In the summer of 1997 — the summer between my first and second years of journalism school — I had a job working for the PR department of Via Rail, Canada’s Amtrak-equivalent national rail network. Much of the work was pretty pedestrian cubicle farming (background research for press releases about rail safety, for example) but there was one research project that required me to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver, and that one experience would’ve been worth a whole other summer of office drudgery.
That train was the Canadian, Via’s signature route, as epic and storied as the Orient Express or the 20th Century Limited. It’s a four-day journey, about 2,800 miles in length, crossing the vast swampy emptiness of the Canadian Shield, the broad prairie, and several ranges of mountains as high and forbidding as any that have ever had tracks laid through them. More than the scenery, though, was the simple fact of serious train travel. As a kid raised in cars, I’d never known anything like it. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I was reminded of that first great journey a few weeks ago, as I crisscrossed southern Ontario by Via Train to talk up European innovation. One of the key examples I use in these talks (drawn from my book, "The Leap") is the extraordinary transformation wrought by high-speed trains in countries like Spain, which back in 1997 still had a rail network worse in many ways than Canada’s and now has possibly the best and most extensive high-speed network in Europe, if not the world.
Via’s network — like Amtrak’s — is an underused, underfunded, anemic joke compared to most European countries. The legendary Canadian Pacific line through my hometown of Calgary to Banff, a resort built originally for rail passengers, no longer carries any regular passenger traffic at all. (There is a very posh, very expensive boutique train for hardcore European and Japanese train geeks.)
But the trains still run regularly through southern Ontario, and I was struck, riding them again 15 years after my summer as an employee, by how little had changed. There was on-board WiFi, which is a wonderful thing, but beyond that not even the glassware in business class had changed since 1997. For more than a generation in North America, we’ve invested basically nothing at all in passenger train travel.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Canada had actually introduced North America’s first high-speed train and very nearly became a major global player in the fast-train game. I’d somehow managed to work in communications for Canada’s passenger train company without ever hearing tell of the short-lived Turbo, a service between Toronto and Montreal that ran from 1970 to 1982, operated by CN (Canadian National, which turned its passenger rail service over to Via in the late 1970s).
I won’t relate the full story of Turbo because the best way to learn about it is to read this excellent feature at The Walrus Magazine and/or watch the flat-out awesome 24-minute video CN produced to promote the train back in 1970.
Here's the video in three parts:
If you decide to skip the whole video (and article), the short version is that the Turbo was doomed to failure — as much of North America’s passenger train service still is — because it was sharing old track with freight trains and was thus unable to actually use its then-world-record 170 mph top speed to full effect. Instead, it traveled at a top speed of just 95 mph, slowing down for curves in the track built for big old freights, and even stopping from time to time to let the freight trains through.
The inaugural Turbo line ran between Toronto and Montreal, but instead of cutting the travel times in half, it merely shaved an hour from the average car trip (from five hours to four). Though this is a full hour faster than today’s “fast” Via trains, it didn’t win over enough drivers to justify the cost. The service was scrapped, all the Turbo equipment destroyed, and the Montreal-based manufacturer’s factory was reduced to rubble in 2004. Every trace of the old Turbo service is now gone, which is maybe why even as an ex-employee and train geek, I’d never heard of it until now.
The Walrus article speaks for itself, but I’d like to talk a bit about the video — in particular the way it captures a kind of giddy sky’s-the-limit optimism, a just-do-it spirit of action and achievement that is sadly lacking from North American attitudes today toward high-speed trains and many other big sustainable ideas.
Now, there’s much of this that’s just plain old superficially awesome about the video. There’s the space-age production values, complete with stern, stilted voice-overs and clips of whirring tape reels and clacking teletypes and weird panning shots of Toronto’s City Hall towers. There’s the soundtrack — a reminder, if one was needed, that there’s nowhere near enough flute-and-xylophone-driven jazz in modern documentary filmmaking. There’s even a great little trippy 1970 freakout section around the 7:15 mark of part three, as the narrator sings the praises of urban nightlife at the end of the journey.
The true retro highlight, though, is the extended section in part two about the on-board services, which could easily be spliced as is into an episode of "Mad Men". It begins with fawning shots of the cafeteria (“microwave ovens cook hot food specialties in a matter of seconds!”) before moving on to the many seductions in the first-class “Turbo Club.” There’s two full minutes on the “hostess” uniforms (“Turbo Club service is symbolized by its hostesses — young and exciting, made moreso by their fashionable clothes, designed with a boutique flair. ... The hostesses’ ensemble has a go-together practicality most women strive for”). Drinks are poured, coq au vin served, cigarettes blithely smoked. Watch closely at 4:30 of part two, and tell me that’s not Don Draper himself settling into a Turbo Club swivel chair.
This got me thinking about the real appeal of "Mad Men" retro-futurism — that singular nostalgia of our present day for the space-age splendors promised to us in the buoyant postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. In the era’s pivotal technological moment, which occurred the year before Turbo hit the tracks, Neil Armstrong had made his historic moonwalk — a feat that even some of the engineers charged with making it happen had thought impossible when JFK had committed them to doing it in 1961.
As the film’s voice-over puts it in the final sequence, “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.”
Contrast this with the current era of rhetoric, the pervasive can’t-do spirit of 2011. Think of high-speed projects abandoned in the U.S. Midwest and Florida (and not even contemplated by Canada’s automobile-age, gasoline-mongering government). Think of the way the proposal for almost any ambitious public project becomes almost immediately a question of costs. There’s no mission, no higher purpose, no goal or greater good grand enough to warrant spending any more than the smallest possible amount.
High-speed rail? Crazy expensive. Solar power? I’m pretty sure coal’s still marginally cheaper. New LRT and subway lines? We could probably make do with an extra bus or two at peak hours. After a generation of shooting for the stars, we’re now content to drive to the dollar store.
Maybe this is why that "Mad Men" aesthetic appeals so much right now: because in Don Draper’s time, you could dream big. Looking back through sepia, it seems almost like you were obliged to aim high. You could innovate, invent, re-invent (Draper himself — an imposter on several fronts — is a powerful if not wholly admirable symbol of that spirit). Maybe, in other words, it’s not the five-martini lunches and smoke clouds in the workplace and dames doing the dirty work we miss so much as the sense, long lost, that (North) America could do anything at all it set its fevered imagination to. We could sell soap and smokes and Kodak carousels by the truckload. We could put a dude on the moon and then whisk him down the track in a fastest-in-the-world Turbo train to the ticker-tape parade. We were going places, faster than ever.
In her final book, "Dark Age Ahead," the great urban philosopher Jane Jacobs warned of looming decline for North America, brought on by backward priorities, crumbling infrastructure and a catastrophic drop in our collective will and expertise for innovation — a sort of society-wide design failure. Jacobs wasn’t so worried about environmental chaos or war or economic disaster. We’d confronted enormous challenges before, and we’d invented our way over them. Her biggest concern was that we were simply forgetting how to do things right, forgetting what public institutions and public funds were for.
“What dooms losers?” she asked. “Losers are confronted with such radical jolts in circumstances that their institutions cannot adapt adequately, become irrelevant, and are dropped.” And one of the reasons we fail to adapt, she argues, is that we forget how to do so. “Culture resides mainly in people’s heads and in the examples people set, and is subject therefore to natural mortality.” If we can’t even properly remember that we once had high-speed rail, if you will, then how can we ever hope to recapture the cultural energy of innovation that we so desperately need to overcome the epochal challenges of our time?
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Tip of the hat: I found out about the Turbo Train video via this post at Metafilter, the best darn web community anywhere.