4 reasons why a Montreal-Toronto hyperloop may never materialize


Can Montrealers reasonably expect a half-hour hyperloop commute to Toronto within 10 years? While one tech startup is saying “yes,” the answer may be hard to come by.

Toronto-based Transpod says it will present a full pod-and-tube model of its hyperloop transportation system in September to InnoTrans, the world’s largest rail show taking place in Berlin.

Transpod, or Hyperloop Toronto, made big headlines in March when it laid out an idea to send high-speed rail passengers from Montreal to Toronto, and vice-versa, in less than 30 minutes. An expected average speed of 962 km/h and a max speed of 1220 km/h would blast people to and from the Canadian cities 50 per cent faster than a plane and 300 per cent faster than a train.

Transpod came about after billionaire inventor Elon Musk first proposed Hyperloop in 2012. He subsequently wrote a whitepaper inviting companies and teams to come up with functional designs and models. Moreover, Transpod expects its commercially viable product in three to five years, and a fully-implemented system within 10 to 15 years.

Here’s four reasons why Montrealers and Torontonians should curb their enthusiasm:

1. Cost: It’ll be astronomical

hyperloop

Photo by the Toronto Star // Concept art for Transpod/Hyperloop Toronto’s transportation system, called Hyperloop.

Transpod wrote on its website that it’ll target Canada’s federal and provincial governments for help. Still, there’s no denying that the cost economics of such a proposal would be large and complex.

We chatted with Dr. Ian Savage, a transportation economist at Northwestern University, who had his doubts.

“If people are not willing to pay and you’re going to head to the government to pay for this, that’s probably an indication that the benefits are not particularly clear.”

Savage said such a project would be “expensive at best and very expensive in some circumstances.”

While Transpod’s proposal could be a game changer if they pull it off, he questioned whether the company is going after the right clientele.

For such high-speed transportation to be sustainable, Savage said high-paying, first-class passengers would need to anchor much of the cost. But to pay for such infrastructure, Transpod would need to attract more moderately-priced passengers as well.

“You can’t quite survive on first-class alone,” Savage told MTLinTech. “You can really only make this a worthwhile proposition by combining first class with a whole bunch of people sitting in the back in terrible conditions paying a more modest price, and that’s what I’m not seeing on this proposal.”

2. Time: It’ll probably take more than 10-15 years.

Matthew Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in urban planning and transportation, told the Toronto Star that logistics and urban planning are significant hurdles Transpod will have to overcome if it wants a cross-country transportation network.

“The technical part of ‘how do you build this’ is one part of the discussion. The actual planning and policy issues surrounding it are as complex — and then you have the costs,” Siemiatycki said.

Savage paused when asked how long he thought such a proposal could reasonable take, before asking, “How long is it going to take you to get through your environmental process?”

“I just think the lags in doing that would put you at at least 20 years, realistically,” said Savage.

3. Market: It’s not Paris to Leon, and it’s definitely not Tokyo to Osaka.

Developed during the 1970s, many look to France’s TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) as the poster child for high-speed rail. In mid-2011, scheduled TGV trains operated at the highest speeds in conventional train service in the world, regularly reaching 320 km/h. Transpod’s proposal is for speeds nearly four times faster.

Savage warns that the TGV services population densities that are generally much higher than in North America, with shorter distances (Paris to Lyon is about 460 kms, while Toronto to Montreal is about 540 kms). This points to cost considerations as well: even the TGV’s strongest line, Paris to Lyon, still hasn’t broke even. “It may cover its operating costs, but not its capital costs.”

The transport economist said that the only places where high speed rail has done reasonably well, financially, is in Japan. There the Shinkansen services 2,764 kms with maximum speeds of 240 to 320 km/h. The model Tokyo to Osaka line runs 515 kms, nearly that of Montreal to Toronto, and takes two hours and 30 minutes. Over 143 million annual passengers ride this line.

But Japan has a higher population density than China, most latin American countries, most European countries and certainly Canada, which means a lot more potential riders.

4. People don’t want a ribbon crossing through their property. 

Siemiatycki may have put it best when he said that ““One of the biggest challenges [is] people in rural areas who do not want this very narrow ribbon crossing through their property.”

Canadians (and Americans) have consistently balked at and stalled the massive Keystone XL project that would carry crude oil from Alberta to the United States, despite its heavily-argued economic benefits for both countries. Imagine how a rural farmer in Quebec or Ontario might feel about hundreds of miles of tunnelling being installed under their feet.

“There [are] all sorts of rationales for why this will worsen their quality of life,” added Siemiatycki

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