Thursday, October 30, 2008



The bullet train glided into the curve at close to 300 km/h. And David Wilkes, a stockbroker from central Etobicoke, looked out happily at the Japanese scenery whizzing by and said "you've just got to write about this when we get back. We need one of these."
And the entire group from Humber Valley United Church agreed. Maybe for the first time. We were an agreeable mixed bag - nurses, teachers, architect, lawyer, consultant, writers - and some were used to running big operations. We all longed for such a bullet to be flying around home.We did all the normal things on our visit, from solemn quiet at Ground Zero to drooling at the prices in Akihabara, which bills itself as the largest collection of electronic appliances and devices in the world.
But we always came back to talking about the Shinkansen, those famous sleek trains which the envious world has oogled for 44 years.
If only we had those in the transportation corridor from Windsor to Quebec City. Maybe Air Canada would actually be civil because of the huge loss of its business,
Now it's not news that various governments have thought and consulted and procrastinated about having fast trains across the bottom of Ontario and along the St. Lawrence. Maybe even with a siding to Ottawa. Any columnist who wrote occasionally about transportation, as I did, used to mine the endless reports on that topic because it made so much sense, particularly Toronto to Montreal.
But nothing's happened, even as the wait times at airports increased, along with everything else. The price of aviation fuel. The fare. The security, which seems to be the Third World revenge on the middle class, which has become so onerous and dumb I would rather drive on short hops.
Or take the train.
My introduction to bullet trains came in Kyoto 15 years ago. I learned, almost to my sorrow, that all those stories about jumping aboard as quickly as possible are not exaggerated. If I hadn't pushed aside some chap lumbering out the door, I would have been a day late for Mt. Fuji. (And I actually did see it, which many tourists can't say.)
You queue where numbers painted on the platform say your car is going to stop. And it does, precisely on the spot and on time. And you get aboard ASAP. Actually the trains this time seemed to give the traveller more of a pause, but then I wasn't about to test the system.
And there you sit in comfort, munching, drinking, reading, getting to your destination often in the same time as it takes to clear most airport gauntlets.
We took the Shinkansen train to Yakayama from the lovely resort area of Hakone, and a stay at the costly Prince Hakone Hotel, which is worth most of what you pay. We transferred once for the 412 km trip, which took four hours and nine minutes. Talk about arriving refreshed.
We also took local trains, including one which was a glorified subway, and then the Shinkansen Nozomi 005, which travelled the 381 km. from Kyoto to Hiroshima in one hour and 44 minutes, and then the Nozomo from Hiroshima to Osaka, a 324 km trip that took one hour and 29 minutes.
We stayed in several railway hotels during our gawking, grand structures with giant train sets in the basement. Remember when Canada's railway hotels were world-famous. Why in Toronto, we can't even convert Union Station to anything worthwhile after four decades of fights and lawsuits.
We stayed in two Granvia hotels where you could look down on the bullet trains speeding in to unload a few hundred yards from the lobby. One Granvia had a huge lobby and a cascade of escalators that rose to the stars. Actually they went up and up and up to the roof. It was such a shining hillside of escalators that at one landing, so help me, they hold outdoor concerts.
Remember when railways and the other side of the tracks were the stuff of seedy movies and cheap mysteries. In Japan, and in other countries, such land can be the anchor for grand developments.
The bullets started flying in 1964, and the trains did around 200 km/h. Now they claim 300 km/h and the Japanese say they hold the word speed record. But I was in Paris the day a TGV train from Lyons hit 350 km/h and the French said that was a world record.
It's unimportant to me because any of those speeds dwarf what we see in Canada. Just look at the dregs of the Canadian passenger train service which once knit a sprawling country together like it was a warm shawl in winter. I've gone to Vancouver and back by train twice, but that was decades ago. I don't fancy the trip now.
Actually, I was a witness when Canada decided to try to match the bullet trains and launched its version in December, 1968.
The Turbos began with great flair. On the first day, they filled one Turbo with media in Toronto and sent it to Montreal. And the Quebec media filled another Turbo to Toronto.
The driver of an empty meat truck near Kingston was used to beating trains across a level crossing and tried to outrun the Turbo. I had just been standing behind the engineer and saw his speedometer at 97 mph. So we cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter, so cleanly the driver wasn't seriously injured.
I ran to a nearby farmhouse to phone a story to the Toronto Telegram. When I walked back to the Turbo, with its damaged nose, I saw that the Montreal-Toronto Turbo had stopped beside us. Overhead were the planes and helicopters of the international media recording the maiden trip of what was going to be the super train for all of North America.
Some farmers in pickups, with bales in the back, were waiting for the trains to leave so they could cross amd go to town. One eyed me and my notebook, and all the planes and cameras and tape recorders, and said "you fellows sure get to the scene of an accident in a hurry."
All the networks were there. It was really was the last time the Turbo was big in the news because it was never a success. Its brakes kept freezing and so did its passengers.
It stopped around 1982. And that was Canada's last real venture into super trains.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could have another maiden train trip, with the media perched overhead in wonder, and have a Canadian version of the Shinkansen speeding between Toronto and Montreal.
We can always dream, can't we? As we did a few weeks ago in Japan as we flew between cities almost as fast as if we were in a plane. And without the hassles.

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