Is the hyperloop the future of transport in Canada, or a pipe dream?
Image: Flickr/Mike Beaurigard
Justin Trudeau's Liberals finally broke down how the government plans to spend its money on Tuesday—$85 million is going to researching electric and hydrogen vehicles, but there was no line item for hyperloop, a futuristic form of rapid transport proposed by Elon Musk.
Transpod, a Toronto-based hyperloop company, wants to change that. The hyperloop, the company claims, could be a public infrastructure project that connects Canadians in the Arctic to the rest of the country.
Right now, expensive flights are often the only way to ship food and doctors into remote communities that need them desperately. With a hyperloop, fresh food could be sent to the Arctic quickly, and people could travel to more populous areas to get medical care with ease.
Led by Bombardier engineer Sebastien Gendron, Transpod is hoping to have a working prototype up and running by 2020. Eventually, they want to connect Toronto and Montreal. The hyperloop, which would shoot pods down a tube at high speed, could theoretically make the six-hour driving trip in half an hour. Of course, a working hyperloop doesn't actually exist yet, although two US-based companies are gearing up for tests.
But inter-city transport is just one way hyperloop could make Canadians' lives easier, Gendron said when I spoke with him on the phone. A hyperloop linking urban centres to remote Arctic communities is another.
"Clearly, it will be valuable to shrink the distance and get people travelling back and forth," said Gendron. "Cargo is also one of the first markets we want to get into. The advantage of transporting goods to the Arctic region is that that you don't have the same considerations as you do with passengers; you can go faster and have a higher acceleration."
"If you do hit the jackpot, though, that one in a million, then you can revolutionize the world"
Building a hyperloop across thousands of miles of sparsely populated Canadian land would be a monumental task—not least because the technology doesn't really exist yet—and expensive. This is why, Gendron says, building one must be a "political decision to connect those regions, to invest and build the line." In other words, it will take government cash.
The cost to lay 400 miles of hyperloop tube is estimated at $8 billion USD, Fortune reported, which could mean that a hyperloop crossing the 3,000 kilometre distance between Toronto and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, for example, could cost around $37 billion. That's nearly $50 billion in Canadian dollars—just under half of the total amount the Liberal government earmarked for infrastructure spending in the latest federal budget: $125 billion.
"Transportation is a sector where people have dreamt big for centuries, but many of these ideas never came to fruition, and if they were technologically possible, they never met their social potential," said Matti Siemiatycki, a University of Toronto geography professor and member of the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute. "We can think of flying cars, the segway… There have been ideas of rapid transit with pods."
"If you do hit the jackpot, though, that one in a million, then you can revolutionize the world," he added.
Beyond thorny technical and costing questions regarding the building of a hyperloop, Siemiatycki said, we should consider who exactly the ideal hyperloop rider is. If the clientele Transpod has in mind are jet-setting VIP types making lunch runs between offices in Toronto and Montreal, then it probably stands to reason that a hyperloop won't do much for poor and disenfranchised people in the North.
"Is this really where we need to be putting our money and efforts when our urban transportation networks are clogged, congested, and increasingly in need of billions of dollars in investment and maintenance?" Siemiatycki said.
It remains to be seen how the federal government will respond to Gendron and Transpod's The Jetsons-esque hyperloop dreams, if they do at all, but there is a chance that Trudeau will look favorably upon the project. Last year, the US Secretary of Transportation said that the government should "lean in" on hyperloop transportation, and will look into funding research.
But if the government passes the project by for less lofty, arguably more immediate infrastructure concerns, then the great Canadian hyperloop may look less like the future of connecting every Canadian, and more like those personal flying cars we're all still waiting for.