The ‘sexy’ near-future of travel? The plan to bring hyperloop to our cities

Hyperloops, which are low-carbon and high-speed, will transform cities and change how we travel. That’s the promise. Can technology deliver?

For a mode of transport promising travel close to the speed of sound, hyperloop – the futuristic, train-in-a-vacuum-tube concept popularised by Elon Musk – sure is taking its time.

Musk’s white paper, published almost a decade ago, imagined connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles – where motorists spend the equivalent of five days a year stuck in gridlocks – via a 380-mile hyperloop taking just 35 minutes.

Since then, millions have been invested in research, modeling, and carrot-dangling feasibility study across the globe, from Edinburgh to Bangalore.

And yet still the world waits – expectantly – watching the departures board.

Hyperloop is currently more than 200 years behind schedule, according to some. In 1799, George Medhurst, a British inventor, invented a steampunk version that used compressed air to move freight through iron pipes.

In modern designs, passenger pods levitate above or hover below magnetic tracks for ‘magic carpet’, friction-free travel. The pods are propelled by vacuum tubes using more (in theory) emission free electromagnetism. They move fluidly through the network under digital command. It is fast, easy to use, and doesn’t require any time restrictions.

To date, a mere handful of passengers have actually travelled by hyperloop – along Virgin’s 500-metre test track in the Nevada desert. They reached 100mph, just half the speed of Eurostar.

Hyperloops

Pods are propelled in vacuum tubes at very high speeds. Virgin Hyperloop

But while some dismiss Musk’s vision as a billionaire’s literal pipedream, plenty more insist that it’s on the way, gathering speed, with an ETA around the end of the decade.

Europe Hardt Hyperloop – one of three global frontrunners – received a €15m (£12.5m) boost from Brussels last October. The cash will be used for research and development projects in the near future. European Hyperloop Centre in Groningen, Netherlands.

Hardt’s pre-feasibility study for a freight and passenger hyperloop between Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam suggests it could take 1,100 trucks a day off the roads, improving air quality, reducing emissions and cutting congestion. The estimate for human cargo is 20,000 passengers per hour.

Hyperloops

Virgin’s 500-metre test track in the Nevada desert. Virgin Hyperloop

Alan James, former Vice President of Business Development Virgin Hyperloop, who consulted for Hardt as well as advised governments on the question that has been on everyone’s lips: How real is this?

“The headline is, it’s a lot closer than almost everybody thinks,” says James, now working for the transport consultancy Expert Alliance.

Key to hyperloop shifting from science fiction into science fact, he explains, is a recent convergence of technology, with the main players – Virgin, Hardt and US-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies – in broad agreement on a number of basic principles.

We’re looking at the evolution of an entirely new mode of transport, one with the speed of a plane, the capacity of a train and the convenience of a tram

“If you take the historical example of rail travel, standardising the width of rails empowered a revolution in mobility,” says James. “In hyperloop, we’re looking at the evolution of an entirely new mode of transport, one with the speed of a plane, the capacity of a train and the convenience of a tram.”

Construction of the Groningen facility is expected to begin in 2012. With over 1.5 miles of tube for trialling cargo pods, the site will stand as a testing ground for what James calls the ‘de-risking’ of key hyperloop technologies. In other words, proving it’s safe to rocket humans to speeds of 760mph inside airless tubes.

“Groningen will be a major catalyst,” says James. “From there you can go forward to freight applications reasonably rapidly. We’re on a trajectory that could see proof of a passenger-usable walk-on, walk-off hyperloop by 2026.”

Hardt says the proposed hyperloop in The Netherlands would take 1,100 trucks off the roads each day. Image: Hardt

Hyperloop’s appeal, James says, transcends mere speedy, carbon-friendly commuter and freight convenience – although they are advantages. James believes it will revolutionize the movement and distribution of goods by allowing distribution from mega warehouses and eliminating short-haul airfreight.

“Link Glasgow and Edinburgh together and you have a very compelling economic proposition,” he continues. “You only need one airport to serve them both. One cancer hospital is all you need.

“Building another runway at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is environmentally and politically impossible – but you could link it to Eindhoven 70 miles away with hyperloop, and you’d be there in seven minutes. The walk from terminal B to H at Schipol takes 38.”

A link is being planned between Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Image: Tobias Kordt

On paper, hyperloop policy looks like it is creating fertile groundwork. The government supports the technology. EU’s Smart Mobility Strategy. In the US, a $1tn (£760bn) infrastructure bill passed last year included funding for hyperloop projects.

“If you look on a country level, Wales has suspended new road building projects because they recognise the need to rethink their approach to infrastructure,” says Dominik Härtl, head of business development at Hardt. “That’s unique, but it’s quite an important step. Then you see countries such as France, Germany and Spain wanting to ban short-haul flights, and cities around the world writing hyperloop into their long-term plans.”

It’s a lot closer than almost everybody thinks. By 2026, we could see proof that a passenger-useable hyperloop is possible.

Härtl reckons hyperloop has the potential to inspire a reimagining of our cities – how we commute, how we plan, how we develop – for the future. Linking Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam – and looping in local areas, too – would put 25 million people within an hour of each other.

Gavin Bailey, head sustainable future transport at consultancy EunomiaOur headlong rush to find speed and progress prompts us all to take a moment to remember that caution is a good thing.

Says Bailey: “Eurostar spent an awful lot of money reducing its journey time by 20 minutes, only to find people don’t care so much about how quick the mode of transport is. What matters is how productive or how disruptive that mode is to what they’d rather be doing.”

According to critics, Hyperloops are only green as the electricity that powers their operation. Image: Virgin Hyperloop

Bailey admits that hyperloop freight-based may play a part in future transport networks. However, he says that the technology’s energy intensiveness and the environmental cost of construction cast its much trumpeted green credentials into shade.

“It’s only as green as the electricity source,” he says. “High speed rail can already transport large numbers of people quickly, cleanly and efficiently in a pleasant environment.

“Hyperloop is a futuristic, sexy technology – but maybe not one that is needed. We should be moving people towards thinking about their travel choices and how sustainable they are – we certainly don’t need another forbidden fruit to throw into the mix.”

Hyperloop is being considered by cities around the globe as part of their long-term plans

Bailey may have had a point. Although the event was held in February, more than 50 cities from 15 European countries took part. Hyperconnected Europe initiative – set up to explore the potential for a future European hyperloop network – Virgin Hyperloop has scaled back its own plans and laid off staff.

Virgin, which made headlines for its passenger test, said last month that it would be focusing on transporting cargo, rather than people, due to global supply chain problems. It will also have a freight system that requires less regulatory oversight and safety regulations.

Perhaps for now, we’ll all have to wait a little longer.

Main image: Virgin Hyperloop