The year is 2030 and I am sipping my oat milk latte during my morning 30 minute, 380-mile commute from Los Angeles to San Francisco, blissfully unaware that I am travelling at 700kmh through a hermetically sealed tube. Whilst the idea may seem far fetched and something you would see in a Black Mirror episode, this could be a reality in the next 10-20 years. The Hyperloop concept represents the greatest leap in transport infrastructure in generations, engendering the possibility of low-cost, efficient rapid transit for much of the world’s population.
Before delving into Hyperloop, it is necessary to have a base understanding of the technology it hopes to harness. In layman’s terms, the idea is that passenger pods will travel through sealed tubes using magnetic levitation for propulsion and to remove friction, the tubes will be vacuum sealed to eliminate air resistance. This will, in theory, allow for the passenger pods to travel at extremely high speeds, using less energy than conventional rail as well as aircraft. The network will look like something similar to the image below.
Since Elon Musk’s unveiling of the first widely recognised hyperloop concept in 2012, the idea has been the focus of some of the world’s leading venture capitalists. One of the most prominent companies - Hyperloop One, has secured over $368 million funding, recently being rebranded to - Virgin Hyperloop One after receiving serious backing from Sir Richard Branson. This has allowed the company to prove its concept where they recently built a mock system in the Nevada Desert. The company is now looking for potential countries to be early adopters and has made some progress. The Indian state of Maharashtra recently declared the company’s proposed hyperloop system between Pune and Mumbai as an official infrastructure project.
There are a range of advantages that a Hyperloop system could bring. The major benefit is that it would slash conventional journey times by huge margins. A typical bus journey between London and Bristol is 4 hours with conventional high-speed rail taking 1 hour and 18 minutes. A Hyperloop journey would take just 17 minutes. If such systems were deployed on a large scale it could change the social fabric of society, smashing down borders and making the world ever more interconnected.
Looking at Hyperloop through an environmental lens, it would arguably use less energy than conventional transport. In theory, the majority of the energy would be used during the acceleration and deceleration stages (around 10% of the total journey time). If you coupled this with the use of solar power along the length of tracks you could potentially have a transport system that creates a net surplus of energy.
Hyperloop would also need a lower proportion of land than high-speed rail and could be tied alongside existing rail networks and nodes to provide point to point services. In contrast, airports are often located away from cities creating significant last mile as well as surface access problems. When aviation was first proposed as a transport concept it was laughed at and ridiculed, its rapid development was a testament to human ingenuity and our ability to innovate and develop as a species, something which is often underestimated. It is perfectly feasible that Hyperloop could be part of a similar story, albeit at a much more rapid pace.
As with many other new ideas and technologies, it is entirely plausible that the concept’s main component is hot air; and, that in 20 years time it will be entombed in a casket named ‘bad business ideas’, following on from the likes of We Work and Theranos, from an era where venture capitalists brazenly invested in anything new and exciting with little regard for basic economics.
Stripping away the project to its bones and taking into account basic physics, it still may not yet be possible to build such a system using 2020 technology. There is the issue of the enormous barriers to design and engineering that still need to be overcome, like building tubes strong enough to deal with the stresses of carrying the high-speed pods; finding energy and cost-efficient ways to keep them operating at low pressure; and, having various software and safety protocols in place in the event of emergencies. It is all well and good having a 1km long concept system, but scaling this up to a working 2000km network is a huge jump placing doubt on the often highly optimistic timetables that Hyperloop companies are adopting.
Like any large infrastructure project, there are bound to be hiccups and large scale cost overruns along the way. Getting regulatory approval for an entirely new technology will also take time. Just look at HS2 as an example - it’s taken more than 20 years to get approval and the idea is based on old technology. Maglev trains are currently used in Japan and can be retrofitted on existing high-speed rail, offering a cheaper, less land-use intensive alternative for countries wanting high-speed rapid transport. I suspect if we do see a working Hyperloop in the next 20 years, it will unlikely be in the western world.
Another issue often overlooked is capacity. The world’s population is set to increase to over 10 billion in 2100. At most a single Hyperloop pod can carry 50 people, which is an insignificant number when compared to other forms of rapid transit such as high-speed rail. I also doubt the $20 one way proposed ticket cost is realistic - even if it was, most of the world’s population would be unable to afford to travel on such a system.
Security is also a factor to take into account. Due to the high speeds involved, it is likely we will see airport-style screening, adding to the journey time. Aviation is tried and tested and aircraft are becoming more efficient year on year, so perhaps the money would be better invested in improving existing infrastructure. Airports are unlikely to disappear as it is unfeasible to have long haul journeys and transatlantic/pacific routes so we may as well utilise them at maximum capacity and efficiency.
Hyperloop is a technology that, for its supporters at least, could have a colossal impact. It has the possibility to boost sustainable global transport, promote trade and push the boundaries in how we harness and use technology to our benefit. For its critics, it is another unproven concept, with major boundaries and technological issues that need to be solved. If these problems can be solved, the world will be a very different place in 20 years time…