The Rise and Fall of CN's Turbo

A bit of a blast from the past, here. I hope you’ll indulge me. If not, you don’t need to click “play” on these videos.

Being a train nut, I do sometimes wish that I could have access to a time machine to see some of the days gone by. What was it like to ride streetcars up Yonge Street, for instance? Or what about Canadian National’s brief flirtation with high speed rail. This video, made in the 1970s and uploaded to Youtube in 2009, is an intriguing historical artefact, both for how it was made, and for what it shows.

The TurboTrain was the invention of the United Aircraft Corporation that tried to create high speed rail in Canada and the United States largely by making the trains lighter and more powerful (using aircraft components). Canadian National bought some of the trains and put them in service on Toronto-Montreal runs. Unfortunately, problems plagued the design, and it was never as successful as it was hoped. VIA inherited the trains, but soon put them on the scrap heap.

As they weren’t run as often as the companies wanted them run, there seems to be very little material available about these trains in books or on the Internet, but what does exist is quite arresting. The soft curves and sleek surfaces were 1970s design at its best, and the interiors looked like they were designed for high class comfort (though I suspect the microwaved meals may have left a lot to be desired).

The video itself is quite well put together, goes into the particulars of the Turbo’s construction, and has that sense of institutional optimism that takes one back to the instructional films (not videos, films) that we used to watch in science class up to the mid 1980s. To put it mildly, Rifftrax would have a lot of fun with this video, from its cheesy Star Trek-esque opening to its somewhat sexist portrayal of the stewardesses in the part shown below. But it is also a fascinating window on what the culture of the 1970s was like, not just the technology and the optimism, but on what the moviemakers thought would appeal to audiences back in the day.

I mean, check out part three below, as the action moves to seedy Yonge Street, and the saucy dancing at a local discotheque. The film starts going all strange colours and negative, and the music distorts. Is this an acid trip? Then we suddenly cut back to one of the passengers on the Turbo, either laughing, or screaming his way out of a nightmare.

As the film was made in the early 1970s, it was not able to foresee the problems that would scupper the Turbo project about a decade later. It and others made bold predictions about the future of tomorrow’s supertrains (even predicting the appearance of the maglev, without showing it), that simply haven’t panned out. And watching this from 2012, 42 years later, I’m forced to ask, we’re in the future now and we were promised flying cars.

Where the hell are the flying cars?

Further Reading

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