Friday, October 21, 2016

Turbo's Unique Technology


From an undated CNR pamphlet:

The sleek look of a born speedster. Strong. Eager.
The bold look of the new champion.

That's Turbo. Built to get you there - fast.

Under four hours between Montreal and Toronto.

*  *  *

That's how the Canadian National Railways saw the Turbo train in the 1970s. With the hindsight of history we can put some of those aspirational statements into proper context.

While I have felt a duty to assemble and post the small treasury of 'artifacts' my father preserved about the Turbo - as I previously mentioned - my main impetus was posting that old Central Station diagram. I expect that the audience for this material, today, is minimal. Canada is a big place and the Turbo ran in a relatively limited zone. Few people remember it; fewer rode on it. 

Casual railway histories of the CNR or Canadian passenger service often skip the Turbo. The short-lived LRC locomotives had more of an impact on Canadian passenger travel than the Turbo. Neither my father nor I could be considered enthusiastic about the Turbo. It was a curiosity and there were far too many broken promises associated with it.

However, there may be a benefit to having this ephemera about the ephemeral Turbo assembled together in one place. Identifying the particular references here might make it easier for someone researching later on.

Now an aging ex-Montrealer, I experienced the build-up to the Turbo as a kid. Finally understanding it as an adult through these materials, a variety of questions have occurred to me. I am asking them in a historical context as a non-enthusiast.

Above all, what did Canada lose in exchange for the Turbo?

*  *  *

**  The following paragraphs could be skipped if you just want to examine the Turbo technologies. **


In the rail enthusiast press of the late 1960s, the authors of articles on the Turbo had direct or indirect access to the information packages provided by the CNR or United Aircraft. However, first-hand operating experience with the technology was limited, and the parties promoting the Turbo weren't rushing to share the details of all the design shortcomings which were preventing the Turbo from entering regular service as promised.

My memory is that Garth C Campbell (red, white and blue fares) of CN , CN/VIA and VIA - in a CBC documentary about VIA Rail, aired in the early 1980s - said that the Turbo was built 'with a blueprint in one hand and a hammer in the other' - or similar words, suggesting that the design was relatively ... improvised.

How did the Turbo happen? 

Who thought the CNR Turbo train would be a good idea and how did they reach that conclusion? 

... Did someone get CNR President Donald Gordon's ear and convince him? If so, was it 'unsafe' for subordinates to advise him against a bad idea? Was it a case of CN 'group think'? Was CNR in a snit because CPR's Buck Crump had taken a final, costly gamble on passenger equipment and they had money-pit envy?  Did United Aircraft provide proof to the railway that they had designed a line of excellent railway equipment before? (That last question is obviously rhetorical).

... The Turbo was a relatively trivial project of the 1960s, literally dwarfed locally by wonders such as the Turcot Interchange and the coin-op autoroute system. Nearby, Mayor Jean Drapeau was putting in his underground rubber-tired trainsets while using the spoil to geoform islands in the St Lawrence.

How could anyone worry about a little CNR jet train when vast tracts of land were being expropriated around the planned operational footprint of that spectacular ivory pachyderm: Mirabel Airport? In the future, it was expected that everyone would continue to be drawn to Canada's largest city: Montreal. And supersonic transports would take us all to 'the old country' in Europe for commerce and vacations. ... Expropriated farming relatives, directly descended from the area's Scottish settlers, passed on to us the project's conventional wisdom that living with the all-day noise from this modern, busy airport 'would drive you crazy'.

Along with the Quiet Revolution, Les B√Ętisseurs d'eau and the nationalization of smaller heritage hydro-electric stations came to represent a new national pride in the resources of the land. The power-hungry north-eastern United States acknowledged the importance of Quebec and its hydro resources by connecting up. Most Canadians have no greater pride in their identity than when they are recognized by America.

... But with Quebec's new national awakening, Montreal's character changed a little and the need for Canada's Supersonic Jetport faded. Perhaps self-driving cars and transport trucks will be as viable in our own future ... as noisy, supersonic aircraft at Mirabel turned out to be. Already travelling on a low-friction self-guiding right of way, maybe trains will be self-driving first? I assure you - this 'work' gives me no pleasure.

The 1950s and 1960s (with their post-war economic optimism) were a radically different time for investing in public infrastructure and also the infrastructure demanded by corporations (e.g. the steel and auto industries). A recent federal government cringed over, and delayed the work of, replacing the federal Champlain Bridge - the original was built over the new US-Canada St Lawrence Seaway - and there's another mega-project of those times. But back to the Turbo train micro-project ...

... Did an influential bureaucrat somewhere above the Crown corporation (CNR) hint that an organization which only gave up coal as a transportation fuel in 1960 ... had better smarten up and embrace something modern like aviation technology ... or the end of CN/CP passenger 'pool' service would mark the end of passenger service? Back then it was obvious that everyone would drive and fly in the future. As a former Minister of Transport stated: People who took the train were too cheap to fly and 'too good' to take the bus. The Shame of the Rails: the capital of Canada banished passenger trains to an industrial area as part of an urban master plan - Canadians (especially the politicians) wanted the convenience of driving their own cars without limits - so the capital was surrendered to the auto. Leaning hard on the automobile model ...

Auto companies produce 'concept cars' for the annual car shows to draw attention to their daring 'corporate vision' and to show what might be possible in the future. However, no one realistically expects people to buy one with gull-wing doors, put snow tires on it and drive it to and from work all winter. Given that we experience our world through the auto, it may become clearer that the Turbo was a 'concept train'. Just like a 'concept car' ... no realistic, informed person should ever have expected a 'concept trainset' to work in daily service. Is this being overly cruel to the memory of the Turbo?

... Consider the damage done to travel by rail in Canada. There was the lost goodwill of so many of the travelling public riding out of town on a rail - who were subsequently stranded, or who learned they couldn't trust a CNR or VIA schedule any farther than they could throw a lock-tite knuckle. This corrosive effect on public trust persisted for 15 years as the Turbo limped along.

... There was the money wasted on developing and re-developing the Turbo technology so it could kind of work in a Canadian winter. But this was the purpose for which it had been sold.

... There was the hyping and re-hyping of the Turbo experience - sorry, 'the born speedster'. And all the extra efforts and expense to cover for it when it failed - from altering timetables to finding rescue engines.

*  *  *

Most of the following images originate from the optimistic late-1960s. The Turbo is a little late going into service ... but it will coming soon, and it will be just as nice as travelling in an aircraft: ... with special uniforms for the stews, and airline captain's hats for the hoggers; the cabin will be pressurized to keep out dust; food will be heated instantly in special ovens and will brought to the tray tables of extra-fare passengers; and there will even be little turbo-powered overhead lights to eat by.


This undated CNR pamphlet, probably from the early-1970s, presents some of the aircrafty interior details.




*  *  *


from: Canadian Rail February 1969; Canadian Railroad Historical Association. Collection of LC Gagnon.
Both the of locomotives to the left would have little difficulty accelerating light aluminum cars to track speed. 


from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter, December 1968. Editor: James A Brown. Collection of LC Gagnon.
A can of car oil on its starboard, a steam connection on its port.

The regulated overbuilding to withstand strong buff forces 
(like meat trucks stopped on level crossings) 
must have seemed strange to the aircraft company.


from: Trains magazine; June 1967; Kalmbach. Collection of LC Gagnon.

from: Trains magazine; July 1967; Kalmbach.



from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter; December 1968; Editor: James A Brown. Collection of LC Gagnon.
If you check the Turbo films on YouTube, 
you'll see people ducking their heads and stepping down into the cars from the platform of Central Station.


from: Turbine Motor Trains; Michael Leduc; Canadian Rail April 1966; Canadian Railroad Historical Association. Collection of LC Gagnon.
Similar incoherent diagrams were furnished to writers and appeared in the rail enthusiast press.

Perhaps the aircraft company assumed readers had experience solving railcar brake rigging puzzles 
and that they could be depended on to decipher the pendulum motion which banked the cars.

from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter; December 1968; Editor: James A Brown. Collection of LC Gagnon.

*  *  *


Photo: James A Brown. from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter; December 1968. Collection of LC Gagnon.

Between the two publications, the axle sets and articulation are presented with good detail.

from: Turbine Motor Trains; Michael Leduc; Canadian Rail, April 1966; CRHA. Collection of LC Gagnon.

*  *  *

The details of the trains' initial arrangement are documented in detail below.

One original operating plan was to operate two trainsets, coupled, as a train.
The fifth train would be swapped in as required to cycle trainsets for maintenance or repairs.

With such a strict 'concept' emphasis put on the Turbo's aerodynamic features,
(such as: the design compensated for the vacuum which develops behind a train)
one might be forgiven for questioning how coupling trainsets could be tolerated.


from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter; December 1968; Editor: James A Brown. Collection of LC Gagnon


from: Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter; December 1968; Editor: James A Brown. Collection of LC Gagnon.

*  *  *

Of all the 'future Turbo' text I have read, the last paragraph, below, offers the most clear-eyed view.


from: TURBO-propulsion; WG Blevins; Canadian Rail, February 1969; CRHA. Collection of LC Gagnon.

Considering paragraph two, above, ...

'From my amateur studies' 

... of the techniques used on the former CNR steel passenger cars as their steel brake shoes glowed and threw sparks - as trains arrived at Kingston. The aircraft company's insinuation - referred to by the writer in his article - regarding slack may need to be examined. The Turbo's articulation was a double-edged sword, as whole trainsets needed to be shopped simply to 'uncouple' cars or power units.

In the railway freight service of that era, 'power braking' - working the throttle against set train air brakes - could keep a freight consist stretched over undulating territory without sacrificing much speed. This would prevent uncontrolled slack action which could exceed the car design limits, resulting in broken coupler knuckles and delays. This time-honoured approach was subsequently discouraged after railway management began to seek ways to decrease fuel costs, to run longer unscheduled trains in which slack action became a bigger problem, and to generally 'back seat drive' every decision traditionally made by engineers. ... In contrast to old power braking, a modern practice might include the use of the locomotives' dynamic brakes to bunch slack when slowing or stopping a freight or to avoid undesired slack action.

Couplers on railway passenger cars built in the early diesel era were designed to minimize slack action for greater passenger comfort. Power braking was probably more important as a 'spotting aid' as the conductor signalled the engine crew to stop via the air signalling line - the first cab whistle was the warning, the second cab whistle completed the prescribed " o o " sound in the rulebook - 'stop'.

In passenger service using conventional equipment - sometimes with consists of 20 cars - the engineer was expected: to stay on schedule through efficient operating; to provide smooth train dynamics for passenger comfort; and to spot the train precisely for the conductor to entrain and to detrain passengers from specific cars.

With adhesion between the brake shoe, wheel and rail becoming more efficient as speed decreases - it was essential to avoid a 'brick wall stop' ... the adhesion surfaces slide and slow the train smoothly at higher speeds, but as a stop approaches, these surfaces suddenly lock in a very efficient stop: passengers surge forward, then are thrown backward into their seats. 

Here is one simple model of how an engineer might stop a passenger train smoothly using power braking. A relatively 'heavy' brake pipe reduction might be made to slow the train efficiently from track speed on the approach to a station stop. Travelling near or along the platform, the air brakes would be released and then, almost immediately, a second, lighter brake pipe reduction would be made - in co-ordination with the conductor's train line signal. Throughout this process, the engineer could subtly adjust the throttle more quickly than it was possible to alter the brake application. If possible, the second, lighter brake application would be released just before the consist stopped - a brake application would also be necessary to hold the stopped train.


During the summer of 1978, there was an Air Canada strike.
This engineer has just stopped a 19-car train (probably 68) on a downgrade at Kingston.



In July 1982, the weekend edition of VIA Train 63 
was delayed by about 3 hours just east of Kingston 
because of a seized pinion (gear) on the lead cab unit.

Above, with a replacement unit leading, it is coming through a crossover to arrive on the north track at Kingston.

Conventional equipment was designed to offer operating flexibility.



The Turbo's short light consist, its identical equipment built at the same time by the same manufacturer, and its electro-pneumatic brake equipment made stopping relatively easy. The aircraft company wouldn't say it this way, but the Turbo was a light, uniform, matched set of equipment, offering no daily operating flexibility whatsoever - the simplified controller was an insignificant advantage when compared to the 'full train today or no train today' option forced by the Turbo equipment. 

When compared to spotting a 3-unit, 15- or 20-coach passenger train with its eighth car at the station ... spotting the Turbo acceptably might have had more in common with ... stopping a city bus precisely at the bus stop sign, while driving through a water-filled pothole carefully enough to avoid splashing the line of bus stop passengers waiting to board.

from: The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Transport; Ing J Tuma; 1979; Hamlyn.

from: Trains magazine; November 1971; Kalmbach.

from: CNR employee timetable; April 1971.


Railways of the World; Brian Hollingsworth; 1979; Bison Books.

Like a modern airport, everywhere is a taxi ride away from the 1950s urban-planned CNR Ottawa station.



Trains magazine advertisement; September 1960.

If you can dream it, you can do it.

But must you?