In 1904, a student at worcester polytechnic institute named Robert Goddard wrote a paper on the subject of “travelling in 1950.” Under the spell of sci-fi writers like H. G. Wells, Goddard had long been fascinated by the idea of space travel, but in this paper, he proposed something both earthbound and otherworldly: a steel vacuum tube in which passengers could be zipped around at impossibly high speeds in small vehicles.

Thrust, Goddard argued, can occur in a vacuum; the vehicles would be driven by the attraction and repulsion of electromagnets. At a moment when cars were just in the ascendant and commercial jet travel still decades away, it seemed like an outlandish—even magical—idea. But Goddard believed that once it came to fruition, it would be “the fastest possible travel for living bodies on the earth’s surface.”

Goddard would go on to design and build the first liquid-fuelled rocket and become known as the father of modern rocketry. His vacuum-tube system, however, would not appear in 1950. Nor would it appear in 1960 or 1970 or even 2000. While dozens of engineers as well as inventors with various eccentricities and accomplishments flocked to the idea and the odd company tried to develop it—the U.S.’s ET3 and Switzerland’s Swissmetro SA came closest—it seemed destined to remain a kooky footnote in the history of 20th-century transportation.

Elon Musk speaking at the SpaceX hyperloop competition in 2017 wearing a black shirt and standing in front of a hyperloop train
Elon Musk speaks to participants at the SpaceX hyperloop competition in California on January 29, 2017 (Photograph: Gene Blevins / Getty Images)

And then along came Elon Musk. In 2013, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO—no stranger to kookiness himself—published a 58-page white paper that revived and refined Goddard’s original vision. Musk called his open-source concept a “hyperloop,” proposing a near-supersonic tube-and-capsule line that would whisk passengers from L.A. to San Francisco in 35 minutes (compared to six hours by car). He likened the system to an improbable combination of the Concorde, an air-hockey table and a rail gun. Perfected and properly rolled out, he wrote, the hyperloop would be a faster, cheaper and cleaner alternative to flying, driving or high-speed rail.

The paper outlined obvious obstacles to such a system (it’s almost impossible to create a vacuum in a 350-mile-long tube; how would you power such a thing?) but also some possible solutions: create a near-vacuum instead and put solar panels on top of the tube. Musk said he was too busy to build the hyperloop, but he invited others to try. In the summer of 2015, he announced a competition, and more than 700 student teams from around the world submitted prototype designs. (The competition took place several times, and a team from a university in Munich won on multiple occasions.)

In theory, a hyperloop could, obviously, move people more quickly than ever before. Its evangelists claimed it would completely transform how we live, work, even think. It could allow you to work in, say, Ottawa, shoot down to Toronto for dinner and a show and get home for a reasonable bedtime. Or perhaps you could work in Mississauga but live in Montreal. It could, eventually, give North America a continent-wide subway system, with stops from Halifax to Houston, Anchorage to Albuquerque. It could reduce housing prices, alleviate overcrowding and redraw or even obliterate borders. It could, most significantly, curb carbon emissions. Eliminate the need for short-haul air travel, power your hyperloop with renewables and, voila, you have a cleantech miracle for the transportation sector.

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Musk’s hype seemed to launch a thousand hyperloop start-ups. From the beginning, they were well capitalized and extraordinarily ambitious, promising to revolutionize the world in just a few short years. Like with the space race, companies and countries feverishly jockeyed to get there first.

There was HyperloopTT in L.A., led by Jumpstarter founder Dirk Ahlborn; Nevomo in Poland; and Zeleros in Spain. Firms breathlessly announced plans for networks in India and the Great Lakes region. The highest-profile start-up (or at least the one with the most money) was Hyperloop Technologies, co-founded by the controversial venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar and former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan. Later known as Hyperloop One and then, in 2017, after Richard Branson joined the board, rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop, it became the first company to successfully move people, speeding a couple of employees along a test track in Nevada in 2020. Days after this, the Korea Railroad Research Institute announced that it had achieved a speed of more than 1,000 kilometres an hour in a scale model “hyper-tube train.” In 2021, South Korea said it would launch a hyperloop line between Seoul and Busan sometime in 2024.

Sebastien Gendron, the founder of TransPod, standing next to his technology at his Toronto office

Sebastien Gendron, the founder of TransPod, says the company’s hyperloop system will zip passengers between Calgary and Edmonton in 45 minutes (Photograph: Janick Laurent)

A tiny Canadian company called TransPod is hot on its heels, poised to build North America’s first hyperloop network. Founded in 2015 by Sebastien Gendron, a French aerospace engineer, and Ryan Janzen, a researcher and inventor, TransPod has been slowly but surely raising capital, perfecting its design and grappling with regulations. Three years ago, the start-up signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alberta government for a hyperloop line that would carry both cargo and people between the Calgary and Edmonton airports. It normally takes about three hours to drive between the two cities and an hour to fly; TransPod passengers would zip across that distance in just 45 minutes. Not only that, but the project, which TransPod said would take 10 years to build, promises to create up to 140,000 jobs and reduce Alberta’s carbon emissions by 636,000 tonnes a year.

The memorandum spurred a whole new scale of investment. In March of 2022, the Broughton Capital Group, a U.K.-based debt financier, in co-operation with China-East Resources Import and Export Co., or CERIECO, ponied up US$550 million. A few months later, in July, TransPod unveiled a scale prototype of the FluxJet, its proprietary hyperloop vehicle, which Gendron describes as an “airplane without wings.” If all goes well, according to Gendron, the province will have an operational intercity hyperloop line by 2035.

“When everyone’s going left, I go right”

In person, Gendron is disarmingly modest, clear-headed and decidedly unkooky—the anti-Musk. He’s an excellent pitchman: persuasive but not pushy, all seduction and no smarm. His gentle demeanour belies an almost quixotic belief in hyperloop technology and a unique determination. Like all hyperloop companies, TransPod has run into its share of obstacles: lack of investment, derisive skepticism, governmental indifference. But all this has only emboldened Gendron, who sees in the FluxJet not just a way to change the course of modern transportation but also a vehicle that will galvanize innovation and greater risk-taking. “I’m not good with the status quo,” he said. “When everyone’s going left, I go right.” With TransPod, Gendron isn’t just going right: He’s travelling into uncharted territory.

TransPod’s current headquarters are in a modest building at the edge of Liberty Village, in Toronto’s west end. The company occupies half the space; the other side is taken up by a virtual-golf-practice facility. It’s a compelling 21st-century contrast: On one side, scientists are strenuously trying to make real something that’s only ever existed in the imagination; on the other, real-life duffers are improving their handicaps on computer-generated driving ranges and putting greens.

I met Gendron at the office in late February. When I arrived, he immediately whisked me into a lounge area where we sat on black couches. The real action was to our immediate right. There, taking up over half the airy office space, was a long metal scaffolding upon which rested the prototype version of the FluxJet. It looked like a gleaming white missile, with a hatch open to expose the guts of one of its engines. A couple of engineers periodically poked and prodded the thing, as if it were a zoo animal they were trying to rouse from sleep.

The now 43-year-old Gendron moved to Canada in 2010, but his French accent is undiminished. The day we met, he looked ready for a windswept trip on a yacht: long-sleeved T-shirt with pale-blue stripes, jaunty brown boots. While he’s certainly capable of a Gallic moue—particularly when talking about unimaginative, risk-averse governments—he is more likely to be cordial and self-effacing. After we sat down, he started to offer me coffee before remembering that they had run out.

An annotated illustration of TransPod's high speed rail technology. The design is inspired by Elon Musk's hyperloop network
Elon Musk’s hyperloop concept has inspired companies around the world. TransPod is poised to build North America’s first hyperloop network. (Illustration: Chris Philpot)

Gendron spent much of his childhood in Brittany, but his parents, who worked in the hospitality industry, moved the family often—West Africa, Singapore, South Korea. As a kid, he loved all the flying and dreamed of becoming a jet-fighter pilot. When he got older, that fantasy morphed into something more practical. Gendron became an aerospace engineer, eventually finding work with Airbus in Toulouse. But after a few years, he felt constrained. He was not, as he says, “a good employee.” He got to work on planes, which he enjoyed, but he loathed the culture of the corporate world and was dismayed that so many of his colleagues were simply working for the weekend, coasting along until they retired. He also didn’t like being told what to do, being a cog in a massive machine. “The conventional life—I’m not happy with that,” he told me.

When the opportunity to do something even just a bit different came, he grabbed it, taking a job at Bombardier in Montreal in 2010. Just a few weeks in, though, he was unhappy again. A couple of years later, he transferred to Bombardier’s plant in Downsview, in north Toronto. But by then, he had already begun plotting his exit.

He wanted to start his own company, to do something big and meaningful. At one point, he considered starting a discount airline, something that he felt Canada didn’t really have. Then he stumbled across videos showing the vacuum-train concept developed by Swissmetro SA in the late ’90s. It was a proposed underground-transit system that would have connected Switzerland’s main cities using electric motors and magnetic levitation. To Gendron, as to most people, the technology seemed too good to be true. “When you look at it for the first time, it’s like science fiction,” he told me. In Swissmetro SA’s case, it was too good to be true; when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the company was wiped out.

A few years later, however, Gendron met a researcher named Ryan Janzen, who’d done pioneering work in electric-vehicle propulsion and sensory perception, among other things. Both understood the technology, but Janzen was the technical and design whiz. Gendron, meanwhile, had the soft skills—he knew how things were financed and built, how to structure a company and how to lobby.

“Everybody wants to invest when the risk is gone”

When Musk’s hyperloop competition was announced, Gendron thought it was the perfect way to put these skills to the test. Though not Musk’s biggest fan, Gendron knew that his imprimatur and investment gave the whole vactrain concept some badly needed legitimacy. In their spare time, Gendron and Janzen began researching and sketching out a design. At the very least, they might get some money out of Musk and Gendron could start his company.

That didn’t pan out, though, because Musk later changed the rules of the competition, making only student teams eligible. But by then, Gendron and Janzen had what they thought was a viable design. It was also unique. Every hyperloop system has three key components: power transmission, levitation and propulsion. Janzen figured out that in a low-pressure environment like a vacuum, air conducts enough electricity to fully power a vehicle. The levitation would be created through the precisely controlled repulsion and attraction force of electromagnets embedded on the top of the vehicle itself, with four engines on the bottom. (Other hyperloop systems use maglev, or magnetic levitation, but their magnets are located on the vehicle and on the tube, a process that’s already used on some high-speed trains and that Gendron argues is far more expensive.) The propulsion, meanwhile, would come from linear-induction motors comparable to the ones used in Vancouver’s SkyTrain.

The electrified vehicles would be enclosed pods, zipping through an opaque steel tube built high above ground. The pods would accommodate up to 54 passengers or be used to ship up to 10 tonnes of cargo. Though the pods would travel at speeds of up to 1,000 kilometres an hour, they would be completely safe and comfortable. Ticket prices would be cheaper than air travel—going from Toronto to Montreal would cost about $100. The price tag (as of this writing anyway) would be US$18 billion for the first network, which includes $30 million for infrastructure, $30 million for land and construction and $60 million per kilometre of track.

Gendron left Bombardier and, with Janzen, co-founded TransPod in 2015 to commercialize their design. A couple of months later, the start-up made the front page of the Toronto Star business section, suggesting it would have a working model by 2020. A hyperbolic headline promised 30-minute travel from Toronto to Montreal. Invitations to present TransPod’s design came, followed by US$15 million in seed investment from Angelo Investments, an Italian VC firm.

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TransPod embarked on studies—in 2017, the company said it could build a line from Toronto to Windsor for half the cost of a high-speed rail line—and, in 2019, announced the construction of a three-kilometre-long test track and additional research facility near Limoges, France. After the initial seed money, securing additional capital was difficult. They received some support from the European Regional Development Fund but little other government funding. Shovels didn’t go into the ground in Limoges until 2022, when the company began building a research centre and test track.

Like any unproven technology, hyperloop was polarizing. While proponents like Musk and Branson touted its revolutionary societal benefits, equally vocal skeptics argued that the whole thing was yet another techno-futurist fever dream, an absurdly expensive, overhyped distraction from the unglamorous, necessary work of improving existing public transit and infrastructure. A 2020 Transport Canada report concluded that hyperloop was not ready for prime time. Even when the FluxJet was first revealed last year, some pundits continued to question the viability of the tech. On the Transport Action Canada blog, Michael Olivier, a founder of the South Etobicoke Transit Action Committee, called TransPod “vapourware”—that is, still only conceptual.

An image of TransPod's FluxJet, which is part of the high-speed rail network

The FluxJet (above) is what Gendron calls “an airplane without wings” (Photograph: Janick Laurent)

Shoshanna Saxe, a professor in the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure, insists that whether or when the technology does work is irrelevant. “We have this really great invention called public transit,” she says. “It’s totally revolutionary and amazing and has been around for decades.” Properly funded high-speed rail, she says, would solve the same problems that TransPod purports to be solving: reducing GHGs and moving people more quickly. The investment TransPod received could be put to good use now, she argues, rather than diverted into tech whose theoretical existence seems far in the distant future. “It’s much more effective to roll out existing technologies because we know how to build them,” Saxe says. “People know how to use them. There’s robust manufacturing and supply chains. When you’re switching to something new, you have to rebuild all those things from scratch.”

Other industry experts see TransPod as yet another form of high-speed rail but one that’s more thrilling and potentially transformative. “Finally, there’s a little bit of sex appeal in our rail sector,” says Josipa Petrunic, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium, a non-profit devoted to sustainable transportation options. “We, as Canadians, have just been desperately underserved by rail. We’ve let it atrophy. And TransPod is at the highest end of passenger-rail innovation.” Petrunic says that while TransPod will be in competition with short-haul air travel and shipping, it will likely be beholden to rail’s regulatory framework, and its infrastructure will be built in the same place as rail corridors. Indeed, one condition of TransPod’s deal with Broughton and CERIECO is that if the technology ultimately fails, TransPod will be required to build a conventional high-speed rail line so that the investors can recoup at least some of their money. “You know, 10,000 things might go wrong,” says Petrunic. “The money might not materialize. But at least we’re talking about rail as a viable solution as opposed to aerospace or auto.”

To get the FluxJet to market, admitted Gendron, the company still has at least three to five years of work to do—mostly design phases to demonstrate the vehicle’s safety. But when I brought up the various criticisms of the project that I’d heard and read, Gendron quickly batted them away, basically saying any haters could come down to the TransPod office and see what they were up to for themselves. The ultimate proof, he argued, is in the financial pudding. “Developing cleantech is nice,” he said. “But investors are not giving out blank cheques.” To raise the money they had raised, in other words, they had to adequately prove both that their technology could work and that they had a sound business model. The first was still to a certain extent an article of faith, a work-in-progress. But the second, when Gendron patiently broke it down, seemed to be common sense. Conventional high-speed rail is great, he argued, but it is also, in many parts of the world, an unprofitable public service and, consequently, subsidized by government. For high-speed rail to be built in Canada, it too would require a lot of taxpayer investment to build out the infrastructure. TransPod, in contrast, is willing to take on all the risk.

“Finally, there’s a little bit of sex appeal in our rail sector”

And the company would, according to Gendron at least, be profitable—eventually. TransPod would be able to repay the US$18 billion in finance debt within 20 years through a combination of cargo and passenger revenue. Conventional passenger rail can only make revenue through its ridership, so TransPod plans to keep its vehicles full almost 24-7, serving passengers during regular commuting times and shipping packages at all other times. The company is currently in talks with DHL Canada about a possible partnership. It also expects to get an initial safety certificate from Transport Canada for a vehicle running at 200 kilometres an hour by 2027 or 2028, a threshold that will give investors like Broughton enough of a guarantee that higher speeds, and a longer network, will be feasible. In turn, Broughton would extend much more financing. Other institutional investors would too. Already, Gendron said, the large pension funds were starting to line up. “Everybody wants to invest when the risk is gone,” he said.

When I first met with Gendron, he’d just returned from a trip to Dubai. He looked exhausted. While the Alberta line appeared to be moving ahead as planned, they were hardly going to stop there. Once the tech is up and running and clearly viable, work will begin, ideally, on networks they want to build in other parts of the world: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, perhaps Australia. Toward the end of 2022, the company got approval for another corridor, between Dallas and Arlington, Tex., and it’s hoping to extend that all the way to San Antonio.

There is a lot to do. The financial worries have, theoretically anyway, subsided, but the company still has a cash burn of $150,000 a month. TransPod has only 20 employees at the moment, and Gendron said they need to hire an additional 50 by the end of the year and between 150 and 200 over the next couple of years. There is also, of course, the competition. While Virgin Hyperloop retreated from its promised passenger service to focus exclusively on cargo, Hyperloop TT continues to pursue a network in the Great Lakes and recently unveiled a second full-scale version of its capsule vehicle. Chinese engineers just successfully tested a high-speed maglev train that travelled at 600 kilometres an hour; it could potentially also be used in vacuum tubes.

I asked Gendron what’s kept him going all these years. He paused for a long time and then finally mentioned his hatred of the status quo again. But it was more than that, he said. He wanted politicians to take more risk—not to write blank cheques but to pursue cutting-edge innovation knowing that it could fail. As a society, he insisted, we lack courage. He wants TransPod to lead by example, to show that we could all be more courageous, more ethical, more curious. He likened the whole journey to playing an extreme sport and finally having the finish line in sight. “We’re in the last mile. It’s not the right time to give up now. It’s so close.”

The future can take a long time. As we talked, the engineers working on the FluxJet prototype banged away, briefly drowning out our conversation. Seconds later, I watched as it moved backwards a few inches. Then it lurched forward a foot and stopped. It looked like it was gathering speed. I waited and watched.

This article appears in print in the Spring 2023 issue of Canadian Business magazine. Buy the issue for $7.99 or better yet, subscribe to the quarterly print magazine for just $40 a year.