It may have some of the world’s longest railroads, covering vast distances across its wide-open provinces, but one thing Canada doesn’t have is high-speed trains.
Of all the economically powerful countries which make up the G7 – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and the EU – Canada is the only one with nothing swift coming down the tracks.
It has come close though, with a creation that would’ve not only put it on the high speed rail map, but could also have radically shaken up the global rail industry: JetTrain.
In the early-2000s, the country’s largest transport manufacturer, Bombardier came up with an experimental high-speed passenger train concept that promised to bring European-style rail services to Canada and the US.
Marrying technology from America’s all-electric Acela Express and gas turbine helicopter motors, JetTrain was a brave attempt to create a fast, modern passenger train for routes across North America.
Its tilting passenger cars were identical to the Acela, now coming up for replacement on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor (NEC) route linking Boston, New York City and Washington D.C., but the propulsion system was much less conventional.
Bombardier’s proposal involved sandwiching lightweight tilting passenger cars between two power cars fitted with Pratt & Whitney gas turbine motors – delivering an impressive 8,000 hp and performance to match the NEC’s electric trains.
Compared to diesel engines, gas turbines are much lighter, smaller and capable of delivering exceptional efficiency in the right conditions. In theory, they are ideal for long-distance, high-speed rail operations on non-electric lines.
Remarkably, the turbine motor used in the JetTrain prototype weighed just 882 pounds (400 kilograms) and was no bigger than a common office desk. A diesel engine of similar output can weigh as much as 10 tonnes (22,046 pounds) and would be around 16-feet long (4.88 meters) and almost 10-feet high.
Keeping the weight as low as possible is critical to high-speed rail vehicles; lighter locomotives and cars place less stress on the track and structures beneath, which in turns reduces the cost of maintaining and repairing every element of the operation.
With a train designed for a maximum speed of 165 mph (265 kph) on existing tracks shared with freight trains, low weight was not just desirable but unavoidable. Compared to existing diesel locomotives, JetTrain’s low weight and modern engines also promised a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Many proposals, no takers
The concept was Bombardier’s response to a call from the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop new high-speed train technology for routes where electrification was unlikely.
The two parties invested $13 million each to build the first – and only – prototype at Bombardier’s plant in Plattsburgh, New York.
FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said at the time: “Bombardier stepped up to the plate when we put out the word we were interested in doing this project. We believe that the project holds great potential for bringing about the high-speed services that people across the country are expressing a desire for.”
Completed in June 2000, the prototype hit 156 mph during testing at the FRA’s test center in Pueblo, Colorado before going on a tour in the United States and Canada.
In the early-2000s, Bombardier raised eyebrows in Europe by proposing a British version of JetTrain as a possible replacement for its popular InterCity 125. Despite a brief flurry of excitement, the proposal soon drifted into obscurity and it would be another 15 years before the diesel-powered “125s” were replaced.
JetTrain was seen as the ideal solution to improve passenger services on the proposed Florida Overland Express between Orlando and Tampa in Florida – although this scheme fell through after being denied funding in 2004.
Other proposals included new lines in Texas and between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, although neither of these has yet come to fruition.
In Canada, JetTrain was promoted as a replacement for diesel-powered trains on Canadian intercity passenger service operator VIA Rail’s Quebec City-Windsor route, but again the necessary funding proved elusive.
Despite a further study into accelerating passenger trains in 2008, no further progress has been made and the JetTrain prototype has been stored out of use in Pueblo for many years.
Lack of funding stifles rail development
Building sleek and shiny new high-speed trains is the easy bit. Persuading governments to invest billions of dollars in upgrading railroads to take full advantage of those trains is far more difficult – especially in North America.
“JetTrain is symptomatic of the chronic problem facing inter-city passenger rail in Canada; the desire to get something for nothing,” says Canadian rail expert and passionate VIA Rail supporter Jason Shron.
“In the 1960s, when the Canadian government invested in the 170 mph-capable United Aircraft TurboTrain, it was placed in service on jointed rails on an alignment laid back in 1856. With tight curves and over 300 level crossings between Toronto and Montreal, the train never reached its potential.”
For many reasons, not least the dominance of the private automobile and the oil lobby, governments in Canada and the US have long been reluctant to invest in fast, frequent and reliable intercity rail. Many strong proposals have come and gone over the decades, victims of shifting political priorities, lobbying by anti-rail interests and indifference.
Safe operation at speeds above 100 mph requires major investment in tracks, signaling and the replacement of high-risk grade crossings with bridges or underpasses. Grade crossing safety is a particular issue in North America, where trains often run infrequently and road users don’t expect to see them – or worse – take unnecessary risks to cross tracks in front of approaching trains.
However, the cost of eliminating these risks can run into billions of dollars and capital spending on public infrastructure has long been seen by many in North America as pouring money into a bottomless pit, rather than an investment in improving connectivity for everyone.
High frequencies, high speeds and electrification remain a distant prospect and even VIA Rail’s fastest trains max out at 100 mph. Likewise the US, despite its wealth and huge population, only has limited sections of railroad passed for maximum speeds greater than 100 mph.
The densely populated Corridor in southern Ontario and Quebec is an ideal candidate for high-speed rail, and more than 20 studies commissioned by the government have confirmed this,” says Shron. “Unfortunately, you can’t build high-speed rail with studies.
“This is the continuation of an ongoing theme of under-investment. While VIA has a new fleet on order from Siemens for use in the Corridor, it is a seat-for-seat replacement for existing equipment that will now not allow expansion of services. The last significant investment in inter-city passenger trains was in 1954/55, when Canadian Pacific and Canadian National purchased new fleets. Since then, Canada’s inter-city passenger network has struggled.”
Recognizing that genuine high-speed rail will likely never occur, VIA has been pushing for high-frequency rail on a new alignment.
Even that has been bogged down by studies and is not much closer to realization than when it was proposed five years ago. Today, the average age of VIA’s active passenger car fleet is over 40 years, with much of the fleet built between 1946 and 1955.
“The biggest threat to VIA Rail’s existence is government indifference to the way that passenger trains are operated,” says veteran rail journalist and frequent Canada visitor Chris Leigh.
“Unlike Amtrak, VIA trains have no statutory priority on the railways over which they operate. As a passenger it’s a strange feeling to realize you are of considerably less importance than a box car or a grain hopper!
“VIA trains always play second fiddle to the host railway’s own freight trains and this has become worse in recent years as freight operator Canadian National struggles to find enough capacity for its own trains as cargo traffic grows.”
He adds: “High cost and poor reliability are a deterrent to passengers – whether they are commuters or transcontinental travelers, while Canadians believe they are pouring masses of tax dollars into supporting a pretty ride for foreign tourists.”
Decades of innovation, mixed results
JetTrain was not the first attempt to bring jet engine technology to the rails. As early as 1941, Swiss company Brown Boveri was working on experimental gas turbine locomotives, building one for domestic use and another for Britain’s Great Western Railway.
At the time, gas turbines were still “white hot” technology, having been developed to power the first jet fighter aircraft towards the end of World War II.
Gas turbines were much lighter and more powerful than contemporary diesel engines, none of which could match the power and speed of the best steam locomotives they were intended to replace.
However, the early gas turbine prototypes did not fulfill their great promise, proving unreliable, thirsty for fuel and incredibly noisy during their trials. Most efficient when running at full power for long periods, the technology was not well suited to the stop-start nature of passenger operation.
Despite this, between 1952 and 1970 the legendary Union Pacific Railroad in the United States operated the world’s largest fleet of gas turbine locomotives, known as GTELs. At one point, around 10% of UP’s freight was hauled by GTELs, but fuel economy again proved to be a problem, with the huge machines using up to double the amount of fuel of equivalent diesel locomotives.
In the late-1960s and early-1970s gas turbines made a comeback as European railways sought lightweight, high performance solutions for a new generation of express passenger trains, such as Britain’s Advanced Passenger Train (APT) prototype, a remarkable tilting train taking much of its inspiration from aerospace technology.
Likewise, SNCF in France chose gas turbines to power “TGV 001,” the predecessor of its world-famous high-speed trains. In both cases, jet propulsion quickly became a dead end, not least because of the 1973 oil crisis, which rendered thirsty gas turbines unaffordable almost overnight.
In 1967/68, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) built seven futuristic looking gas turbine trains for the UA and Canadian National Railways.
Packed with advanced technology, the “TurboTrains” attracted a lot of attention but proved to be unreliable. In the right conditions though, they could run notably faster than conventional trains. One of the two US trains managed an impressive 170.8 mph in New Jersey in December 1967 – still a world record for this form of propulsion.
In April 1976, after a rebuild program which significantly improved reliability and on-time performance, a Canadian TurboTrain reached a maximum of 140.6 mph – well above the daily norm of 95 mph. That this record still stands 45 years later tells us much about Canada’s willingness to invest in passenger rail.
In the late-1960s the bureaucracy at Transport Canada was of the opinion that passenger trains were the equivalent of the horse and buggy.
Unfortunately, in over five decades since then it appears attitudes there have not changed.
Intercity passenger trains are seen as a distraction and not worth serious investment.
Since the formation of VIA Rail Canada in 1978, the intercity network has never been expanded: it has shrunk steadily for over 40 years.
Jason Shron concludes: “VIA’s efforts to introduce new services and routes are continually stymied by Transport Canada. VIA is not allowed to introduce a new service if it will require a subsidy. As almost all VIA services require subsidies, this is effectively a permanent embargo on new routes.”