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More Than a Pipe Dream
Photo courtesy of Ryan Janzen
Alumni

More Than a Pipe Dream

Ryan Janzen is developing a new kind of transportation that could revolutionize intercity travel – and he wants to be the first to ride it

Imagine travelling from Toronto to Montreal in 45 minutes, without flying, for less than it costs to take the plane. Ryan Janzen believes that “tube transportation” – a new technology that advocates say will whisk streetcar-sized pods filled with cargo or people down metal tubes at almost the speed of sound – could be in operation somewhere in the world by 2030. Janzen (BASc 2005, MASc 2008), the co-founder of TransPod, a company racing to develop the technology, hopes to see lines one day connect major cities such as Toronto and Montreal. He spoke to us recently about what he envisions, and walked us through how the low-carbon technology works.

Will travelling on TransPod feel any different than flying in an airplane?
Riding TransPod, you will have the same feeling as when a jet accelerates down the runway – of being pressed into your seat – but for a longer period of time. At cruising speed, it’s designed to feel smooth, like a levitated high-speed train. There won’t be any windows. The cabin design has full-colour display panels along the sides of the fuselage that will show the scenery passing outside. We’re also working with a company to create optics that render sunlight – and even the moon and stars – to give it an open-air feeling.

Besides taking me where I’m going faster, how will this change the way I travel?
When you fly in a jet, you might book your ticket weeks, or even months, in advance. Despite this, there’s a risk that your flight could be cancelled or delayed. The TransPod system will be a more casual, spontaneous experience. If you decide one morning you want to take a trip to Montreal, you can go to the station, pay for your ticket and wait a few minutes for the next vehicle to pull up to the platform. Then you arrive in Montreal, walk around and be able to return to Toronto in time for dinner.

What effect will this have on how we live?
Here’s just one example: A cheaper and easier form of long-distance travel will allow for greater collaborations between people in different cities. Online meetings have their limits when it comes to teamwork among research labs, universities and businesses. People need the option of being able to physically work together, even if they live far apart. There’s much to be said for human contact.

How will TransPod compare to air travel on carbon emissions?
Jet aircraft use fossil fuel because it’s compact and energy-dense. They consume a huge amount of this fuel at the beginning of a flight, during ascent. So short-haul flights use a lot of fuel for the distance travelled. Transpod is powered by electricity, and does not use any fossil fuels on board. A TransPod line can also carry freight, reducing the need for cargo jets and trucks, which pollute.

What impact will Transpod have on the land it passes through?
The farming community in Ontario has expressed concern about the high-speed rail proposal from London to Toronto, because the rail tracks usually cut across, and divide, farms. A TransPod line is designed with elevated supports, so farmers can drive a tractor right under it.

Critics say the tube’s metal will expand and change shape in the heat of the sun, or that even a small hole will cause it to collapse due to low internal air pressure. What’s your response to these concerns?
You could similarly suggest that we should never fly in an aircraft, because it might break in half. Just like building a jet aircraft or a new train, you have to follow proper engineering safety design. All the TransPod vehciles are following the European Cooperation for Space Standardization, a very strict safety protocol.

Does the pushback bother you?
No, it’s a good thing. As we’ve been working on this, people from every field – whether public policy or electrical engineering or railway – have had different doubts or criticisms, which helps us better refine what we’re doing and improve our business case. It would be bad if you worked in a bubble. Just like in the academic world, you have to have peer review.

What are your plans for testing?
We’ve submitted a construction permit to build a test track in the French countryside, where we’re preapring to reach over 500 km/h. The speed will be increased to over 1,000 km/h in a full-scale track. I have a rule that the company’s top executives and engineers, including myself, be the first to ride it. After years of testing, once we receive certification, we’ll be ready for the general public.

What’s the biggest hurdle standing in the way of making this a reality?
The main one is finding enough funding to make a prototype. So far, our funding comes from both the private and public sectors. The dream is to make this the next Canadarm or Candu nuclear reactor – major Canadian projects that were exported to the world.

What odds do you give that this new form of transportation will get built?
The odds are very high that, somewhere in the world, people will be riding tube transportation by 2030. But I doubt a line in Canada will be built first. We’re also working in Europe and doing preliminary designs for the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

If tube transportation is built in Canada, where might the first line be?
There is interest in Alberta, for a line between Calgary and Edmonton, and we’re in talks with Government of Alberta about building a test centre there.

When did your desire to invent begin?
I’ve been making things since childhood. I grew up in Kingsville, Ontario, and had a forest playhouse. At age eight, I decided to wire it with electronics and underground cables so I could control sounds and lights in the woods to entertain my cousins. Coming into U of T as an undergrad in engineering science was a great time to step back and look more closely at pure mathematics and physics.

Did this help?
Definitely. Understanding core principles, and not just blindly applying a certain equation or method, frees your mind from being boxed-in by what everyone else is already doing. For the TransPod team, it’s been important to find people who can think this way. You need the kind of people have created something completely new from the ground up.

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