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Railing against conventional transportation

Imagine a train car suspended high above traffic that could reach speeds of 250 kilometres per hour and get you from Quebec City to Montreal in less than an hour.

Each car in the inverted monorail system could transport 60 to 75 passengers and would be powered by 16 in-wheel electric engine motors. No need for expensive fuel - just clean, affordable electricity, its promoters say.

And there's no need to buy acres of land to build a network. The pylons from which the rails would be suspended could be installed almost anywhere, including the medians of four-lane highways or even urban boulevards. They could straddle overpasses, span rivers and be built above bridges.

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The inverted monorail is believed to be faster, cheaper and less polluting than existing mass-transit systems in the country. And at an estimated $7-million a kilometre, it would be three to five times less costly to build than a high-speed train, and reach destinations three times faster than an automobile.

Given the harsh, unpredictable winter conditions, the suspended monorail is considered more reliable than other conventional modes of transportation, says physicist Pierre Langlois, who is working with the Quebec group trying to get the monorail off the ground.

"There is nothing quite like this anywhere," Dr. Langlois explained. He recently published a book entitled Rouler sans pétrole (Driving without oil) in which he predicts the future of mass transportation and electric cars lies with the development of the electric-powered motor-wheels.

But despite its environmental advantages, it is likely the project will trigger skepticism and debate over its feasibility. The system has never been tested and would involve between $150-million and $200-million for research and development, which would include building a five-kilometre prototype.

Neither Hydro-Québec nor the provincial government have committed support to the project. The reason, the promoters say, is because Hydro-Québec had the electric-wheel technology 15 years ago but failed to develop it - something for which they were later heavily criticized.

"[It]let its economic potential slip through its fingers. We can't let that happen again," Dr. Langlois said.

This mode of transportation was pioneered by Quebec physicist Pierre Couture. Dr. Couture, a Princeton University graduate now in his sixties, spent most of his career working at Hydro-Québec, where he headed a team of researchers at TM4 Inc., a subsidiary of the Crown corporation. Between 1982 and 1995, working mostly on a shoestring budget, the team developed an electric-powered motor-wheel.

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Hydro-Québec proved to be years ahead of the competition in the race to design a high-powered and affordable electric car. Tests using a prototype Chrysler Intrepid demonstrated that the electric engine motor-wheel and its generator were both more powerful and more energy efficient than conventional engines.

Yet inexplicably, in August, 1995, half of the TM4's team of researchers was dismantled.

According to Dr. Langlois, an article appeared about a month later in a Quebec science magazine, which quoted anonymous Hydro-Québec sources saying the design of the engine-wheel invented by Dr. Couture's team was inappropriate for Quebec winters.

He said Dr. Couture was portrayed as a difficult man who had allowed his personal pride get in the way of the best interests of the project. However, no scientific proof was presented to substantiate the claims regarding the engine-wheel's alleged faults, and Dr. Couture never had a chance to respond to allegations about his behaviour.

The Chrysler Intrepid performance tests were never published, and over the years many of the patents acquired on Dr. Couture's the technology were abandoned.

"I believe in the motor-wheel, but it won't be viable at the industrial level for another 20 years," said Claude Dumas, president of TM4 Inc., in a 2006 interview. The following year, Mitsubishi launched its iMiEV electric car, equipped with two electric motor-wheels. Other companies have announced projects - some using Dr. Couture's inventions - for their own in-wheel electric-powered vehicles.

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For the past 15 years, Dr. Couture, who was hailed as a scientific genius by some of his peers, quietly continued to pursue other research interests at Hydro-Québec, and has mostly refused to speak publicly about his ordeal.

The exception came during the 1998 National Assembly committee hearings on the engine-wheel controversy. Dr. Couture emphasized the opportunity lost by failing to further develop his concept. "But I have continued to work in semi-clandestine way to protect the technology," he told the committee.

Some compare the events involving the electric engine-wheel to the destruction of the supersonic Avro Arrow jet fighter, which was hailed in the 1950s for its state-of-the-art technology, but dismantled by the Diefenbaker government.

A small group of non-profit promoters in Quebec City, called TrensQuébec, is determined to put Dr. Couture's futuristic technology to work in the form of the inverted monorail.

In a bid to generate grassroots public financial support for the project, the group is officially launching the initiative this week in Quebec City and seeking funding for the feasibility study.

"We approached the Quebec Environment Ministry, the Transport Ministry and Hydro-Québec for $60,000 to initiate a public information campaign throughout Quebec. They appeared interested but at the last minute and almost simultaneously they turned us down," said one of the group's organizers, former Bloc Québécois MP Jean-Paul Marchand.

"This is now more than a dream. It is a realistic project. We are determined to pursue it because we hope enough Quebeckers will support it, making it impossible for Hydro-Québec or even the government to stop it," Mr. Marchand said.

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Wheeled wonder

The inverted monorail can be built in existing transportation corridors, runs on electricity rather than carbon-based fuel and would be up to five times cheaper to construct than a high-speed train.

Pylons support rail track

Wheels ride an enclosed rail

Pylons could run down a highway median

Each train has 16 electrically powered wheels

A trip between Monteal and Quebec City would take an hour

Trains could travel 250 km/h

Cost is estimated to be about $7-million per kilometre

A five-kilometre prototype system would cost $100-million

NINIAN CARTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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