Could a public transport system that fires pods through a low-pressure pipe at 600mph become a reality in the UK? The brainchild of SpaceX magnate Elon Musk, it’s already being developed by British organisations including Virgin. Industry experts cut through the hype around Hyperloop and cite 10 reasons why the project warrants serious attention from business leaders
1/ Hyperloop is highly ambitious, yet perfectly feasible
Living in an age when we were promised hoverboards but given Segways, the Hyperloop concept – one that envisions pods propelled along an evacuated tube by electromagnetic accelerators – will understandably draw scepticism. But there have already been tangible developments – Sir Richard Branson is among those to have seized the opportunity presented by Elon Musk’s decision in 2012 to make Hyperloop an open-source project, for instance. A prototype constructed in only nine months by Virgin Hyperloop One has achieved speeds up to 240mph during desert tests in Nevada.
The idea actually isn’t new: US rocket pioneer Robert Goddard conceived of a train that could travel from Boston to New York in 12 minutes using the same principle as Hyperloop in the early 20th century. But today the vacuum-creating technology is a little more sophisticated, as Dan Lewis, the IoD’s senior adviser on infrastructure policy, explains: “It’s when the air becomes that thin that the principles behind Hyperloop come to the fore. Engineers are now able to rarefy the air in a tunnel – the key to achieving the required speeds – down to the ultra-low atmospheric pressure that you’d have at an altitude of 200,000ft. This is not quite space, but it’s more than 160,000ft higher than a typical airliner would operate.”
In his upcoming IoD policy report, How Do We Make Britain the Best Connected Country in the World?, Lewis recommends that a radial Hyperloop should become a key part of northern England’s infrastructure.
“The reason that aircraft fly so high is to reduce air friction, so what we’re trying to do is enable the same conditions at ground level,” adds Paul Priestman, whose London-based design consultancy, Priestman Goode, has been contracted to design capsules for US research firm Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. “We’re involved with high-speed trains all over the world, some of which are travelling at 450mph. But the air at ground level is very dense, so at that speed it becomes the equivalent of travelling through water.”
2/ Generation Z already gets it
When Priestman Goode exhibited its work at Somerset House last year during the London Design Festival, it was “the first time that the exterior vision of Hyperloop had been shown”, Priestman recalls. “Kids would come up to our stand and say: ‘Oh, look – Hyperloop!’ And their mums and dads would say: ‘What’s that?’ I think it’s quite a generational thing: a lot of the more mature people among us are sceptical about it, but the youngsters understand it. This in itself is interesting in the new business arena.”
3/ Governments believe in it too
“We’ve seen ground-breaking commitments from governments that understand that a technology such as Hyperloop can deliver unprecedented connectivity and opportunity for their citizens,” says Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications at Virgin Hyperloop One. He points to an “agreement signed in India with the intent to build a route between Mumbai and Pune” and also to the US state of Ohio’s announcement of initial research into Hyperloop’s environmental impact.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is building a prototype track in France, but the UAE will see the first fully operational commercial link. By the time Expo 2020 opens in Dubai, HTT expects to have completed the first 6-mile section of a network that’s set to connect Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
4/ It will be no more risky than flying
“The Hyperloop is a maglev [magnetic levitation] train in a vacuum system. You could think of it as the equivalent of an aircraft flying at an ultra-high altitude.” says Anita Sengupta, who leads Virgin Hyperloop One’s systems engineering team, which believes that the “flight” time between Edinburgh and London could be cut to 50 minutes. “People don’t have an issue travelling on aeroplanes and people don’t have an issue travelling on maglev trains. This technology is simply combining the two in an energy-efficient way.”
5/ There will be tangible economic benefits
Midwest Connect, an initiative led by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), was one of 10 winners of a global competition that Virgin Hyperloop One held last year to identify projects with the most potential.
“Our proposal was a Hyperloop corridor connecting Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago that would transform the movement of goods and people in the Midwest,” says Thea Walsh, director of transportation systems and funding at the MORPC. “The Midwest lies at the heart of freight movement in the US. Advancements such as smart technologies and Hyperloop represent an economic game-changer for this part of the country.”
Emil Hansen is technical director of HypED, a student society at the University of Edinburgh that’s focused on developing Hyperloop and implementing it in the UK. “A single Hyperloop linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh could bring half of the population within an hour of each other,” he says. “Hyperloop is likely to help to even out property prices around the UK, because it would give people more choice of places to live and work at. It would enable someone to live in Edinburgh and work in London, say.”
Lewis agrees: “Hyperloop could turn inter-city journeys into mere metro stops. Such a development would be highly advantageous, given that our population is set to exceed 70 million by 2029, according to the Office for National Statistics.”
6/ It promises to be great for freight
Virgin’s Ryan Kelly is confident that Hyperloop will “deliver exceptional service for freight at a cost closer to that of trucking but at a speed closer to that of flight. With capacity for both passengers and palletised freight, Hyperloop can revolutionise supply chains.”
Kelly stresses that such a development poses no threat to the aviation industry. “We see Hyperloop as a way to augment air travel, helping to expand capacity by connecting regional airports to form, in effect, one mega-airport,” he says.
7/ Some doubts remain…
The Chuo Shinkansen, a 180-mile maglev line currently under construction between Tokyo and Nagoya, is “proving inordinately expensive to build. It’s the result of a heavily state-funded research programme that has been trundling along since the 1970s,” says Gareth Dennis, an engineer and writer specialising in railway systems. “It’s scheduled to part-open for passengers in 2027. It’s also three to four times less energy-efficient than an equivalent conventional high-speed railway. The UK attempted to get a form of hover train technology started in the 1960s – and the culmination of that experiment is rusting in a museum garden in Peterborough.”
Lewis notes that building above ground is viable in regions where land is cheap and lacking in obstacles. That rarely applies in the UK, of course, but tunnelling is actually more cost-effective, given that Hyperloop tubes are relatively narrow and there are no land acquisition costs to pay or planning permissions to seek once you’re tunnelling 30ft below ground.
Dennis highlights a potential capacity problem: “The concept is based on small payloads. The conventional throughput benchmark for a suburban metro system is 36,000 passengers per hour. To obtain that sort of capacity with Hyperloop, you’d need at least 400 pod departures an hour – with nine seconds between trains – should only one tube be built in each direction.”
But Kelly begs to differ. “We will be able to align our available pods perfectly with demand,” he argues. “Our system will support a far greater capacity than current maglev trains are capable of doing.”
8/… and There is still supply and regulatory work to be done…
“One possible supply bottleneck is that we may well struggle to secure a specific type of magnet,” says HypED’s head of research, Grzegorz Marecki. “As far as I’m aware, we don’t yet have the manufacturing capabilities in the UK to obtain these components on a large scale. It’s similar to the problems that electric vehicle manufacturers have been facing with the supply chain for batteries.”
Hansen notes that Hyperloop also presents a potential legislative challenge. “Because it represents a step change in technology and travel, few our of existing regulations would be very applicable to it. Hence a new regulatory framework is likely to be needed, similar to that for the autonomous car industry.”
Kelly notes that more than two-thirds of Hyperloop’s systems are governed by existing regulation, but acknowledges that “we will need a new standard for the remaining third. Our approach at Virgin is to start working with governments as soon as possible to create this. In fact, we’re already doing this – we’ve been working with the Roads and Transport Authority in the UAE to devise a preliminary certification plan together, for example.”
9/… but It’s being likened to the internet
Just how profound could Hyperloop’s potential outcomes be? “The internet is the perfect analogy,” Kelly says. “People initially thought of using the internet in terms of simply speeding up what they already did. But over time it spawned an industry so large that we now call it the fourth industrial revolution. Hyperloop is an extension of that same principle.”
10/ It could change the world for the better
“I know it’s usually a cliché to talk about a revolution, but I believe that this is one. It’s a great opportunity to connect our cities