Canada's Rail System May Have Peaked ... In 1968

High-speed rail between Toronto and Montreal might sound like a dream to most Canadians. But turns out, it was once a reality.

Today, a ride on Canada’s VIA Rail will get you between the cities in about five hours, about as long as it would take you to drive. In 1968 however, the Canadian National Railway Company developed “Turbo,” a train that could go as fast as 170 mph but, because it used pre-existing railroads, typically reached about 95 mph (Amtrak’s Acela, in comparison, can go as fast as 150 mph, but averages about 80 mph).

The result was a four-hour trip, an impressive first step to truly high-speed service. With infrastructure improvements, planners hoped to eventually shrink the trip to two and a half hours. But while Turbo generated buzz, it didn’t capture the hearts of passengers or politicians.

A late 1960s promotional video for the Turbo. The top and average speed estimates announced in the video are lower than the train’s actual speed capabiThe Turbo was originally planned to debut in time for Expo ’67, held in Montreal. While it was not complete in time for the event, it hit the tracks a year later. Off to an ominous start, it collided with a meat truck in Kingston during a demonstration run. As Monte Paulsen wrote in the Walrus in 2009, “The hapless meat man survived. Canada’s efforts to develop modern passenger rail service did not.”

Turbo continued to run until 1982, originally surviving the transfer of passenger service from CN to VIA Rail in 1978 only to eventually be replaced by traditional diesel-electric locomotives. Turbo’s ride time was never as short as hoped, continuing to share rail with freight trains. The aforementioned accident in Kingston and technical issues that led to a temporary shutdown in 1969 didn’t help. Even today, feasibility studies continue to suggest a high speed rail link between the two cities could be successful but there’s little momentum to build it. 

The Turbo cars have all been destroyed, none even left to serve as a source of nostalgia inside a museum. Thanks to the internet though, below is a 24-minute video from 1970 promoting the new service.

Pan-Am inspired hostesses, clunky microwave ovens, and psychedelic nightclub scenes aside, the video demonstrates a progressive vision of high speed rail as essential to the megacities of the future, a vision that has seemingly dissolved 40 years later. Unaware of the country’s eventual lack of interest in better rail transit, the video’s narrator excitedly states:

Turbo is a positive expression of this fast-paced era; a symbol of man’s ability to employ creative technology to serve the needs of a mobile society. The Toronto-Montreal corridior experiment could be the basis for a new level of service between other close yet heavily populated areas.

Turbo itself is considered a first step, not a final solution. Tomorrow could be wheels will be the next to go and passengers will travel on a cushion of air. Whatever the answer is, Turbo is helping to bring it closer.


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