11:59 EST

The TurboTrain which not only slammed into a milk truck on its inaugural run but also slammed into itself in the Montreal terminal, was a disaster, built by United Aircraft (not Sikorsky) and thankfully only leased to Canadian National. It retired into oblivion because it did not do what its designers purported it could do. The real issue with high speed trains is related more to the right-of-way than the vehicle.

Truly high speed trains similar to the TGV or the Japanese bullet trains require completely dedicated, fully protected track (no grade crossings) which cannot be used by freight trains that would play havoc with the fine tuned track structure required for a smooth, fast ride. Acquiring a fully protected, exclusive right-of-way and building the necessary track structure and train control system would involve monumental capital investment and decades of environmental assessments.

The idea of a high speed train rolling into Halifax after a 24 hour trip from Vancouver is simply preposterous. Sure, there are some corridors where much higher speed train service could be achieved because population densities are fairly reasonable. But tremendous subsidies would still be required, particularly if the operating agency were to continue to governed by political appointees. (By contrast, bus and airline passengers receive no taxpayer subsidies and airports, in fact, pay huge rents to the federal government.)

So yes, in select corridors, high speed rail can be achieved if governments are prepared to cough up the money. Certainly, improvements in the governance model for VIA Rail and judicious capital investment could lead to substantial improvements achieved by rail service in selected parts of the country. The real question, though, is one of priorities for government spending – bailouts of the automobile manufacturing sector, health, education, other social services, foreign aid, or high speed rail for those living in the Quebec-Windsor and Calgary-Edmonton corridors.

AnonymousJune 07, 2009 06:43 EST

Richard Soberman, you are a party pooper.

arjaJune 08, 2009 13:12 EST

Is Canada ready for the 21st Century? It'll be the 22nd before it even gets close.
High speed rail is the least of concerns - what about a rail link between YYZ and TO so at least first time visitors will be fooled into believing there is such a thing as joined up thinking in Canada.

Peter WilsonJune 15, 2009 10:33 EST

True we are behind. True as well, we have our ceded our trade & manufacturing skills to globalization. Let’s start at the beginning and get some of those huge American rail contracts.

Our plan: increase performance of the CPR Havelock-Peterborough rail system by integrating with current operations a college for the skilled trades. Innovative in nature, traditional in function, beneficial to all levels of the community, here is an essential description. We intend to bring to bear a college for the skilled trades to:

- Restructure the CPR Havelock – Peterborough rail line, adding shops and foundry to train in traditional mechanical craft and trades.

- Recover, restore, return to service and display the fleet of approximately 58 heritage steam locomotives in parks across Canada.

- Conduct research for transportation focusing on technologies and strategies for domestic and international high speed rail for the coming century.

- Continue and improve existing business on the rail line, preserve and expand employment, bolster regional tourism, heritage and economic development.

Recovering, restoring and putting into service the steam fleet, preserves and displays a tremendous historical legacy and provides opportunity for training a new generation of Canadian craftspeople. We intend to mix classic mechanical and foundry trades with leading edge training and study engineering, railway operating, management and communication trades.

Still dynamic today, Canadian railways opened the country to settlement, stabilized employment, and provided market access for farm and industrial development. We shall help write the next chapter in our story of Canadian rail - you have an important role in this story.

If you want a happy ending to this story, get off your duff and help us build it!

Sincerely,
Peter Wilson
Fifth Line Press

Heather SmithJune 25, 2009 01:01 EST

Canada needs to wake up. Canada tends to be dithery about things, very play it safe. I rely on BC ferries but since it was privatized the service has declined, fares increased but there is no competition, no other companies offering better service, small foot passenger ferries going into Vancouver directly later ferry runs or anything. And remember fast ferries? Oh no they splashed waterfront properties!!
I am passionate about having high speed rail in Canada and
I would love to see a Canada wide high speed train system. Also something connecting rural to urban so people can live in rural areas and still have access to city things without having to drive. I have family across Canada but I do not want to fly or drive nor can I afford to.
Canada is such a beautiful place it would be wonderful to travel through it, be fast and efficient and yet create much less pollution. I have tried to support VIA rail over the years when I am in an area with any service but it has always been slow, behind schedule and painful!
We have lost most of the rail infrastructure and much of the rail tracks have been turned into hiking trails. There is an old rail line that goes out to Tofino. Instead of having millions of people drive through that scary little highway and have endless accidents, why not have a train?! It all makes so much sense. But I do not have much hope that we will see high speed trains or anything sensible like that anytime soon.
Thanks for the article. I had no idea the Turbo train existed!

TowersofdubJuly 06, 2009 15:17 EST

Why do high speed commuter rail networks work all over Europe but people seem to think they're unfeasible in Canada? I can guarantee one thing. If we never build it, it will never work, no question!

Nicholas HazenJuly 07, 2009 05:55 EST

I agree with Mr. Soberman about dedicated lines which in high-density areas like the Quebec-Windsor corridor might have to be elevated. Personally, I would like to see those considering high-speed inter-urban rail options take a close and serious look into the feasibility of using Maglev trains running between city centres. These trains run at over 500 km/hr and even faster if they are used in partially-evacuated tubes or tunnels to reduce air drag. I believe Shanghai one currently runs at speeds around 400 km/hr.

AnonymousJuly 07, 2009 07:10 EST

"Richard Soberman, you are a party pooper."

His surname IS 'Soberman'.

eurail passesDecember 09, 2009 16:38 EST

Europe's train system is the only study that the Canadian government needs to do to know how effective a high speed train system will greatly help and improve the transportation issues that Canadians and tourists deal with.

funny quotesDecember 09, 2009 23:47 EST

thanks for sharing.

AnonymousJanuary 25, 2011 11:11 EST

Mr. Paulsen writes that railway museums have preserved hundreds of icons of Canadian rail legend, but not the Turbo. I have one. It\'s a trackside speed limit sign that I was given as a gift when consulting for CN about 20 years ago. It says it all: Turbo 50...

Fred OsterrathJune 19, 2012 07:37 EST

It should be noted that there are imaginative alternatives to "traditionnal" high speed trains.

Have a look here :

http://www.trensquebec.qc.ca/index.php

Avrom ShternJune 19, 2012 20:49 EST

I agree with the sentiments of the author but Canada's pro fly/drive transport policy and anti-rail policy began before the introduction of the Turbo. The Turbo was not enough to steer Canada on a pro-rail course. By the mid 1960s, passenger rail service began to deteriorate. On of the major events underscoring Canada's betrayal of its railways was the ending of CN-CP pool train service to Quebec City, Ottawa and Toronto. CN's introduction of the Turbo and the very popular Blue, Red and White ticketing system was a last gasp. With the exception of the sexy Turbo, the Federal Government nixed CN's plans to buy new passenger rail rolling stock.

Also, there is a difference between high speed rail like the TGV and higher speed rail. At the moment, the US does not have true high speed rail as the Northeast Corridor is a slower higher speed rail system.

DaveJune 21, 2012 17:02 EST

The one reason that Canada \"isn\'t ready for high speed rail\" is that it would bankrupt Air Canada. The Toronto - Montreal and other in country routes would be decimated, leaving AC only the longer runs which aren\'t sufficient to pay for the fleet.

While I personally would be thrilled to take a train in a couple of hours to Montreal or Toronto\'s downtown core instead of a plane that takes longer due to having to get into the city from the distant airport, the government has sunk too much money into AC to let it die.

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