The testing of a prototype Jet Train on Canada’s Quebec-Windsor corridor is part of a master plan to develop a railway route that serves 60% of the country’s population, generates 85% of train operator VIA Rail’s ridership and also provides 70% of its income.
The 1,150km (719 miles) line runs through the most densely-populated and wealthy part of central Canada, which contains half of Canada’s population with 16 million residents.
VIA Rail was formed in 1977 to take over operation of all passenger services formerly run by CN (Canadian National) and CP (Canadian Pacific) Rail, except commuter services. It contracts to provide services across a large part of the south of the country specified by the Minister of Transport. As a result, its fortunes are inextricably linked with those of the government.
VIA contracts railway companies to operate its services, but has battled against declining subsidies since the 1990s.
One major scheme to have survived this rationalisation has been high-speed operation in the Quebec-Windsor corridor to try and halve the 4-hour Montreal-Quebec journey time.
In 2005, it was carrying three million of VIA Rail’s annual 3.9 million passenger total. An overwhelming share of interurban passenger transit, some 480 trains per week, also takes place within this axis.
Plans for high-speed operations between Montreal and Ontario have been driven by equipment manufacturers, rather than VIA Rail, which has not been guaranteed that it will be allowed to operate services over any improved route.
In 1987, Bombardier acquired the North American manufacturing and marketing rights for the North American version of the French-developed TGV from GEC-Alsthom (now Alstom).
An early proposal for 320km/h TGV-style high-speed train operation by Bombardier in 1991 found the Quebec-Windsor corridor could make a profit if there was a great deal of government subsidy to start up. As this was against political will at the time, little progress was made.
Bombardier believes the Jet Train can be introduced for a third of the cost. It does not require dedicated tracks and is 20% lighter than conventional diesel trains, giving it better acceleration and stopping performance. 2003 saw Bombardier testing the gas turbine prototype, but little more has happened since its trials.
Canada’s transport ministry has, however, announced a new funding package worth £692.5m for VIA Rail. The money is being used for a number of improvements including eliminating bottlenecks on the Quebec-Windsor corridor, station refurbishment and purchase of new locomotives. The funding, over a five-year period to 2008, also includes 139 new Renaissance passenger cars for the Quebec-Montreal route.
The 240km/h (150mph) Jet Train prototype has also attracted grant funding from the US Government, which wants high-speed rail services without the costly infrastructure of electrification. It is based on Bombardier’s Acela Express locomotive and is configured for use with conventional Amfleet and Horizon equipment for testing at Pueblo, Colorado.
As potential candidates for the State of Florida’s High-Speed Rail Initiative and for the VIA HSR Route, these locomotives would be married to Acela Express-type cars (for use at both high and low platforms) in sets similar to that of the Acela Express trainsets.
Jet Train uses a turbine engine to generate 5,000hp for half the weight, instead of the diesel engine used in nearly all locomotives in North America for the past 40 years. The company has invested C$41m so far in the project.
In the meantime, VIA Rail operates a fleet of light, rapid and comfortable (LRC) power cars and trailer vehicles, which contrast starkly with the majority of its rolling stock. The average age is 25 years and most of it is still steam-heated, as inherited from Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, or bought second-hand from American operators.
Bombardier built and delivered a fleet of 31 LRC power cars and 100 tilt-body trailers in 1978 but this proved a mistimed move as, just a few years later, government cutbacks saw the scrapping of a major upgrading project for the Montreal-Quebec line which was tied into the purchase of these modern trains.
As a result, the trains were only ever been able to operate on existing lines at a 155km/h (95mph) maximum speed, against their planned top speed of 200km/h (125mph).
The entire LRC vehicle fleet was given a thorough overhaul in 1993 but this has not solved the problem of their restricted top speed, which is due largely to faults in the original design which resulted in a high unsprung axle weight unsuited to high-speed operation. Additional problems have been encountered with tilting mechanisms.
Income to help meet the cost of recent improvements to the Quebec-Windsor corridor has been partly generated by the activities of five new maintenance depots, which have attracted work from other operators.
In 1998, Via-Rail president Paul Teller said that the planned expansion of Montreal-Toronto services must take into account capacity for freight and be achieved within a commercial framework.
At the same time, he said his company’s priorities must lie in meeting its targets for reductions in government subsidy, so additional funding for infrastructure improvements must come from private sources.
Money to fund improvements here has been equally tight and has come from the same C$176m budget which funded the construction of the new maintenance depots mentioned above.
This has precluded the widespread introduction of any new system and, instead, has meant that the existing signalling systems have had to remain in place for the time being.
However, in the short-term, this has not presented any problems, as the route is operating at below its maximum capacity.
The biggest leap forward in VIA Rail communications was the launch of a wireless internet service on the Quebec Windsor Corridor in 2006. It is available on trains, in selected principal stations and in Panorama lounges on the Quebec-Windsor Corridor. VIA Rail’s line is the first in North America to launch a wireless internet service which is being pioneered on Montreal-Quebec trains for all travellers and in First Class cars between Montreal and Toronto.
VIA Rail has submitted a proposal for the Jet Train to the Federal Government for a C$3bn enhancement of services on the Quebec-Windsor Corridor, but as yet nothing has materialised.
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