Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ONTARIO'S MAGNETIC LEVITATION DREAMS


WHEN TORIES BELIEVED IN GRAND EXPERIMENTS

I hope Bill Davis and his adviser buddy Clare Westcott saw the news story about a Japanese magnetic levitation train setting a speed record of 580 km/h.
It is now more than 40 years since they dreamed of mag-lev trains floating above the right-of-way zipping from Toronto to Ottawa, and if Quebec cleaned up its act in time, from Windsor to Quebec City, a fabled link that has seized the imagination of transportation engineers since the 1960s.
We didn't realize at the time but Davis turned out to be our best premier, and the most successful, for the several decades after the Tories seized power in the 1940s.  Davis intended when he began in 1971 to keep the Big Blue Machine humming with schemes cooked up by Westcott who could charm the spots off a ladybug..
One way was to cancel the Spadina expressway, a stupid decision but one that endeared him to the lefties and gLiberals who normally would vomit at being associated with a Tory.
Another was to create Ontario Place, which was a chance to recreate the charm and mystique of the Ontario Pavilion at Expo '67.
And then there was the creation of an urban transportation experimental agency using the same bright guys behind Ontario Place and the successful display at Expo.
The idea was to create trains that would float on magnetic cushions and thus be very fast and efficient because it wasn't wheels grinding on steel rails.
The first test was to run a train around the Ex, and there are still a few bits of the concrete supports left there, almost as a memorial to the 60 trees that were cut down.
The Sun was new and I made it a campaign to hammer the idea on Page 4 every day. I attacked it as expensive and massive unproven technology - which makes it sounds like something proposed by the Liberals.
The Tories dispatched the top bureaucrat to try to shoot me down in a meeting with Sun publisher Doug Creighton. Doug called me in and listened impassively while we shouted insults and facts at each  other and then phoned his friend, the premier, and said he wasn't about to muzzle me.
Ontario spent hundreds of millions but no mag lev vehicle ever carried a passenger in Ontar-ar-ario, the way we sang about the province in the Bobby Gimby folk anthem made famous at Expo. The big problem was that it couldn't go around a curve because then the space changed for the power pickup.
mericas(Strange when you consider the teething problems of new train technology. The Rapido, the train that was supposed to revolutionize trains in North  America, couldn't keep the passengers warm in winter, which was a considerable problem when you consider our 10 months of winter and two months of bad skiing.)
Queen's Park sold some transit bits of new people carriers  to Vancouver and Seattle and managed to lose more millions in the process. And then, thank heavens, it went out of the business and restricted itself to endless arguments about new subways in Toronto.
Decades later. since the world also started dreaming about the advantages of magnetic levitation if it really could be made to work, there was actually a stub of a mag-lev system running to the Shanghai Airport. And now we have train speed records being set in Japan.
But let me issue a warning, folks! IT WAS ON A TEST TRACK!!!
Yes, the hot dream of train experts is still not quite here as a regular train service. And so, the grandiose Conservative announcements  of 1972 still have not been fulfilled with regular mag lev service over any distance longer than a midway ride.
It might seem a long time but, after all, this was a political promise, and they take a very long time to come true in Canada, and never, it seems, in the United States where failed process is still their most important product.
I write as  someone who wanted it to work, even though the transportation engineers working for Queen's Park would say I had a funny way of showing my support. It was just they fibbed about every tiny success.

1 comment:

Laurence Blow said...

Mr. Downing,

Interesting rundown of Canadian transport technology history, but there are two points that should be corrected.

First, there is a so-called “stub of a maglev system” that’s been running in China for the past ten years, but it’s to the Shanghai Airport, not one in Beijing.

And second, impressive train speed records are indeed being set in Japan on what has been characterized as an experimental track -- which it was for many years -- but construction has already begun to lengthen it into an initial segment of the Tokyo-to-Nagoya commercial line that’s set to open in 2027. So while the hot dream of train experts is still not quite here, your warning is misplaced.

Larry Blow
Arlington, Virginia
USA