Business

IS THERE A FAST TRAIN COMIN'?

Bombardier's new engine could rival air travel in populous corridors

KATHERINE MACKLEM February 24 2003
Business

IS THERE A FAST TRAIN COMIN'?

Bombardier's new engine could rival air travel in populous corridors

KATHERINE MACKLEM February 24 2003

IS THERE A FAST TRAIN COMIN'?

Bombardier's new engine could rival air travel in populous corridors

Business

KATHERINE MACKLEM

ON AUG. 25, 2000, less than two years after winning a design-and-build contract with the U.S. government, Bombardier Inc. engineers were ready to test a spanking new high-speed train. They rolled the red-nosed locomotive, dubbed the JetTrain, out of a hangar into the bright sunshine in La Pocatière, 350 km northeast of Quebec City, and, for the first time, started up the engine. "It was a big event," recalls Daniel Hubert, the engineer responsible for the project. They needed to be sure the fuel system delivered gas without spills, that the start controls worked well, that the turbine engine didn't race and that the propulsion system could control the revolutions per minute. "Everything went well," Hubert says, and the team held a small celebration. So did the train move? "The first day, no. We were happy with having it start."

To get to that stage, Bombardier, the Montreal-based corporate giant known more for planes than trains, invested US$13 million,

matching an equal sum from the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. The train runs on the same 5,000-h.p. engine as a Dash 8 aircraft, yet is quieter than a standard diesel version—the engine is contained in a superinsulated room. Its shell—or platform, in the jargon—is the same as the Acela, an electric train built by Bombardier for the northeast U.S. corridor that, despite some well-publicized initial problems, is proving to be a major success story. JetTrain is the first nonelectric fast train designed for passengers in North America. At 544 kg, the engine is lighter than a diesel—by a whopping 17,000 kg. And it is at the front end of a campaign to provide comfortable, convenient highspeed train travel in the populous and highly competitive Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. "We call it game-changing technology," says Lecia Stewart, Bombardier's vice-president of high-speed rail.

The idea of running a fast train in the southern Ontario-Quebec corridor is hard-

ly novel. At least three major projects have risen and died in the past three decades. The beauty of the JetTrain proposal, its proponents say, is that unlike most other highspeed trains in the world, this one doesn't need new, dedicated track laid down before it leaves the station. Existing rails would need to be upgraded, but the work could be done in stages, with the train gradually increasing its speed as newer, smoother tracks permit. Instead of the $12 billion that was required upfront in 1998 for a nixed project called Lynx, the JetTrain could be launched at a fraction of the cost—and eventually make the Toronto-Montreal run in as little as three hours. Downtown to downtown, that's about the same as flying. The trains would be bought by VIA Rail Canada Inc. on credit, with perhaps a loan guarantee from Ottawa. All that's called for in this week's budget is funding for infrastructure: to build overpasses and shore up rail beds. Advocates say the cost to get the JetTrain

rolling could be $2 billion to $3 billion.

For two weeks following Bombardier's first fire-up of the JetTrain in La Pocatière, engineers continued conducting stationary tests, ensuring all equipment on board functioned properly on power supplied by the turbine engine. Low-speed moving tests came next. From September 2000 to the following March, the train rolled around La Pocatière's small 1.5-km loop, reaching 90 km/h. Then the train was moved to a 22km test track at the Transportation Technology Center, a research and testing facility in Pueblo, Colo. Hubert, known to colleagues as the father of the JetTrain ("there were grandfathers as well," he protests), was in the driver's seat when the JetTrain hit 156 m.p.h.—250 km/h. "Even though it weighs 215,000 pounds, you feel the acceleration in the cab," says Hubert. "It's like a sports car: you feel yourself pulled back into the seat."

Before the JetTrain really gets to show off that prowess to the travelling public, level crossings need to be eliminated. The signalling system needs work. Some new track would have to be laid. A deal will have to be struck with CN, which owns most of the track. Still, one of the toughest hurdles—getting the key federal official onside—has been cleared. Transport Minister David Collenette,

a self-described train buff, flies regularly between Ottawa and his riding in Toronto. On his desk is a VIA Rail proposal for high-speed service in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, which he calls "imaginative," and which envisions a trip of two hours and 15 minutes between his two cities. If it was available, Collenette says he'd take the train, "no question." He adds: "There is a lot more receptiveness at cabinet to using rail as part of our long-term transportation strategy. Cabinet would have to agree, which is certainly something I am working toward, sooner rather than later."

The time is ripe for high-speed rail service, Collenette says. Congestion of the roads and security delays at airports make train travel more attractive. "People want an alternative." Already, the minister has given per-

The competition-airlines and bus operatorssay government subsidies provide an unfair advantage to rail service

mission to Bombardier to test the JetTrain on the tracks between Ottawa and Montreal. Trial runs begin next week. "We want to show it running on rails in winter conditions," Hubert says. In March, the train will be shown off in Toronto. Later it will go to Calgary, where Bombardier will pitch a fasttrain link to Edmonton.

There are other hurdles. The competition—primarily the airlines but also bus operators—say government subsidies provide an unfair advantage to train service. VIA, a Crown corporation established in 1978, has always operated in the red. Its most recent annual report proudly boasts that revenues, rising to a record $254 million in 2001, covered more than 60 per cent of the cost of running the trains. The remaining tab of almost 40 per cent was picked up by Ottawa. As well, in 2000, not long before Daniel Hubert turned the JetTrain's "on" switch, the federal cabinet approved a $400-million, five-year commitment for rail infrastructure. "We are getting increasingly concerned that the level of government subsidies going to VIA Rail is starting to skew the market," says Cliff Mackay, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada. "Collenette is clearly favouring one mode over another. Quite frankly, that's pretty bad transportation policy We don't object to competition. But what is really galling is they are doing it with taxpayers' money."

Lecia Stewart's back goes up at the suggestion of favouritism. "The only transportation mode that doesn't require public investment is pogo sticks," retorts the Bombardier exec. High-speed rail offers consumers choice, she says, and could free up congestion at airports, making space for long-haul flights. "There is no one-size-fitsall solution to transportation. You have to look at each corridor uniquely." She makes a peace offering, of sorts, to the airlines, suggesting air and rail could be integrated, as in Europe, with high-speed trains carrying passengers directly to airports. "It's not a question of either-or; it's a question of serving growing demand and relieving congestion," she says.

To date, Bombardier's JetTrain has clocked 40,000 test kilometres—with no failures. Hubert, however, won't be satisfied with its performance until it's in regular use as a passenger train. Nor will its many backers, fffl

kmacklem@macleans.ca