Celine Cooper: Hyperloop would be a far cry from orange cones

Montreal Gazette by Celine Cooper

Hyperloop would zing passengers in small container-like pods through a low pressure tube at an estimated average speed of 962 km/h.

From orange cones to the Hyperloop: is this the future of transportation infrastructure in Montreal?

Back in 2013, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and the entrepreneur behind PayPal, introduced plans for what he called the Hyperloop transportation system. In a public blog post, he called it a fifth mode of transport “after planes, trains, cars and boats,” that was “safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainably self-powering, resistant to earthquakes and non disruptive to those along the route.”

Inspired by the pneumatic tubes that were used to move inter-office mail a century ago, the Hyperloop would zing passengers in small container-like pods through a low pressure tube at an estimated average speed of 962 km/h up to a maximum speed of 1220 km/h. It all sounds very futuristic and slightly far fetched (if not mildly terrifying). But it’s also close to becoming a reality: A Hyperloop prototype was successfully tested in the Nevada desert.

But could it be the future of transport here in Montreal?

Some people think so. In 2016, a company called Hyperloop One announced a global challenge for proposals to bring Musk’s concept to life. There were 35 finalists, and last month, 10 winning proposals were named. The Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal route — brought forward by a team called HyperCan — was the only Canadian route among them. Hyperloop One will work with each of the 10 to determine the viability of their routes.

The company claims that Hyperloop transportation could theoretically connect 25 per cent of Canada’s population in less than 40 minutes. Imagine being able to travel 640 km from Toronto to Montreal in 39 minutes, or the 450 km from Toronto to Ottawa in 27 minutes, or the 190 km it takes to get from Ottawa to Montreal in 12 minutes.

There’s no question that it would be appealing to anyone who travels the Toronto-Montreal corridor regularly, as we did over the Thanksgiving weekend to visit family in Ontario, and dreads getting stuck in the chronic bottlenecks as one approaches the cities. But just how much of a priority would it be, and for whom?

Writing for MTLinTech, a local online technology website last year, Joseph Sizick explored a few potential stumbling blocks for a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal hyperloop project. Here are just a few:

First, it would be expensive. Like, really expensive. When Musk first conceived of the concept, he estimated that a Hyperloop system would cost about $11.5 million per mile to build in the United States. But leaked documents obtained by Forbes in 2016 indicated that Hyperloop One — one of two companies attempting to make Musk’s idea a reality — is estimating the cost to be $84 million to $121 million per mile. To build a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal Hyperloop would require long-term, non-partisan partnership and commitment among all three levels of government, as well as a steady flow of private investment and venture capital. Is the money and the political will there?

Second, ironing out complicated logistics would take a great deal of time. Experts have estimated that sorting out the urban planning, environmental assessments and policy issues to bring a Hyperloop to life could take up to 20 years or more.

Third, do these Canadian cities have the population density to sustain such an ambitious system? Montreal has around 4 million people in its Census Metropolitan Area, Toronto has around 6 million people in the Greater Toronto Area. Ottawa has just under 1.5 million. These numbers are expected to grow, of course, but would enough people use it to make the investment worthwhile?

Seeing as we’re in the middle of a hot municipal election, it’s still worthwhile asking what candidates running for office have to say about the Hyperloop concept and how it fits into the future of Montreal’s transportation system. But for now, I think most Montrealers, myself included, are more concerned with transportation issues closer to home. Before turning our attention to a Hyperloop, let’s concentrate on fixing the potholes, building safer bike lanes and an expanded, smoothly functioning STM.

5 thoughts on “Celine Cooper: Hyperloop would be a far cry from orange cones”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s