Russian Railways Studied
By Carol Goar - Ottawa Citizen 22 May 1974
Colin Churcher braced himself for a blast of cold wind when he stepped off the airplane at Moscow last February.
The government railway researcher and a five-man delegation from Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways had come to the U.S.S.R. to study how the Soviets had adapted their systems to winter conditions.
The delegation made two surprising discoveries.
First, the Soviet winter wasn't nearly as severe as they had suspected. In fact Moscow, ten full latitude degrees further away from the equator than Ottawa, was much warmer than the Canadian capital.
Their second, and more important, discovery was that Soviet railways, even though they are more extensive, more heavily used and employ many more people that Canadian systems, are not technically a great deal different than from ours.
It has only been within the last three and a half years that canada has been allowed to observe Soviet transportation systems in action. Until that time, Canada had been trading information with Norway and Sweden about northern conditions, but knew little about their giant neighbour.
In 1970 the government concluded a techincal exchange agreement with the Soviet Union and in 1972 delegations to study railways were set up in both countries.
The Sovier experts were in Canada last October to see what made Canadian railways tick and in February the Canadian group returned the visit.
Now that he has had time to sit down and think about the trip, Mr. Churcher promises, "We're not sitting back and saying that it was a good trip, now let's forget about it."
When the agreement was signed it was hoped that Canada and the U.S.S.R. would be able to trade both ideas and equipment. But the program has shifted almost exclusively to information exchange.
The trade has turned out to be less important than once thought because both countries have their own entrenched ways of operating and their own philosophies, explained Mr. Churcher.
The Russian philosophy of railway development tends to be more academic than Canada's, he said. They have much more elaborate test facilities than any other country in the world for their equipment.
Outside Moscow, for instance, there is a 50-year old test loop of track. Every night loaded trains with sand are sent round and round the track till they have gone the equivalent of 1,000 kilometres (about 620 miles).
At the end of the run the rails are subjected to chemical analysis to determine how they stood up. There is nothing like this anywhere in Canada and test facilities even approaching the Russian standard have only recently been built in the United States.
The scientific approach of the Soviet Union also shows in its education system. There are many universities devoted entirely to railway technology, says Mr. Churcher. In fact, there are professors of railway technology with specialities such as tunnel construction and improvement, rock avalanches and snow avalanches.
The railway universities turn out an average of 20,000 graduate railway engineers a year while Canada grants about 3,500 engineering degrees of all types,
There is also a huge difference in the size of the operations for the two nations. The Soviet rail system employs about 3 million persons. Just over 10,000 Canadians service and operate trains.
In the U.S.S.R. tracks extend as far north as Murmansk which is about the same latitude as Inuvik, but Canadian lines only reach as far north as Great Slave Lake.
The Soviet Union has one tenth of the world's railway track miles. But their lines carry one half of the total ton miles of all nations.
"The size and density of the Soviet operation is staggering," says Mr. Churcher.
Despite these differences, the delegation felt that Canada is not technically behind the Soviet Union. Our on-the-job approach seems to have produced the same technical expertise as the more academic approach of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Churcher said.
When he visited the cab of one locomotive on the way to Leningrad he found himself quite at home. The words and commands were different, but the functions of the various controls were much the same.
There are special problems shared by all northern nations. Drifting snow often blocks rail lines and gets into parts of motors and cars causing damage.
Low temperatures cause oil in the axle boxes to freeze and air brakes have to be adapted to below-freezing temperatures.
Tracks must be built that will cause minimum disturbance to the permafrost base. Both countries are looking at the possibility of using rail facilities to ship northern oil to their opopulated southern areas. (Pipelines are still considered more practical by the Soviets).
Both countries are also looking at high-speed electric systems for the future.
Some of these will be areas of collaboration, others probably will not. "We're still evaluating where we stand on the whole thing," said mr. Churcher.
The two delegations will get together again in September for their second meeting.