The Calgary-Edmonton Hyperloop

This Alberta-foused post first appeared on Spur.

I want to propose another pipeline for Alberta.

Only this time, it’s for people.

In 2013 Elon Musk proposed a “new” type of transportation system. I say “new” with quotations because the idea has been around for a while, but Musk has put his own, sensible spin on the situation to try and bring it to reality. He has called this system Hyperloop.

Usually, the first time I explain Hyperloop to someone, they smile wistfully at the idea like I am talking about some crazy invention that might belong best in the movie Tomorrowland. Musk’s choice of a name probably doesn’t help; it sounds like something from a science fiction novel.

Except it’s not science fiction. Just this week, a competition was held very successfully to test out pod designs for the Hyperloop, and companies are starting up to make Musk’s vision a reality.

In short, Hyperloop takes the low-drag advantage gained by high-flying planes and combines it with the low-friction concept of an air hockey table. Low drag and low friction means you can obtain high speeds with relatively little effort.

Hyperloop would allow passengers to travel at speeds of up to 1200km/h in an encapsulated environment. Passengers would ride in 20 person capsules that can depart whenever needed. Another option is to allow personal vehicles to be driven onto a capsule and transported to their destination, though I won’t get into that idea here. For a more detailed description you can read Musk’s report on the SpaceX website.

There are plenty of criticisms of Hyperloop, most of them grounded in Musk’s incredibly low cost estimates, though there is also some worry that people will not find the new technology useful in the long run. This opposition appears to be similar to the opposition to high speed railways, namely that the cost is too high to make it feasible. At the very worst, its cost would be on par with an equivalent high speed rail service.

But to me Hyperloop is truly different than any other transportation system, for a few key reasons:

  • It offers the flexibility of variable frequencyand is demand responsive
  • It has the speed to compete with both vehicle and air travel
  • It is a more isolated system than high speed rail

Let’s explore those reasons using the Calgary-Edmonton corridor as an example.

The Queen Elizabeth Hyperloop

Okay, maybe there’s a better name. Either way, let’s look at what Hyperloop could offer travelers of the Calgary-Edmonton corridor and why I think it might even be more feasible than a high speed rail project between the two cities, despite it’s early technology days.

Right now, there is essentially no long-distance mass transportation system that allows for vehicles to be dispatched whenever. Both planes and trains are scheduled services, they have to be in order to balance people’s desire for some certainty in their travel plans with the need for these services to run mostly full in order to be economically viable.

The Calgary-Edmonton corridor has some unique challenges. There is a large amount of daily business travel by car and plane, despite the airports (Edmonton, especially) being quite a ways from downtown, and not linked by a particularly rapid transit system. The 3 hour drive is just long enough that many people would rather fly, especially for day trips, but just short enough that many people will drive for multi-day and weekend visits. Both cities are relatively car-centric (though this is slowly changing) meaning that many people who travel between the cities are generally inclined to have a car at the other end.

The idea, both with high speed rail and Hyperloop, is that if you can make the journey fast enough and connected with the city cores people will forego having a vehicle at their destination for the ease and speed of travel. Usually, the most useful thing about any inter-city service is its speed, and Hyperloop can offer speeds that compete with most airlines, right into the downtown core.

The difficulty high speed railway faces in this corridor comes from the cost of gathering, maintaining, and allowing safe traversal of the right of way needed for a competitive service. There is a lot of farmland that would be expensive to purchase, and many overpasses (or underpasses) that would have to be built. Not to mention the amount of wildlife that exists along the corridor that would either be cut off or be a risk both ecologically and operationally. That’s not to say it’s not a feasible project, but it’s one that has been looked at a number of times.

Hyperloop would have a lot less of an impact. The vision is to have a sort of “raised pipeline” that capsules travel in; these could traverse areas a lot easier than railway without having to purchase large swaths of land (think: large power lines). It also makes traversing existing roads fairly easy. The system itself is isolated, so there is little risk of wildlife (or people) interfering with the operation of the system.

A rendering of the raised Hyperloop infrastructure [Wikimedia]

Another advantage is the flexibility of the small capsule size. For example, we could hold a capsule at a station until full, or until it has waited a fixed amount of time. In this way, we can guarantee a certain frequency during periods of low travel demand, but you can add in capsules as needed – something you cannot easily do at an airport or on a high speed rail, for example. Musk proposes security screening similar to an airport, which would leave plenty of time to set up extra capsules if the demand spikes unexpectedly. Airlines aren’t able to scramble another plane and crew that quickly. People only rarely show up at the airport and want to buy a ticket for the next flight; Hyperloop customers are intended to do exactly that.

This variable frequency, combined with the two-station travel (Musk does propose potential stops along the way if needed – I’m not convinced that’s the right direction), is a transit operation theoretician’s dream. The ability to respond instantly to a single demand source will put this mode of mass transportation on a whole new level, and that in turn will draw more people to it. One major advantage of travel by car is that it’s ready to go when you are. If Hyperloop can offer this convenience, that’s a major advantage.

There are still plenty of technical challenges ahead for Hyperloop, but progress it being made. Musk is helping the whole process by keeping the patents and research open for anyone to use. If his past success is any indicator, Hyperloop will be a viable technology sooner than later.

The Hyperloop is my kind of pipeline approval.

This post was adapted from this original post on Klumpentown

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