An analysis of some recent developments for hyperloop and potential challenges for developers.
A milestone was recently reached in the transport sector. Virgin Hyperloop ran its first mission using human passengers.
Hyperloop is a futuristic transport technology. The basic premise is a network of tubes or tunnels carrying pods at incredibly high speeds over distance. There are currently various companies racing to develop a viable system, with notable contributors being Elon Musk’s The Boring Company and Virgin Hyperloop, which is backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. The often-quoted target speed for hyperloop systems is over 600 mph – for context, most commercial flights average 460 – 570 mph. The development and potential deployment of hyperloop still has a long way to go; however, there have been some notable achievements this year.
This month Virgin Hyperloop made headlines for its first test with human passengers. The company CTO/co-founder and the Head of Passenger Experience travelled about 500 metres in 15 seconds, reaching a top speed of 107 mph. This is obviously much slower than the target speeds noted above but after more than 400 unmanned previous tests it marks a step forward.
If and when the system is rolled out on a commercial scale, the company aims to have pods carrying 28 people and travelling at 670 mph. One current plan is to install a link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which would cut a journey time of over 1 hour to about 12 minutes. Other suggested routes could enable travel from Riyadh to Dubai in 48 minutes and from Dubai to Doha in 23 minutes.
Richard Branson has previously discussed developing a hyperloop system in the UK. One proposed route would run from London to Edinburgh, via Birmingham and Manchester. Another suggested network would link Heathrow Airport to Gatwick and Stanstead, reducing travel time from Heathrow to either airport to 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
A separate, unmanned hyperloop system in South Korea recently reached 633 mph in tests. The country is aiming to launch a network by 2024, which could reduce the travel time from Seoul to Busan from 3 hours to 30 minutes. Korail is currently working on the project and aims to begin widespread development in 2022.
Elon Musk is often credited as popularising the idea of hyperloop several years ago. The Boring Company, which many originally thought was a joke, has already started tunnelling and aims to connect US cities, as well as provide inner-city transport.
Not everyone is excited by hyperloop. The proposed systems generally rely on magnetic levitation (maglev) technology. This may sound familiar, as maglev is currently used is various train networks around the world and has been for decades. At the end of the 1970s maglev trains could already reach 300 mph. This has led some to suggest that hyperloop is both unnecessary and unoriginal. Proposed hyperloop pods would carry a limited number of passengers at a time, which is likely due to the speeds intended to be reached. This means that many journeys would be needed to beat the efficiency of a high-speed train carrying hundreds of passengers.
The multiple hurdles that have arisen during the development of HS2 (a high-speed rail line project in the UK) also suggest that hyperloop developers should be wary. Launching a hyperloop system requires significant infrastructure development. Overground or aerial tubes, or underground tunnels would have to be built from scratch. These would cross through various jurisdictions and swathes of privately owned land, each with individual regulatory, political and commercial barriers to be overcome. This is particularly true for any international routes. Trouble at any part of the network could then derail the entire project. The cost of building a network would also be significant.
The critiques are valid. Based on the practical challenges, it could be reasonable to suggest that investment would be better spent improving the existing transport systems. However, the promises of hyperloop are certainly compelling. Imagine the ability to travel the length of the country in the time it currently takes many to commute to work. This could provide a real challenge to the current hegemony of aviation for long distance travel. There are suggestions that the increased efficiency provided by the tube systems and opportunities for sustainable energy sources could greatly reduce the environmental footprint of hyperloop systems. In an era defined by the climate crisis, any system that could decarbonise the transport sector is definitely worthy of consideration.
High speed travel connecting different regions of a city or country could also increase social mobility and decentralise the economy. It’s clear that wealth and opportunities often cluster in specific places. In the UK, this is often London or some of the other larger cities. In the world’s mega-cities, the difference between a wealth centre and a poor suburb can be stark. For the people born outside a wealth centre, opportunities can be limited and many are forced to relocate. An affordable hyperloop system could facilitate the spread of wealth by creating access to work for individuals and encouraging businesses to base themselves in more diverse locations. Although, this benefit could arguably be provided by the increased use of remote working that is resulting from the current pandemic.
There are arguments to be made for both sides. Regardless, the desire of those involved to achieve hyperloop success is clear. The next decade will show whether it comes to fruition.