For Sebastien Gendron and Ryan Janzen, the future of transportation is ultra-fast and fossil-fuel free — the rest of the world just needs to get onboard. “Our highways and roads have a fundamental limit for how many vehicles they can support,” says Janzen. “The world needs true hardware innovations.”
Since founding TransPod in 2015, the duo have been working to bring their vision of freight and passenger tube transportation to North America and beyond. Though the Toronto-based company is in talks with governments in other regions, including Texas, it may realize its plans first in Alberta, where it is developing a hyperloop line between Calgary and Edmonton. Transpod’s system uses a vehicle that is something like a hybrid between a high-speed train and a jet and will be able to operate at speeds of 1,000 kilometres an hour by levitating through a vacuum tube. That could cut travel times between the two cities to just 45 minutes. The system is also designed to be compatible with renewable power sources and the company estimates that the Alberta line could help the province cut 636,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Here, Gendron and Janzen discuss why we’ve hit the end of the road for highways, how Transpod won over skeptical investors and why the time has come for hyperloops.
Gendron: The concept has been around for many years — we’ve seen some initial designs from the 1900s. The concept itself is fairly basic: a vehicle travels in a tube where you’ve removed most of the air. By doing that you will avoid aerodynamic friction. With a magnetic kind of levitation and propulsion system, the vehicle can achieve, in theory, nearly the same speed as an aircraft.
Gendron: There are many: the political challenge, the financial challenge and the technical challenge. Our technical roadmap is quite strong and convincing, so that when investors look at it they agree that our approach makes sense. But the biggest challenge is the same one people have been dealing with for all of history: that’s developing something new.
At the beginning, we had some feedback that Canada is risk averse. And I have to say that it’s true, but it’s a human issue. We face the same challenge in Europe, in the Middle East, even sometimes in the U.S. When you look at the history of any innovation, it’s a challenge to convince governments to support them.
Janzen: The TransPod vehicle levitates without touching the guideway. And the key innovation is that we’re delivering power to the vehicle using plasma. Think back to your elementary school days. The teacher would say, there’s solid, liquid and gas — those are the states of matter. But then there’s also plasma. That’s what we see in the sun and in the northern lights. We’ve been able to harness and control the force of this natural phenomenon in the vehicle, which allows it to run at those extremely high speeds.
Gendron: Our innovation has two aspects: the technology that allows our vehicle to travel at the same speed as an aircraft, and our economic model that develops these lines without the taxpayer’s money. On the business model, we wanted to make sure that we won’t rely on public subsidies to build that infrastructure. So, the value proposition we share with governments is that when we want to build a line, we can finance it with the private sector, which will save taxpayers lots of money.
Gendron: When we started the company, our approach was like many startups looking to raise money: we reached out to venture capitalists and private investors. It took us a bit of time to understand that our project was different. It’s capital-intensive and high-tech — essentially it has all the drawbacks investors don’t want to see.
In 2020 we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alberta government. The deal was simple, it was: “If TransPod doesn’t need public money and is willing to attract private investment to the province, we can support you to develop your project.” After that, we started to have some traction with financial institutions, which led to our announcement last March that Broughton Capital, a private financial entity from the U.K., committed to provide the initial half a billion dollars for the project. So now we’re seeing a snowball effect where money attracts money. We now have a clear path to commercialization.
At the end of 2022, the Dallas region approved an initial line to connect Dallas to Arlington. Since that’s a relatively short stretch, we’re bringing the project to the state government level to extend the line to St. Antonio.
Gendron: Yes and no. After all those years, we’re cautious. Even if everything is signed, until the money is in the bank account, it’s not a done deal. With the funding, there is a path forward. But the work is complex. We still need to get authorization for the construction permit and land acquisition.
Gendron: The half a billion in funding is to build the first segment of five to 10 kilometres between the Edmonton airport and the south end of the city. This will demonstrate that our system is safe to transport passengers and goods. This year, the work is mainly administrative: getting construction permits, public consultations, land acquisition. There’s also the cost infrastructure and estimates. We aim to finish all that this year, with the objective to kick off construction in 2024. The hope is to have that line running by the end of 2026. And in parallel, we have to develop the technology so that when that first segment is ready, we have a full-scale vehicle ready to be tested.
Gendron: By shrinking distances, you can save costs, improve security, improve everyone’s lives and create a more sustainable mode of transportation. If we have that system between Calgary and Edmonton, which will reduce the travel time by two hours, you’ll be able to save time during your day, rather than being stuck in traffic. It’s protected from weather elements. It’s safer than an airplane because it’s at ground level and you don’t have issues with crossings.
Janzen: Our highways and roads have a fundamental limit for how many vehicles they can support — the world needs true hardware innovations. We really need to look at breakthroughs.
MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full portrait series here.
Photography: Jenna Marie Wakani