Almost six years ago, long before he launched his sports car into space, Elon Musk unveiled “the fifth mode of transport”.
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He described it as a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table” with an optimum speed of 1,000km per hour. The hyperloop was lauded as the future of transportation. Harnessing the power to move passengers from London to Scotland in a mere 45 minutes, the pod-based transport system was designed to connect distant cities while minimising journey times.
“Right now we’ve got planes, trains, automobiles and boats,” Musk said during hyperloop’s unveiling in California in 2012. “But what if there was a fifth mode? I have a name for it: the hyperloop.”
But amidst all the excitement there was an unexpected twist to the tale. Too busy to develop the technology himself, Musk published his research into the new transport mode as a “gift” to the world in the form of a white paper.
So while the South African-born American business magnate has spent the last five years on his rocket startup SpaceX and his electric car firm Tesla, others have picked up the gauntlet and are beginning to make inroads.
Two companies are leading the charge, with US-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT) led by the enigmatic Bibop Gresta, and Virgin Hyperloop, backed by Sir Richard Branson. Both are announcing deals to roll out their technology in the coming year. Branson and Gresta see their respective companies as the number one hyperloop firm as the race to complete the first major project intensifies.
Within the realm of hyperloop development, these two companies are miles ahead of any other firms exploring the technology’s potential.
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For while Musk’s SpaceX holds annual competitions for budding hyperloop developers, the PayPal founder is not interested in his company staking a claim in the commercial world – which has left the door open for Branson and Gresta to do battle.
In April, HyperloopTT announced that work to create Europe’s first-ever Hyperloop track was underway in France. The US company confirmed that the 320m long, 4m internal diameter test track in Toulouse was due to be complete by the end of the year, with a full scale, 1km long system to be finished in 2019. When complete, it will be the first full scale passenger and freight hyperloop system in the world.
As HyperloopTT’s charismatic chairman and co-founder Bibop Gresta says, the project in France is just the start of a wider aim to connect cities around the world.
“HyperloopTT’s mission is to improve transportation, it is why we have formed ecosystems locally and globally with a focus on working with organisations around the world to solve issues with logistics,” Gresta tells New Civil Engineer.
“Hyperloop is viable and feasible for connecting urban centres. It is less expensive to build and more efficient than other alternatives. Last year we worked with one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, Munich RE, who declared the system to be both feasible and insurable. All of the components to build Hyperloop are available on the market today and have been tested at scale and full scale.”
But HyperloopTT’s plans in France pale in comparison to what is being worked on in the Middle East. HyperloopTT and Virgin Hyperloop One have recently revealed partnerships to deliver large scale systems in the United Arab Emirates. At the moment there is a race to come up with plans for a cross border link between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.
Middle East test bed
Right now, HyperloopTT would appear to have the edge on its rival after announcing plans to build a 10km track on the border between the two states.
“This agreement creates the basis for the first commercial Hyperloop system in the Emirates, with the goal of eventually connecting Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, Dubai, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” said Gresta.
“With regulatory support, we hope the first section will be operational in time for Expo 2020.”
HyperloopTT chief executive and co-founder Dirk Ahlborn, says that once the UAE route is complete “other hyperloop networks around the world will be quick to follow, as the technology will already be there.” In fact, HyperloopTT already has agreements in place for hyperloop route studies in seven other countries: the Czech Republic, France, India, Indonesia, Slovakia, South Korea and the United States.
Despite the recent success of HyperloopTT, Virign’s Hyperloop One is far from hiding in the shadow of its competitor.
Virgin Hyperloop One chief executive Rob Lloyd recently said that the company is as far as two years ahead of HyperloopTT.
“It’s not a race, but if it were, we are in the lead,” said Lloyd. “We are the only company in the world to have successfully tested all components of the system at our full-scale, full-system, test site in Nevada. [HyperloopTT] is only just starting to build its first test track now. This puts us roughly two years ahead.”
Currently working on hyperloop projects in four countries — India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US — Virgin Hyperloop One is aiming to have the first phase of a commercial system built by 2021, a year later than HyperloopTT hopes to have its first system in place.
But despite the slower timescale, the Branson-backed company claims to be leading the way.
UK goes missing
In all these plans there is one major country missing: the UK. For the time being, there are no plans for hyperloop routes in Britain, although that does not rule one out in the future.
Former Transport minister Steve Norris has recently speculated how a hyperloop system in the UK could link with current infrastructure. “It could connect Gatwick and Heathrow so that they operated as one super-hub airport,” Norris wrote in a column for City AM.
“It could link London to Glasgow faster than High Speed 2. It could unlock the Northern Powerhouse.”
Virgin Hyperloop One has previously revealed a proposed route for a hyperloop route connecting London, Manchester and Edinburgh (New Civil Engineer October 2017), but that has yet to get beyond the concept stage.
Whether or not hyperloop could, would or should be rolled out in the UK remains to be seen, and a lot rides on the projects currently gaining pace in the Middle East. If they go to plan then hyperloop can be expected to change the way cities are connected around the world.