Hyperloops, a futuristic mode of transportation that aims to carry passengers in levitating tubes at 1,000 kilometres an hour, “may fall short” as an option to transport Canadians from city to city, says a newly released report commissioned by Transport Canada.
The technology is too expensive and unproven, says the report released just a day after the government of Alberta and Toronto-based hyperloop developer TransPod announced a memorandum of understanding to study the commercial application of the system for the Calgary-Edmonton corridor.
Consulting firm Aecom, commissioned by Transport Canada, said it’s questionable whether the technology would rival other modes of transport.
“Hyperloop as a new transportation concept shows promise; however, too many uncertainties exist for it to be considered a near-term, viable alternative to present day high-speed rail, maglev [magnetic-levitation trains], or aviation,” according to the report. Aecom declined a request for comment.
Transport Canada commissioned the preliminary feasibility study last year to examine the safety and commercial viability of hyperloop technology across the country.
The report, dated July, 2020, found that hyperloop systems may not be commercially viable until late into the next decade at the earliest. The technology – which aims to propel magnetically levitated pods through tubes at the speed of a jet – has not yet been tested at full scale, making it difficult to compete with high-speed systems already in use in other parts of the world, according to the report.
Costs associated not only with the technology, but also the design, construction, environmental assessment and land planning, raise the cost to $56-million per kilometre compared to the $19-million initially estimated in 2013. That year, the hyperloop concept was made popular by Tesla founder Elon Musk when he outlined his vision for the super-fast transportation system. The report also stated that prices for passengers would be more comparable to an airplane ticket than a train.
This contests TransPod’s claims in its proposal to the Alberta government. TransPod announced on Tuesday a multiphase agreement with the province to research, test and potentially build a hyperloop connection from Calgary to Edmonton, starting with a 20-month feasibility study into the system’s route, demand and cost. The startup estimated the total project cost at $10-billion, with passenger ticket prices ranging from $50 to $100.
In its proposal to the province, the startup said that construction on the full line could start as early as 2025, at least five years earlier than the estimates in the Transport Canada study. TransPod also estimated the initial cost at $28.9-million per kilometre – approximately half of the report’s estimate.
But the report fails to consider recent updates in hyperloop technology, according to TransPod’s co-founder and chief executive officer Sebastien Gendron. He added the Transport Canada-commissioned study falls short of efforts in the European Union and the United States, which have established committees to explore the commercial application and establish standards for the system.
Mr. Gendron said he questions Transport Canada’s intentions in commissioning the report.
“We can debate, but Europe is on track to define a regulatory framework, the U.S. is on board, and in Canada we have one province moving forward.”
The Calgary-Edmonton corridor has been the centre of debate for decades as the municipalities and the province question how to connect the two largest cities in Alberta. The latest bid came to a halt in 2014 when a report from the province said the population base did not support the cost of a high-speed passenger rail link.
But instead of focusing on one mode of transportation, the province should consider the needs of the region and identify the best system among the many options, according to Emily Grise, an assistant professor specializing in transport and land-use planning at the University of Alberta.
The recent report further emphasizes the need for more feasible options as Transport Canada is more prone to shy away from innovative technology compared to similar government agencies in other countries, she said.
“Transport Canada would be more risk-averse than the EU or the U.S. In Canada, we’re not early adopters of new transportation technology and we’re more willing to step back and see how it works in other countries,” Prof. Grise said.
Alberta’s Ministry of Transportation, which has not made a financial commitment and expects the project to be privately financed, owned and operated, said it is aware of the federal report. But it “welcomes the efforts of private-sector proponents that want to develop new and innovative technology in our province,” according to an e-mail statement from spokesperson McKenzie Kibler.
Transport Canada said it has reviewed the study and will use it to evaluate the safety, technical, operational and economic aspects of hyperloop systems.
“When the design and conceptual challenges are addressed, Transport Canada will evaluate how to work with the hyperloop community to examine the potential for real-world application,” said spokesperson Cybelle Morin in an e-mail statement.
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