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What Could an Environmental Assessment for a Hyperloop Look Like?

2017 has been a year of big ideas in transportation taking steps towards becoming a reality.


The conversation on autonomous vehicles has advanced from ‘what if’ to ‘what next’ as Canada tested a driverless car on the streets of Ottawa. Several major transit projects are advancing across the country, with the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension due to open in under a month. The Province of Ontario also recently formed its Planning Advisory Board to advance the development of High Speed Rail (HSR) between Windsor and Toronto. 

And then there is Hyperloop One. What at first seemed to be a pipe dream (or perhaps more appropriately, a ‘low pressure tube’ dream) has seen proof of concept, around a quarter of a billion dollars reportedly invested, and now has a final shortlist of ten potential routes. One of those routes would see Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal connected in only 39 minutes.

Let’s assume the technology works and is shown to be contextually feasible, that the requisite governance and delivery mechanisms are in place, and that the political and social will exist to see Canada’s two largest cities and its capital connected in less time than it takes to watch your favourite Netflix show. These are admittedly critical assumptions that will need to be proven or otherwise. However, taking an optimistic stance, what would it then take to get a hyperloop off (or maybe under) the ground from an Environmental Assessment (EA) perspective?

One of the aforementioned big ideas is HSR and this may offer some initial insight. With the formation of the HSR Planning Advisory Board, the focus is set to turn to the EA process in 2018. Early recommendations suggest that a combination of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA 2012) and the provincial Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP) would apply to HSR. The manner in which the two processes would be integrated is to be established.

Toronto to Montreal was picked as finalist for world’s first hyperloop route (Source: Hyperloop One)


CEAA 2012 and the TPAP therefore seem like reasonable places to start in understanding what an EA for a hyperloop might follow, with HSR perhaps being the closest tangible comparison. At the federal level, CEAA 2012 and its Regulations Designating Physical Activities does not specifically cover hyperloop technology. HSR is clearly eligible as it is a railway line designed for trains with an average speed of over 200 kilometres per hour. Similarly, while heavy rail is an eligible activity under the TPAP, a hyperloop is not addressed. A potential solution to these issues of eligibility may be to amend CEAA 2012 and the TPAP to introduce hyperloop technology. This would undoubtedly be a very progressive step, but it would also require an explicit confirmation at the federal and provincial levels of government that hyperloop forms a key part of our future transportation system and is not simply a one-off.

The provincial Individual EA (IEA) process is another potential avenue. This process is typically reserved for larger, complex projects with significant potential effects – all surely hallmarks of a hyperloop – but as such, requires a more detailed and complex assessment process than either CEAA 2012 or the TPAP. Some of Ontario’s biggest infrastructure projects have followed the IEA process, such as the Highway 407 East Extension. One of the benefits of this approach is that a Terms of Reference (TOR) is required, which provides an opportunity to clearly establish what the study will cover; therefore allowing the parameters of a hyperloop IEA to be defined by the proponent. Since this would require approval by the provincial government and involvement of key stakeholders, the TOR would establish the path forward. This would be a highly valuable and necessary step in developing an appropriate approach to fulfilling EA Act requirements for a hyperloop, which has simply never been done before. The IEA is also not founded on prescribed definitions of eligible projects like CEAA 2012 and the TPAP, but rather focuses on the potential environmental effects of the project, which is another possible reason why an IEA may be more appropriate for a hyperloop.

There is an obvious need to consider what additional legislation applies in Quebec given the eastern terminus is proposed to be located in Montreal. Here, a good starting place for further research may be to review the requirements of the Environment Quality Act and its Regulation respecting environmental impact assessment review.

The key point remains, however, that well-understood approaches to assess more traditional transit projects are not really set up to tackle non-traditional infrastructure such as a hyperloop. In the absence of amending applicable legislation accordingly, or following the IEA process, another solution may be to undertake a custom-made EA process for hyperloop technology. In this instance, a TOR would also be required to establish a framework that satisfies the relevant federal and provincial legislation, but is tailored to specifically understand the potential effects and mitigation required for a hyperloop. This custom-made approach may be particularly useful given the cross-provincial considerations. It may also provide an opportunity to set the framework for future hyperloop studies or other innovative transportation projects.

A rendering of the TransPod hyperloop on a track leading to downtown Toronto (source: CBC)


Any future EA process would evidently require a public and stakeholder engagement program that captures the fact that the hyperloop would span over 600 kilometres in length, crossing countless rural and urban areas, impacting numerous key environmental features, and requiring meaningful and respectful dialogue across both Anglophone and Francophone populations, as well as with Indigenous communities. With respect to engagement strategies at this macro-level, a potential reference point may be EAs conducted for transmission lines or pipelines, which are often hundreds of kilometres in length and affect multiple stakeholder groups and jurisdictions.

Outside of the confines of the EA, the Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) or other P3 models offer a potential delivery framework for a hyperloop, bringing together the public and private sectors to design, finance and procure infrastructure projects of this scale. This model has been successfully used to deliver many of the major recent transit projects in Ontario, in part likely because they involve more traditional projects covered by existing EA processes. With respect to a hyperloop, our most innovative minds need to come together to determine how a new technology such as this can be effectively delivered.

Clearly, the discussion over hyperloop will evolve over a number of years. The time between an initial inception of an idea and its implementation, even for existing modes of transportation, has been shown to take decades in some instances. In addition, during this period, much may change in the regulatory framework that may help or hinder its development. To this end, the Government of Canada has already embarked upon an extensive review of the federal EA process and practitioners across the country await the outcome with respect to future regulatory and policy changes.

This article really only scratches the surface, but it attempts to start the conversation on how to ground this big idea in reality by discussing how the EA process may be shaped to help facilitate this unique and exciting opportunity.


About the Author

James Jarrett
Manager, Planning
Ottawa, Ontario

James is the Planning Manager in Ottawa and is a Registered Professional Planner in Ontario. With over 11 years of environmental and transportation planning experience in Canada and the UK, he has led a number of Environmental Assessment (EA) studies, primarily focusing on major transit projects. James is currently WSP’s EA Lead for Metrolinx’s transformational Regional Express Rail (RER) program.