The Turbo was capable of speeds approaching those of today’s fastest passenger trains. In December of 1967, a three-car Turbo set the world record for rail travel on a New Jersey test track, reaching 275 kilometres per hour. At that rate, the trip between downtown Toronto and downtown Montreal would have taken two hours — less than the time it takes to fly, once ground travel to and from the airports is factored in.This is a short 1958 documentary about winter railroading in the Canadian Rockies and the men who keep the lines clear. The stretch between Revelstoke and Field, British Columbia, is a snow-choked threat to communications. The film shows the work of section hands, maintenance men, train crews and telegraph operators.
But CN’s Turbo never travelled at anywhere near that speed, because the company operated it over the same tracks on which it ran its other trains. Its speed was therefore limited by relatively tight turns, and, as its maiden voyage so graphically illustrated, the need to slow down at road crossings. Instead, the train topped out at around 160 kilometres per hour, and the Toronto-Montreal journey took four long hours. Given that the drive can be done in five, the TurboTrain had little chance of commercial success.
France, by comparison, was at the time following Japan’s example. Its TGV lines featured welded rails, wider curves, no road crossings, and continuous fences that prevented trespassing by animals or people, and served as noise barriers in residential areas. Since it launched, the TGV has brought French cities much closer together: the trip from Paris to Lyon — a journey just 70 kilometres shorter than the one between Toronto and Montreal — now takes less than two hours.
Canada’s political and business leaders during the ’70s responded to the unprofitability of rail travel by making matters worse. Rather than investing in separate tracks to allow for the kind of rapid rail that might have attracted new riders, CN, then a Crown corporation, sought to divest itself of all passenger operations. The decline of passenger service became an election issue in 1974, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals pledged to create a nationwide carrier similar to Amtrak in the US.
Soon after the Liberals returned to power, CN formed a new division with the bilingual name VIA. In 1976, the Trudeau government, which was hoping to consolidate VIA with the country’s other passenger services, promised to furnish the new carrier with a fleet of fast trains. These were of course never purchased, because it was the tracks, not the trains, that presented the real problem.
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