Hovering, driverless trains, with technology usually meant for high speeds hardly seems practical for a city zoo, but Toronto’s is poised to get one free of charge. Here’s why.
Robin Hale, the Toronto Zoo’s chief operating officer, remembers riding the Domain Ride and is often asked whether the Zoo plans to bring it back. Better known as the monorail, the distinctive ride opened with the Zoo in 1976 and travelled along a 5-kilometre concrete guideway in a loop around the grounds. But after a couple of severe accidents in the early 90s and financial inability to ensure its safety, the Zoo closed the ride. Now, more than 20 years later, the Zoo is considering bringing back the monorail, complete with some significant, notably futuristic, upgrades.
In 2014, Edmonton-based company Magnovate began courting the Toronto Zoo with the proposition to retrofit the old guideway, equipping it with a magnetic levitation (maglev) train. The new technology would feature sleek, driverless single vehicles hovering above an electromagnetic track. Two years after approaching the Zoo, Magnovate submitted a full proposal in March.
The plan outlines how the company would rebuild a section of the original guideway loop, construct maglev rails, and get 12 vehicles up and running and powered by solar panels on the stations and infrastructure. The estimated price tag: $25 million for Magnovate, at no cost to the Zoo or the city.
Magnovate pitched the idea on April 7 to the Zoo’s Board of Management, which approved it for the next stage: an open call for proposals. The procedure invites other companies to make a better offer than the unsolicited bid, which Magnovate could match or exceed—a procurement process known as a Swiss Bid.
While this has given both Magnovate and the Toronto Zoo cause for big hopes and dreams, both parties are careful to emphasize the remaining uncertainty. “Really, we got the green light from the Board to trigger a competitive process,” says Toronto Zoo CEO John Tracogna. “We’re not, at this point, evaluating this one proposal; it has triggered this process, so that’s where we are at the moment.” Or, as Hale puts it, “It’s not a commitment to necessarily go ahead with the ride if it isn’t judged in the end analysis to be in the interest of the Zoo.”
That includes meeting a few “subject to” clauses that come with the Board’s approval. Subject to Magnovate’s bid surviving the open call for proposals; subject to terms negotiated by the Board; subject to proof Magnovate can fully finance the project. There’s a lot of conditions to meet, and many questions to answer before approval.
What we do know is that most of the $25 million will be directed toward phase two of the project, with $7.5 million for the magnetic tracks, $4 million for guideway work, and another $4 million to build the vehicles. Where does Magnovate intend to get its funding? Magnovate CEO Dan Corns says not much government funding exists for mass transit technologies—especially when it’s for recreational use—but his company is aiming for $15 million from the government, mostly through Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC). “If there are other government sources that we identify, then possibly there could be a stronger contribution from government,” says Corns.
The other $10 million would come from private funding: a combination of equity and project financing. Magnovate has letters of interest from prospective financial partners. And Corns is confident about the estimated budget. “We’ve built in heavy contingencies, and we’ve based our cost estimate on, in some cases, multiple quotes for the manufacturing.”
Maglev train technology’s price tag is one reason he believes Canada hasn’t invested in the industry the way Asian and European countries have. But since maglev has now been around for a couple generations, the technology is less expensive. Founded in 2012, Magnovate is part of a consortium of big players like Lockheed Martin, PCL Construction, Stantec Engineering, and Magna International, that’s developing technology for high-speed trains capable of travelling up to 500 kilometres per hour.
What drew this high-power consortium to the Toronto Zoo is more than the remaining guideway. In 2014, before contacting Hale, Magnovate considered building a test track at the University of Alberta. Prototypes were ready for a commercial deployment. But Corns says the SDTC told them they’d have a better shot at funding in a more realistically commercial setting; the Toronto Zoo’s high potential ridership numbers from its beloved scrapped Domain Ride signalled a promising test market.
One of Magnovate’s goals is demonstrating its maglev technology and establishing an industry in Canada. But Magnovate also has clients overseas in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. “Toronto is a fairly convenient place in Canada for our first-adopter customers to fly over and validate the technology,” Corns says.
The Zoo also seeks to gain from the proposed project. Magnovate’s proposal says it will oversee operation and maintenance for the first five years. During that time, the company will also split the ride’s revenue fifty-fifty (at $12 a ticket, the ride would earn an estimated $4.5 million in annual revenue). Tracogna says the Zoo is currently re-evaluating its master plan for the first time in 25 years. Part of that is developing the Zoo’s sustainability and accessibility. The Magline could allow those with mobility challenges to access the far reaches of the zoo and view what both Tracogna and Hale call the most beautiful part of the Rouge Valley. “One of the primary functions of the Zoo is conservation and education,” says Hale. “We have the opportunity to take people on a tour through the Rouge Valley—on a train, they’re sort of a captive audience.” And the added revenue could support research, species reintroduction, and species breeding.
But for all its potential benefits, the Toronto Zoo is still cautious. “If no one else is stepping forward, then we’ll get into more of a due diligence and a deeper dive into this particular proponent,” says Tracogna. The current timeline places the end of the open call for proposals in June, in time for the Board’s next meeting. He says the Zoo would call in outside experts to evaluate the proposal at that stage. At the end of the day, Tracogna says the Board could still take a pass. “All those options are on the table at the moment.”
At this point, Corns isn’t aware of any other companies that might make a bid; he says he’ll address that when (and if) it happens. The Zoo proposal is currently Magnovate’s primary effort, but the company also has a number of preliminary projects in the States and solidified interest overseas.
It’s a long way from here to a gliding, friction-free sweep around the Canadian Domain and Americas Pavilion, but that’s just right to Hale. The Zoo regularly receives unsolicited proposals, but this one is unprecedented. “It’s very significant to us,” he says. “We’re going to do this right and make sure this is in the best interest of the Zoo.”