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Game changer

In 2013 when Elon Musk revived the idea of high-speed pneumatic tube transportation and called it hyperloop, scepticism was understandably high. Things have moved fast since then and the “fifth mode of transport” is starting to look more realistic than ever. If it takes off the implications for cities and their citizens could be huge. Sarah Wray takes a look.

Hyperloop: long distance love a thing of the past. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
Hyperloop: long distance love a thing of the past. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Hyperloop technology is based on ‘pods’ suspended by magnetic levitation and propelled by an electric motor. They travel at over 1,000 kph through near-vacuum tubes – either underground, or above held up by columns.


In theory, a hyperloop system could reduce a 12-hour train journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco to just 35 minutes. Tests, trials and studies are ongoing or planned globally. For example, Dubai has agreed to conduct a feasibility study for a hyperloop link with Abu Dhabi and South Korea signed an agreement to develop a full-scale Hyperloop testbed.


A number of companies are vying to launch hyperloop transportation services, including Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, TransPod, DGWHyperloop, Arrivo, Hardt Global Mobility, Hyper Chariot and Zeleros. The race is on.


A world of new opportunities


In a presentation at Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona late last year, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, said hyperloop could change everything, from our career and home choices to who we fall in love with. He told delegates: “Travelling is so important that based on where we live, we decide where we work. And where I come from, Los Angeles, based on where you live you decide who you date.”


There are potential knock-on effects too. For instance, Sebastien Gendron, co-founder and CEO of TransPod, said: “We have been talking with a construction company which maintains highways. They said that [with the introduction of a hyperloop system, they could] remove some of the freight trucks from the roads and this could exend the lifetime of those highways. This could reduce the number of accidents as well, with fewer trucks on the road.”


One of the biggest ambitions is that hyperloop could alleviate some of the traffic congestion issues that cities face, as well as offering significant environmental benefits.


Proponents say hyperloop can be powered mostly or entirely by renewable energy, resulting in low to zero net emissions. A study by the US Department of Transportation found that “on most routes hyperloop would be 2 to 3 times more energy efficient than air on a passenger mile basis” as well as up to three times faster than the world’s fastest high-speed rail system (Shanghai’s Maglev/Transrapid).


Smart regions


Last year, from over 2,600 entries, the Northern Arc proposal was revealed as one of ten shortlisted routes for Hyperloop One’s global challenge. The route would cover Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, aiming to create a "super region”.


Paul Bell, a partner at Ryder Architecture, which led the bid along with Arup and KPMG, said: “With hyperloop technology, it’s not knocking 20 minutes off a journey; it’s absolutely transformational.” The regional airports could become more like terminals, he said, adding: “When you start pulling together an economic region that crosses between England and Scotland with over 11.5 million people, you have a scale where you can then compete on the world stage going forward.”


Along with a consortium of businesses and local government representatives, the Northern Arc team is now looking at attracting investment to move the project towards economic and feasibility studies.


The hype in hyperloop


Despite all the noise, and the promise, there are no large-scale hyperloop deployments – yet, and there is much still to work out.


Will the G-Force be comfortable and safe for passengers? What about the fact that most places don’t have the land available for the straight tubes and flat surfaces required? How will the systems cope with even small seismic activity? Will over-ground solutions have our cities resembling giant futuristic fairgrounds? Can a hyperloop be constructed at a price point that makes travel affordable for passengers? And even if they can afford it, do they actually want it?


Most are agreed that the technology is not going to be the blocker – for such a fantastical transport system, the reality could be much more mundane.


Dr Roberto Palacin, Degree Program Director, Mechanical Engineering & Rail Systems Group lead, Centre for Railway Research, Newcastle University, says: “Say we have the technology and it works very well and you move from A to B at incredible speed. If you are stuck at the other end, it’s like airports -- you have to spend an hour and a half to get from the airport to the centre. Also, you are going to get an awful lot of people moving at both ends… movement of people in those areas is going to be tremendously complex. These issues can potentially affect the unique selling point, which is time. Then the operational aspect will affect cost, etc.”


Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Robert Miller, comments: “The technology for hyperloop -- everything exists today; it’s really just a matter of efficiently integrating that technology. We travel in tubes underground, the world’s largest vacuum tube exists now -- the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Humanity has done all this before, they just haven’t assembled it but that’s the easy part compared to the regulations. We’re seeing good progress on that, but you’re working with different countries so it is something that really does take time.”


Life comes at you fast


Scepticism is healthy and challenges are inevitable, but the sheer amount of competition and private investment in the field suggests many in the know think it’s viable.


In his talk at Smart Cities Expo World Congress, HTT’s Alhlborn, said: “We started four years ago; it was an idea. It’s not an idea anymore; it’s going to be happening.”

He added: “I believe that if someone tells me that you can’t do something, it just means they haven’t figured it out, it doesn’t mean that we can’t do it.”


HTT CMO, Robert Miller, confirmed that the company believes that everyday people will be riding in hyperloops in five to ten years’ time.


Outside the industry, though, many are yet to be fully convinced but they’re hopeful, given the scale of hyperloop’s potential benefits. While some cities and states are pushing on with feasibility studies and testbeds, others are interested but prefer to wait and see.


New South Wales (NSW) in Australia, for example, has been one of the areas suggested as a possible testbed for hyperloop. A spokesperson for Transport for NSW said: “The proposed hyperloop transport technology is at an embryonic stage and needs further research and development, including whether it is even economically viable, before it could be adopted on a mass scale.”


The state is planning its transport needs for the next 40 years and is “considering a number of options to improve journey times, such as engaging and embracing new technologies as they become viable, operational and fleet improvements, and potential long-term targeted infrastructure upgrades.”


Even if hyperloop doesn’t come to fruition, there could be benefits to engaging anyway, says Ryder Architecture’s Paul Bell. “Being seen to be open to innovation and driving innovation is actually quite important and it feeds the universities, it feeds the profile of regions and attracts different investments.”


While the jury is still out on whether hyperloop will really take off, when and at what scale, it’s clear that a lot more people are getting on board with the idea as the movement gathers pace.



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