Hot tech or hype magnet? Transport Canada funds a study of 'hyperloop' transport

Transport Canada says it will evaluate so-called 'hyperloop' technology — a prototype transportation system meant to move people and freight at very high speeds through a pneumatic tube.

Proponents call it the next big thing in people-moving. Critics call it science fiction.

People look at a hyperloop test facility unveiled by a tech startup and a construction company in Delft, Netherlands, Thursday, June 1, 2017. (Mike Corder/The Associated Press)

Transport Canada says it will evaluate so-called 'hyperloop' technology — a prototype transportation system meant to move people and freight at very high speeds through a sealed tube.

According to a government tender notice, the agency will pay the successful consultant to produce a study that answers what it calls "two critical hyperloop" questions:

  • Is the technology viable and safe for passengers and nearby communities?
  • How do its costs compare with conventional high-speed rail?

"The Hyperloop concept and evolving technology are very new," the online tender says. "And published information on the engineering details, performance issues, safety requirements, passenger ride quality, and capital and operating costs are limited."

North American firms working to develop the technology — such as the Canadian company Transpod — say they welcome the study.

Transpod's co-founder Sebastien Gendron said from his Toronto office that the Canadian government has been "quite shy" when it comes to considering hyperloop as viable transportation technology.

"We are still at the early stage. Even if we are slightly behind, it's not like we are late," he said. "There's lots of room to catch up and to (do) it right with our partners in the U.S. and at the European level."

T.O. to the West Coast in three hours

Hyperloop tech is still at the prototype stage; there are no commercial hyperloop systems in operation anywhere. Unlike trains, hyperloop systems don't use rails. Instead, they propel vehicles through vacuum in sealed tubes at speeds that can exceed 1,000 km/h — speeds made possible by the extremely low friction inside the tube.

In theory, a hyperloop vehicle could whisk you from Toronto to Vancouver inside of three hours.

Transpod's other co-founder, Ryan Janzen, said hyperloop "has a chance to displace a huge amount of road traffic." He said his company could build an Ontario to Quebec loop that would run three times faster than high-speed rail, but at a comparable price.

Ryan Kelly is head of global marketing and communication for Virgin's Hyperloop One, which is testing a hyperloop system. He said it's promising that Transport Canada is taking the lead.

He said his company met with officials from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Quebec's provincial minister for innovation in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

He also took these officials on a tour of Virgin's development site, which they call "Devloop."

Kelly said he believes Transport Canada's tender represents the first attempt by a Canadian government to take a close look at hyperloop technology.

Hyperloop's proponents, he said, make many promises about a cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly form of transportation that requires less expropriation of land than new passenger rail projects.

"What Transport Canada is trying to do is find out if are these claims correct," Kelly said.

Kelly said a commercial hyperloop system is years away, not decades. Ottawa's study, he said, puts Canada in a position to be among the first countries to establish hyperloop regulations, fund research and acquire transportation corridors.

"Now it's about what country wants to own this, and how we safely regulate it as well."

'Keep the Jetsons'

Paul Langan isn't convinced. The founder of the advocacy group High Speed Rail Canada said Transport Canada has misplaced its priorities, spending public money to investigate "science fiction."

"Why aren't we going to technology that exists for half a century that is proven and safe?" Lagnan told CBC. "It doesn't make sense.

"Keep the Jetsons. Keep hyperloop as the cartoon that it is."

Transport Canada said in a statement that it's merely trying to get ahead of the curve on what could turn out to be a game-changing technology.

"The pace of innovation in the transportation sector continues to accelerate," department spokesperson Simon Rivet said. "Transport Canada has a key role to play in understanding the implications that emerging and disruptive technologies will have on the safety, efficiency and environmental performance of Canada's transportation system."


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca