On monorails, hyperloops and other wild ideas to get from Montreal to Quebec City

Premier Philippe Couillard wants a high-speed link between Quebec's two biggest cities, but what would that look like? Here's an overview of some of the more outlandish ideas.

Premier Couillard wants high-speed link between Quebec's two biggest cities, but what would that look like?

TransPod says its hyperloop could take people from Montreal to Quebec City in less than a half-hour. ( Radio-Canada/TransPod Hyperloop)

In a campaign-style speech last month, Premier Philippe Couillard mused about his desire to build a rapid transit link between Montreal and Quebec City.

He mentioned few specifics and made no reference to cost; in terms of detail, it fell somewhere between a rough draft and an exercise in free association.

But Couillard did say what he didn't want: a high-speed train.

Ever since that speech, all manner of ideas have been proposed to fulfil the premier's dream. The latest is the hyperloop — a largely untested technology which backers claim can transport people at the speed of sound through vacuum tubes. 

TransPod Inc., a Toronto-based hyperloop startup, announced Monday it will conduct a feasibility study next year to explore the possibility of linking Quebec's two biggest cities.

If the technology works (with emphasis on the if), the company estimates transit time between Montreal and Quebec City would be as short as 25 minutes. Right now, it takes around three hours by car or train to cover the 250-kilometre distance.

"This is the next generation of land transport," Sébastien Gendron, TransPod's co-founder, told Radio-Canada.

"This system will do for people what the internet did for information. People in Quebec City could travel to work in Montreal and vice versa."

The co-founder of Transpod, Sébastien Gendron, calls his technology 'the next generation of land transport.' This is a mock-up of a Transpod interior. (TransPod Inc.)

Current hyperloop designs feature passenger pods the size of train carriages, which would be propelled through the vacuum tubes at speeds exceeding 1,000 km/h.

Powered by electricity and using magnetic levitation, the pods proposed by Gendron float within the tubes, which, being vacuums, are free of friction and air resistance.

"The capsule is an airplane fuselage," he said. "We're working to get the cabin pressurized. The technology comes from aerospace. We're not reinventing the wheel. We're adapting that system." 

He estimates that a commercially viable model will be ready for market in 2020. 

'Nothing on Earth like a genuine, bona-fide, electrified, six-car monorail'

Gendron's hyperloop, though, will have to compete with Couillard's stated preference for a monorail, which he raised during a news conference after his November speech. 

The specific idea Couillard had in mind was the monorail developed by Pierre Couture, a Hydro-Québec engineer famed for having invented a hybrid wheel motor in the 1990s. 

In Couture's vision, a passenger car would be suspended from an electrified track and be able to reach speeds of 250 km/h.

But, as long-time watchers of The Simpsons will know, monorail technology can invite snake-oil promises. In one of the show's best-known episodes, the town of Springfield is bamboozled by a con man's promises to build "a genuine, bona-fide, electrified, six-car monorail." 

The project ended poorly for Springfield.

Those excited by a Quebec City-Montreal monorail link suggest it could cost as little as $3 billion. Others believe it will cost at least twice that much, but cost may not be the biggest obstacle.

"It is not a solution that has been tested and proven. There is technological development that still needs to be done," said François Pepin, a retired Quebec government engineer who now heads Trajectoire Québec, a public transit lobby group.

High-frequency rail? I guess

The willingness to entertain futuristic technologies to link Quebec City and Montreal can appear all the more puzzling given that Via Rail has already expressed interest in developing high-frequency rail along that corridor. 

Via Rail is seeking at least $4 billion from the federal government to build a dedicated passenger track between Windsor, Ont., and Quebec City. 

Though not as exciting as high-speed rail, or a hyperloop for that matter, Via believes a dedicated track would allow it to reduce the train ride from Quebec City to Montreal to two hours and 10 minutes, down from the current three hours and 20 minutes.

But even that seemingly straightforward project faces hurdles. Chief among them is whether Via trains can reach downtown Montreal. 

Pierre Couture, a Hydro-Québec engineer famed for having invented a hybrid wheel motor in the 1990s, envisioned an electrified monorail system that would be able to reach speeds of 250 km/h. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec's pension fund, which is paying for most of Montreal's proposed light-rail commuter transit network, has suggested it may not be willing to share the track it will build in the Mount Royal tunnel.

Unless Via and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec can come to an agreement, the high-frequency train would have to stop outside downtown Montreal and force passengers to transfer to commuter lines.

If Ottawa does plan on backing Via's high-frequency project, the money will likely be included in this spring's federal budget. 

Couillard, for his part, has promised his government won't stand in the way of high-frequency rail. But it's clear his heart lies elsewhere. 

"If there is funding, we'll be happy and won't throw up obstacles," he said last week. "We'll see if the federal government will put its money where its mouth is. But in any case we'll forge ahead with 21st-century solutions for transport."

Couillard may want to spend some time watching Simpsons' reruns during his Christmas break.

With files from Radio-Canada


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