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Hyperloop race hots up as startup takes on Elon Musk

Toronto-based TransPod hoping to attract US$50m for its own version of the technology, which it says is better and cheaper

Paris

A CANADIAN startup is the latest contender in the race to build a super-fast transportation system to rival futuristic projects backed by Tesla Inc chief Elon Musk and British tycoon Richard Branson.

TransPod wants to attract US$50 million for its own version of hyperloop technology, designed to ferry passengers at speeds of more than 1,000 kph.

The Toronto-based company is planning to build a half-size prototype near Limoges in central France by next year, using a concept that is "better" than a concept put forth by Mr Musk, said TransPod chief executive officer Sebastien Gendron.

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The tube-based transport technology known as hyperloop is gaining traction after Mr Musk first theorised it in 2013. It has since sprouted a number of competing versions aimed at linking cities at far faster speeds than existing bullet trains in Europe, Japan and China.

The Branson-backed Virgin Hyperloop One is testing in Nevada; a California-based company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is planning to build a test track in southern France.

Mr Musk's SpaceX is organising hyperloop design competitions after building a 1.6 km long system near its California headquarters.

TransPod's Mr Gendron said: "Musk's concept is brilliant, but it's filled with errors. We have a more modest, but also cheaper and regulation-oriented approach."

The company's patented technology will use magnetic propulsion and electrified tracks to move pods through a 3.2 km long vacuum tunnel designed to reduce friction.

The pods will resemble airplanes without wings.

Mr Musk's idea was different. Five years ago, he had planned to transport pods on air bearings, a method used by industry to move heavy objects.

TransPod's system would be cheaper than Mr Musk's version, said Mr Gendron, who previously worked for Airbus SE and Bombardier Inc.

Costs would be contained by using existing technology for plane fuselage and pressurised cabins and could work out to about 20 million euros (S$32.3 million) per km, or a third cheaper than a high-speed train to connect Paris to Frankfurt, he said.

The Limoges test track will be designed to allow pods to run as fast as 600 kph, which is more than France's fast TGV train, but slower than the ultimate goal of more than 1,000 kph.

Airplanes cruise at around 850 kph.

TransPod is scouting around for sites including near Orleans in France and Calgary, Alberta, to build a full-size model by 2021.

"We're going to disrupt every-thing," Mr Gendron said, predicting that the company's hyperloop would lead to a transformation in the transport sector that would affect airplane manufacturers as well as train operators like Siemens AG and Alstom SA.

"Our approach will outlast the competition. We're in it for the marathon." BLOOMBERG