William Ham Bevan 20 Jul 2018 10:38am

Questioning the hyperloop

Will the railway system really be the future of passenger transport?

Caption: Illustration: Tommy Parker
If everything proceeds to plan, Britain’s second high-speed railway line will carry its first paying passengers towards the end of 2026. The opening of HS2 is expected to cut the standard journey time between London and Birmingham by about half an hour, to 49 minutes. But in just one minute longer, Virgin Hyperloop One believes it could whisk you all the way to Edinburgh. The journey would be somewhat less scenic than on HS2.

Passengers would be sealed in a windowless pod that floated above its track on powerful magnets, hurtling through a depressurised steel tube. But in terms of speed, Hyperloop leaves conventional rail in the sidings. Proponents say that the lack of air resistance in the tube could help deliver a maximum speed of around 760mph – more than double the record achieved on steel tracks.

According to Tesla and SpaceX supremo Elon Musk, who came up with the concept, it’s not merely a variant of rail, but a “fifth mode of transport” alongside planes, trains, automobiles and boats. After first outlining the idea in 2012, he released his Hyperloop Alpha manifesto. It argued that capsules travelling in a near-vacuum, propelled by linear induction motors along the tube (and in the original proposal, hovering on a cushion of air rather than a magnetic field) could link Los Angeles and San Francisco far more efficiently than the proposed rail line.

But instead of developing the idea himself, Musk then stepped back, turning Hyperloop into an open-source project that anyone could pick up. Little of the basic technology in the Hyperloop specification is new. Plans to run transporter pods through vacuum tubes were first laid by the British inventor George Medhurst in 1799. Blueprints for a “vactrain” have appeared with some regularity ever since, from Robert Goddard’s work in early 20th century Massachusetts to the 1970s “Swissmetro” that would have seen Switzerland’s cities linked by low-pressure tunnels. The magnetic levitation and propulsion systems are likewise based on well-known principles, though commercial exploitation has proved tricky.

Roger Goodall, professor of control systems engineering at Loughborough University and a prominent critic of Hyperloop, says: “Normally, if you have a new technology, it has either nose-dived or grown rapidly if it’s successful. Maglev (magnetic levitation) has just limped along.” For all the Silicon Valley hype and science fiction trappings, Hyperloop is an idea that’s being taken seriously by governments around the world. Two commercial enterprises have emerged as front-runners: Virgin Hyperloop One, renamed last October after a major investment from Richard Branson, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT).

The proving ground for their efforts is the Middle East. After finalising its designs on a test track in France, HyperloopTT hopes to inaugurate a passenger line in Abu Dhabi before the start of Expo 2020 in nearby Dubai. Virgin Hyperloop One has also been active in the UAE, where it hopes to build a whole network. In February, it unveiled a prototype passenger pod in Dubai, and May saw the announcement of a partnership with London architects Foster and Partners to develop a cargo service. The first Virgin services are likely to run in the Middle East and in India, where it has signed an agreement with the State of Maharashtra to link the cities of Pune and Mumbai. The UK government, for its part, has extended Hyperloop a cautious welcome. Last year, the Department for Transport’s Science Advisory Council concluded that although there were “design and operational challenges to be overcome”, there was “nothing in the fundamental Hyperloop concept that would prevent it from being able to operate safely and securely”. Less positively, it concluded that a workable system in Britain was likely to be “at least a couple of decades away”.

So how could Hyperloop transform the UK and its economy? The DfT study suggested that it would permit people to “live anywhere in the country and easily commute great Leslie Horwitz, strategic communications manager for Virgin Hyperloop One, says: “It redefines the relationship between distance and time. Suddenly, if you live in a city, you can connect to another metropolitan area as if it’s just another stop on the Tube. The Hyperloop would create new opportunities for people to live where they want and take jobs where they want.”

Last year, Virgin Hyperloop One ran a competition to find the most promising route proposals. HYPED, a student-led group at the University of Edinburgh, was among the 10 winners. Its head of research, Grzegorz Marecki, says: “The idea was to build a spine for the UK. Effectively, the whole of the country could become a single economic zone. If you had our route with 12 stations, you could capture more than 50% of the UK population within an hour’s drive of a station. You’d be connecting 22 million people, who could get between any two
locations in less than three hours, door to door.”

It’s a plan that finds favour with Dan Lewis, senior adviser on infrastructure policy at the Institute of Directors, who believes the “incremental benefits” of high-speed rail will be insufficient to meet Britain’s future needs. “We know that by 2041 there will be seven million more people living in the UK, and they will need to be moved around the country. The first phase of HS2 will be finished by 2027 and then phase two by 2033. But by then, will it look that special or that fast? We’ll have delivered a small improvement at a pretty high cost.” Hardcore vactrain evangelists would go further, insisting that Hyperloop has already doomed conventional high-speed rail projects to become white elephants. It’s the view of Bibop Gresta, the flamboyant chairman of HyperloopTT, who told a reporter from Construction News: “High Speed 2 is stupid. I’ve been talking to your government to try and stop this madness.” Others argue that the real madness is in imagining Hyperloop can overcome its engineering and economic challenges.

For Goodall, track alignment presents one of the biggest problems – particularly in a small and densely populated country like the UK. He says: “You need a very straight track, and a high quality of track alignment. For high-speed trains, up to 185mph, if you take a 200-yard length of rail then the deviation from the straight should be a millimetre at the worst. If you extrapolate that up to 640mph – a factor of about four – then it’s a serious problem.” Hyperloop advocates have proposed tracks that avoid obstacles by being elevated above ground or buried beneath it (though in earthquake-prone territory such as Hyperloop’s California home, one issue with the latter approach is immediately obvious).

“The other thing is, it’s remarkably difficult to build an elevated track that straight,” says Goodall. “There are suggestions that Hyperloop could use existing alignments such as motorway corridors. We can’t even use those for high-speed rail because the curvatures are too tight.” Like other critics – including the transport blogger Alon Levy, who memorably described Musk’s system as a “barf ride” – Goodall has reservations about ride comfort. “The proposals seem to be suggesting very high acceleration, deceleration and curving,” he says. “There was mention of getting up to full speed in 90 seconds, and going round curves with forces of 0.5G.

That’s way above normal railways. You may say it’s only going to be 50 minutes, so people won’t want to walk around and will be happy to be strapped in. That’s an interesting question.” Safety is the other issue that will be key to passenger acceptance. A breach of the depressurised tube (or pressurised pod) could be catastrophic – and with intervals between pod departures as short as 10 seconds, systems would have to be in place that could deploy emergency braking in the case of a power failure or an incident down the line. The system would need to be hardened against both physical and cyber attack, and an evacuation protocol would need to be in place. “Our teams are looking at all of that, and we have a whole host of contingency plans,” says Horwitz. “We’re working on safety certification: around two thirds of the systems fall under existing regulations across aerospace, automotive and rail. For the remaining third, we’re working with regulators to get the technology safely to market as fast as we can.”

For those yet to be convinced by Hyperloop, however, it is the economic challenges rather than the technological ones that seem most intractable. The keenest debate has been over cost, with one study at the University of Queensland concluding that a Hyperloop system could be 10 times more expensive than the £12.5m per mile mooted by Musk. Goodall says: “The Hyperloop Alpha document suggested it would be 10% of the cost of high-speed rail. That’s crazy, the idea that developing something with an evacuated tube on columns is going to cost a tenth of putting a slab of concrete and some rails at ground level. The paper considered by the DfT suggested Hyperloop would cost around the same as a conventional inter-city rail. I believe it could be a lot higher. It might still be justified if you could get better return on investment through passenger revenue. But there is still the problem of low capacity.”

Even taking into account the high frequency of departures, matching the capacity of conventional rail will be difficult. Each of the BMW-designed prototype pods revealed by Virgin Hyperloop One, for example, seats fewer than 20 people. HYPED’s Marecki says: “If we take Musk’s early figures for Hyperloop from the Alpha paper, it’s just over 3,000 passengers per hour. However, HS2 is being designed for nearly 20,000 passengers per hour and metro trains take over 30,000 in one direction on one line. Combining the flexibility of an on-demand system with the efficiency of mass transportation will be a technical challenge, but our designs show that this can be overcome and capacities comparable to high-speed rail can be achieved.”

For others, the practical issues with Hyperloop add up to a deal-breaker. Iain Wright, director of corporate and regional engagement at ICAEW, says: “One of the prerequisites of a prosperous economy is the ability for goods and people to be transported from one place to another. A Hyperloop system could be seen as a sexy new thing and would certainly attract attention. It may have benefits for large countries with vast swathes of unpopulated areas but in Britain, a small and densely populated nation, such a system could be an expensive folly. We need to deal with more mundane but essential considerations. The greatest priority is to help all nations and regions to thrive by linking up poorly connected areas that now have appalling transport systems, such as Manchester, Yorkshire and the north-east, with one another. This could be achieved using established and cheaper transport methods.”

Then there is the issue of initial funding. The IoD’s Lewis points to Crossrail as a potential model. “I’m one of these people who would always much rather see private investment,” he says, “and Crossrail has worked quite well, with a range of players investing in it as well as London taxpayers, to be paid back from the fare box. I think this would be a much higheryielding investment than conventional rail. We’ve seen returns declining precipitously for some rail franchises because passenger numbers are dropping and people are choosing to work from home. But if you suddenly could get people from city centre to city centre in 20 minutes, I think then you’d start to change things quite dramatically.” By contrast, Wright urges caution about committing any taxpayer funding at all. He says: “Central government funding is precious and shouldn’t be wasted on flippant projects.

The question must always be: how does it add value for the taxpayer and promote competitiveness for the Britisheconomy? Having some small-scale taxpayer-funded research into the feasibility of the Hyperloop is possible. For now, I don’t think the government should commit to anything more.” Given the work already under way, it’s almost certain that some sort of commercial Hyperloop service will soon be running. Horwitz says: “In India, we could begin construction as early as next year and be operational for passenger use in five to seven years. It’s a technology I’m looking to ride within years, not decades.”

Whether Hyperloop really will become a fifth mode of transport will be decided not by entrepreneurs, engineers, investors or government ministers, but by the travelling public.

In the meantime, Goodall pledges to remain a “creative sceptic”. He says: “I try to think about what might shift the balance in favour of building Hyperloop, but the technical problems are tough and the business case is marginal. Of course, one option is that my assessment is simply wrong – I have to be honest about that – but on the basis of the figures I’ve seen, I don’t think it stacks up.”