Imagine getting from Toronto to Montreal in an hour without ever setting foot in an airport.
TransPod, a Toronto-based startup, says it’s developing new technology that it says could make that a reality in just over a decade.
The TransPod system design is complete with a fuselage, nose and tail. It floats along the rail magnetically and uses magnets and plasma technology to reach speeds of over 1,000 km/h — in theory anyway — which is about the same as the average commercial plane’s cruising speed. The fastest commuter rail in the world right now, in China, can get up to 600 km/h.
“It’s built like a plane, but operates like a train,” said Ryan Janzen, inventor of the TransPod system, on a tour of the company’s facility in Toronto’s west end.
If successful, Janzen says he hopes to eventually build special tubed rail infrastructure between Canadian cities, which could get people around the country as fast as commercial air, but without emitting nearly as much carbon since the Transpod runs on electrical power.
The hope, he says, is to bring train travel back to Canada and make it the fastest, most environmentally friendly mode of transportation available.
Plasma technology key, company says
The TransPod system powers its trains using plasma technology that creates “virtual wires,” both positive and negative, between the rail and the car, said Janzen.
That, along with new technology that keeps the train at exactly the same distance from the rail “with some very fancy control systems and physics,” allows the train to float along the track while remaining connected to a power source.
That’s what could allow these trains to really fly, he said.
“You don’t want to touch … anything. Because everything wears out at high speed,” Janzen said.
The same technology that will propel the cars can also be used to stop them, Janzen said, and the floating tracks will make for a smooth ride for passengers on board.
Magnetic levitation trains, or Maglev trains, are used in high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, but the plasma technology developed by TransPod is new, Janzen said, and it’s the key to making the company’s trains as fast as plane travel.
The TransPod technology is unique to Canada, Janzen said, and the company’s patented it.
The trains will be fully automated, Janzen said, since human drivers couldn’t operate them safely at such speeds. Janzen says the company is working with regulators and engineers to guarantee they’ll be safe for passenger travel.The trains would operate in elevated or subterranean magnetic tubes, he added.
The plan is to connect Canada’s cities before selling the technology worldwide, but high speed rail within cities is also a priority.
“So that it’s both a high speed connection between cities, but also for regional connections.”
What’s old is new
The technology is exciting for a sector that’s seen relatively little innovation in Canada in the past century.
In 1920, over 50 million passengers were riding Canada’s rails, but that number started to plummet a few years later due to government investment on new highways. That, paired with the shift to individual cars and the rise of air travel, decimated rail travel in Canada in the last century.
That’s left Canadians with few rail options, and those that are left are often less preferable to other modes of transportation.
It is currently far faster to drive from Halifax to Montreal, for instance, than to take the Via Ocean rail service.
Rail systems would be privately funded
To become operational, TransPod CEO and co-founder Sebastien Gendron says large investments in infrastructure are necessary, but he believes most of that investment will be fuelled by private dollars.
Shipping companies like DHL, FedEx and Amazon could be potential investors, Gendron says, as the trains could be used for commuters and light, time-sensitive freight.
Although the technology is still years from going becoming operational, Gendron says the company could get trains on Canadian tracks before 2035.
The Government of Alberta signed a memorandum of understanding with TransPod in 2021 to connect Edmonton to Calgary by high-speed rail. The “test” train, as Gendron calls it, could get passengers from one city to the other in 45 minutes. He previously told the CBC that one-way tickets would likely range from $40 to $60.
Although it’s a multi-billion dollar project, the province isn’t giving any money to it. That doesn’t trouble Gendron though.
“We’re not requesting taxpayer money.”
That leaves a lot of funds to raise. A feasibility study in Alberta estimated the cost for creating the 350 kilometres of rail and other infrastructure at $22.4 billion, or $45.1 million per kilometre. That study also found the rail loop could help reduce the province’s carbon emissions by 636,000 tonnes per year.
Because the company will rely on private investment, Gendron says connecting to airports and major cities will be critical, so TransPod trains can become integral to freight shipping.
The ultimate goal, he says, is to connect the transportation corridor between Quebec City and Chicago, with stops in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Detroit.
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