A hyperloop that could transport passengers in levitating tubes at the speed of a jet between Calgary and Edmonton is being backed by the Alberta government.
The corridor has been at the centre of a years-long debate on how to connect Alberta’s two largest cities amid cutbacks on transportation spending. After vying for government support since 2017, Toronto-based startup TransPod has signed a memorandum of understanding with the government to study the potential of a high-speed hyperloop system and help it attract investors.
“One of the key items from investors was that they were not worried about the technology, they wanted to confirm that there is a market,” said TransPod co-founder and chief executive officer Sebastien Gendron. “This is where official support from the province is important because it’s the missing piece that we’ve been chasing for the past few years.”
A hyperloop could propel vehicles – which TransPod describes as an aircraft without wings – through a vacuum-sealed tube propped above ground on concrete posts. Unlike a train on a track, the magnetically levitated pods would race at jet-like speeds of 1,000 kilometres an hour to transport passengers and cargo between Calgary and Edmonton in 30 minutes, according to the startup.
“When a passenger boards an aircraft, as it accelerates you feel a bit pressed into your seat, and then it takes off,” said co-founder and chief technology officer Ryan Janzen. “The TransPod line would have a similar feeling, but you would feel a little bit pressed into your seat for slightly longer to get up to the maximum speed, and then you’re coasting.”
Development funding for the project hinges on TransPod’s ability to win over private investors. Alberta Minister of Transportation Ric McIver said the province expects the system to be privately owned and operated. “It kind of fell into our lap. It’s a new technology and anything that will make travel more efficient will be good for the quality of life, job maintenance and the economy,” he said.
While many transportation systems are often built under the promise of being profitable operations for private investors without public funding, that is rarely the reality, said Matti Siemiatycki, an urban planning and transportation professor at the University of Toronto. The technology is also in its early stages as hyperloops have not yet been tested at scale.
He added that governments around the world, Canada included, are considering an array of innovative transportation options, such as autonomous vehicles and cargo freight blimps. And China is testing a high-speed magnetic-levitation or maglev train that it says reaches up to 600 kilometres an hour. Which one will become the next airplane or automobile is anybody’s guess, he said.
“To date, the actual testing of hyperloops on long tubes is limited so it’s still a theory, but it’s also seductive in terms of being able to shrink space from a five-hour trip by a train or car to 45 minutes,” Prof. Siemiatycki said. “It’s seen as transformative, but whether the tech can actually deliver, plus the cost, are still open questions.”
The hyperloop concept was made popular by Tesla founder Elon Musk in 2013 when he outlined his vision for the system. It has also garnered attention from billionaire Richard Branson, the founder of London-based Virgin Group Ltd., which in 2017 invested in Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One. Since then, hyperloop companies around the world have piled into the space.
TransPod is betting that its homegrown technology will be a front-runner, and it now has the province on board after three years of lobbying the government to back the project. Mr. Gendron said the previous NDP government was interested, but investors were uncomfortable with the province’s demand that the test track be dismantled after its study was completed.
Under TransPod’s current proposal to the province, the project would unfurl in stages starting this year with a 20-month feasibility study, breaking ground on the test track as early as 2022 and beginning construction on the full line in 2025. The startup and the province will examine options for the system’s route, demand and cost, which Mr. Janzen said could reach $10-billion. With stations in downtown Calgary, the city’s airport, Red Deer, downtown Edmonton and Edmonton International Airport, passengers could purchase a ticket on the spot for $50 to $100, Mr. Janzen said.
Previous efforts looking into intercity transportation have questioned whether a super-fast transportation project is feasible for the region. A report from the province in 2014 said that Alberta should not invest in a high-speed passenger rail link between Calgary and Edmonton since the population base did not support a project with a price tag of $6-billion to $10-billion.
Mr. Gendron said it plans to supplement its revenue by moving specialty cargo as major retailers open distribution warehouses in the region. Those retailers would include e-commerce giant Amazon and home improvement company Lowe’s Canada.
Mr. Gendron said his company raised $40-million from the European Union and Italian venture capital firm Angelo Investments, but it needs an additional $10-million. Now that TransPod has secured an endorsement from the province, it will also be reapplying to federal grants and innovation programs that previously rejected its proposal, he said.
TransPod is developing a testing facility in France, and hyperloop companies are also conducting research and development at labs around the world. The Canadian startup said that if its testing track in Alberta does not work, then it will be dismantled.
Transport Canada launched a study last year into the safety and commercial viability of hyperloop technology.
“The pace of innovation in the transportation sector continues to accelerate,” said spokesperson Cybelle Morin in an e-mail statement. “Transport Canada has a key role to play in understanding the implications that emerging technologies could have on the safety, efficiency and environmental performance of Canada’s transportation system.”
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