Humans have always demanded to move faster: horse, car, train, aeroplane, and now the Hyperloop.
“Hyperloop has never been done before, so you start with an extremely blank piece of white paper, with millions of options to do,” says Tim Houter, chief executive of Hardt Global Mobility, Europe’s leading Hyperloop company. “It’s not like designing a new car, where you look at existing ones and how to make it slightly better.”
Houter was studying at Delft University, the Netherlands, when Elon Musk, billionaire magnate of Paypal and SpaceX, released his 57-page white paper setting out his “Hyperloop Alpha” vision in 2013. Pods would travel just below the sound barrier, at up to 1,200km/h, in near-total vacuum tubes. They would be propelled by linear propulsion motors and run on a magnetic levitation track.
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Two years later, Houter and his cohort won the first international competition to design the best Hyperloop pod. Hardt Global, boasting 11 employees, soon after received a €600,000 (£600,000) investment from proof-of-concept fund Uniq and the Dutch railway company NS. Now, through a partnership with construction company Bam it owns Europe’s first test facility, a 30m long test track.
Hardt Global is aiming for technical readiness in four years, with a full commercial/passenger service in less than eight. But there is fierce international competition to get there, the latest of which being a German student team’s model, which reached a top speed of 321.6km/h in late August at the Hyperloop One test track in Nevada.
Hyperloop is at prototype stage, but has already attracted some criticism.
One question is how to deal with fire and evacuations. Houter is relaxed about this, pointing out: “Well, luckily in a vacuum it’s kind of hard to make fire”. He points out the there is always some initial concern about new types of transport.
“When people were building the first aeroplane, people had the feeling it could be unsafe to use. Now it’s extreme common sense to fly to another continent,” he adds.
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Costs are another concern, especially when compared to proven high speed rail. But Houter argues the super lightweight vehicles and the use of magnetic levitation make the project inherently cost effective: “Because they’re lighter, a lot less foundation is required,” he says. Delft University’s winning pod design weighed 149kg, measuring 4.5m in length and 1m in height. “You can build the pipeline overground, underground, along existing infrastructure, over water, wherever. And because it’s levitating at a couple of centimetres’ height, it means that the track can fluctuate a bit more, compared to high speed rail, where a bump of a single millimetre can affect things very badly.”
Unlike aeroplanes, or trains, a Hyperloop network could provide more flexibility. “It’s more like an extremely fast highway, with pods using ‘on’ and ‘off’ ramps, which means [travelling] point to point with no stops in between,” says Houter. “And if another vehicle wants to stop at a station halfway, it doesn’t disturb the line, creating a much higher throughput.
We’ve also made sure we’ve connected Edinburgh and Cambridge it was very important the two big knowledge communities were engaged
Simon Kaufman, Aecom
“It’s very important that this all integrates well with the current infrastructure.”
The first Hyperloop lines will likely run in Asia or the Middle East, where transport needs are high and bureaucracy is low. Dubai has signed a deal with the most prominent company in the sector, Hyperloop One, to evaluate a line to Abu Dhabi.
Hyperloop One is also running a “Global Challenge” seeking business cases for commercial routes. Countries and consultants are competing in this.
Here in the UK, Aecom has entered, providing a route from Cardiff to London up to Edinburgh. The team is currently shortlisted for the semi-finals along with 13 others. “We’re anticipating we’re a very strong favourite, but are still waiting back to hear,” says Aecom director Simon Kaufman who leads the team. “I’m working with colleagues who normally work with Network Rail, on cost consulting, smart motorways, Crossrail and High Speed 2 (HS2). So a lot of our cost estimating, pricing things, has been based on actual projects.”
London to Cardiff in less than 30 minutes
London to Cardiff would be under 30 minutes, London to Edinburgh less than an hour. Kaufman also enthuses about the route’s many flow-on effects, including housing delivery, freight, traffic congestion and airport connections to name a few. “Just one of the most amazing things is that the pipe would also be clad in solar panels. We’ve had one of our power consultants look at the power it would produce – even here in rainy Britain, it would create more than enough to run Hyperloop and excess would go back into the grid,” says Kaufman.
The proposed network unites the capitals of England, Scotland and Wales, but also stops in areas suffering transport neglect. “The route to Edinburgh goes along the east coast line, so Cambridge, Nottingham, Tyneside… we’re collecting the cities which are not part of the HS2 build. Some of those cities are on the way to regeneration, or would benefit from regeneration.
“And then we’ve also made sure we’ve connected Edinburgh and Cambridge: it was very important the two big knowledge communities were engaged.”
At the end of the day this is really pipeline technology, so it’s not a lot more sophisticated than a pipe
Simon Kaufman, Aecom
And there would be ramifications for Europe. “The reason Britain’s ports have been in decline for so long is that we’ve been bypassed as the route into Europe; but Glasgow and Bristol are still the closest ports to America in distance. So if you could bring freight into Glasgow, offload it, then connect into Europe [via Hyperloop], suddenly Glasgow becomes the fastest way for freight to cross the Atlantic.”
These are bold plans, Kaufman concedes, especially with likely challenges of getting public support, and overcoming planning obstacles and environmental impact objections. To avoid disruption, the tubes will run along the existing motorways or railway lines. “You’re talking a 2.5m diameter pipe at the end of the day, so it’s not a huge piece of new infrastructure. But that will all be part of the consultation process in coming years,” says Kaufman.
A Hyperloop track, with lines speeds of up to 1,168km/h, requires a turning radius of approximately 3km – greater than those of motorways or railway lines. “The curves on British motorways are designed to be as little as possible, so would be able to accommodate around 960km/h to 1,120km/h. That’s still significantly fast. We’re not worrying about it, at this point, let’s just say,” says Kaufman.
Concerns can be addressed
Expect safety, terrorism, and fire concerns, says Kaufman, but they can be solved. “We do already have trains that run through tubes; fire escapes can be built in; and terrorism concerns are no different to those on a train or aeroplane.
“At the end of the day this is really pipeline technology, so it’s not a lot more sophisticated than a pipe.
“It’s got a few extra pieces of kit: maglev line, vacuum. But it’s a self-replicating thing. Once you’ve developed the few odd metres of pipe, that’s just repeated a hundred or thousand times to create the entire line, so there’s an economy of scale.”
Criticisms are healthy, adds Kaufman. “I’m sure before the Wright brothers built their first aeroplane, people were saying ‘don’t be daft that will never fly’.”
Longer test track
Next on the international agenda will be a the construction of a longer test track,1.6km or longer, to build confidence in the market. Hyperloop One has built the longest so far – a 500m test track in the Nevada desert.
Aecom for its part has teams involved in the competitions from United States, Germany and Australia – up to 50 staff. “And as we go forward, I definitely think we will commit more,” says Kaufman.
The open-source release of Hyperloop plans by Musk has inspired competition, but Kaufman says it also inspires future engineers.
“He’s used his position to put forward game changing ideas… in an inspirational way, which is to be commended.
“I’ve had several requests from schools and universities for visits because they’re fascinated by Hyperloop. As a subject to inspire the next generation, I think it’s fabulous and really engaging.”
As the many start-ups around the world clamour for funding and prizes, Houter says that when it comes down to a full scale commercial or passenger route, there are factors beyond any engineer’s control that will ultimately determine how quickly the ideas will become reality. “For example, political aspects, socio-economic aspects, and those are a lot harder to estimate. But I believe if you have the right people in the right place things can go extremely fast.
“A lot of civil infrastructure will be needed – I imagine all the civil engineers will love it,” Houter laughs.