Achieving airline speeds in transportation at ground level is closer to reality with the first passenger test of the Virgin Hyperloop in Nevada. The technology promises ultra-high speed transport between cities, but would it survive Canadian winters and mountainous terrain?
Imagine travelling from Toronto to Montreal in an hour, or Edmonton to Calgary in 30 minutes. That is theoretically how quickly you could cover those distances while sitting in a pod that is magnetically shot through a vacuum tube at ultra-high speeds.
Virgin Hyperloop demonstrated the concept by carrying two passengers on a half kilometre test “tube” in Nevada. The riders were only accelerated to 172 km/hr, but earlier tests without humans achieved 387 km/hr.
Several other companies, including SpaceX and the Canadian-French company Transpod, are hoping this will be the emissions-free, high-speed transport of the future, capable of whisking people and cargo between cities at speeds up to 1000 km/hr.
But scaling it up to cover hundreds of kilometres, and making it robust enough to handle Canadian winters is an enormous engineering challenge.
Like shooting a pea through a straw
The concept of the hyperloop is relatively simple: put a pod in a tube and shoot it at high speed like a pea through a straw. Except instead of using compressed air, the tube is evacuated of air so the pod will encounter less air resistance.
Forward motion is powered by magnetic levitation, or Maglev, which uses one set of magnets to lift the pod off the track so there is no rolling resistance, and another set to propel it at high speed.
Pushing air out of the way is one of the biggest obstacles to high-speed travel because the pushback of the air, or drag, goes up according to the square of the velocity. In other words, if you double your speed, the resistance goes up by a factor of four.
At very high speeds, the air becomes a veritable wall, consuming vast amounts of fuel, which is why placing the hyperloop passenger pods in tubes with much of the air removed, reduces the amount of energy required to drive the pods forward, and allows higher speeds.
Challenges in scaling it up
Maglev technology has been around for decades. Currently a high-speed commercial operation runs between Shanghai and its international airport reaching speeds above 400 km/hr. Japan set a world speed record of 603 km/hr with a maglev destined to be the next generation Shinkansen, or bullet train.
The hyperloop takes this one step further by not only adding more speed, but providing protection from the environment to improve reliability.
However there are enormous engineering challenges for rolling this out at any scale.
Moving any vehicle that fast across the ground means the tracks, or in this case, tubes, have to be laser straight and flat over hundreds of kilometres. Curves must be wide and smooth, so the pods will ride up the walls of the tube to keep the forces toward the floor like an airliner banking into a turn.
Even the smallest bump would throw the passengers around violently in their seats. Canadian drivers know well, the sudden jolt of hitting frost heaves that can crack open the pavement, and appear on our on our highways every winter. Imagine hitting one at 1,000 km/hr!
That’s faster than a jet airliner.
Hyperloop on the Canadian landscape
A hyperloop track In Canada would have to be designed to remain straight, true and air tight, despite movements of frost in the ground and extreme temperature changes between winter and summer.
Nevertheless, the company Transpod has made a proposal to the Alberta Government for a possible route along the flat prairies between Edmonton and Calgary. The company estimates the cost to be between $6 billion and $10 billion and claims it could be economically feasible.
You might imagine this as a possibility for a line between Toronto and Montreal, though even a normal high-speed train for that route has been a long-time fantasy project.
British Columbia may be out of the question at the moment because the terrain means the system would have to be supported by numerous bridges and tunnels to cross the mountains, making it much more expensive to build.
The modern hyperloop concept was first proposed by visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2012.
Now with this new test, as well as test track construction in Europe and a proposal for one in Saudi Arabia, there may be a new critical mass behind the idea. It holds the potential to revolutionize high speed travel, possibly replacing airlines with all-weather transport with low carbon emissions.
One wonders just how far, and how fast this concept will actually go. Canada was built on the railway. Will we pick up this new technology to cross this great land at high speed, or will it be simpler to just hop on a plane?