The world of transport is undergoing a number of revolutions. One is the rise of the electric car, which cuts down on the emission of harmful substances. Research continues into self-driving vehicles, whose time seems to be getting closer and closer. At least until the outbreak of the pandemic, in recent years major growth in car pooling and car sharing looked like it might threaten the very concept of the private car. The transport horizon may indeed change radically as a result of a number of developments in electric, self-driving and shared cars, but there is also another important revolution in the pipeline: the Hyperloop train, a super-fast train Elon Musk conceived a decade or so ago. Since then, prototypes have been developed, tests carried out, and full-scale plans put into practice to build the first Hyperloop facilities. So, what is this new futuristic train, and what potential does it have?
What is a Hyperloop Train?
Hyperloop in Dubai, or the Hyperloop in Italy between Rome and Milan, are characterized as oven-ready projects. However, we must not forget that Musk, inventor of this futuristic train, first mentioned this “fifth mode of transport” in 2012, in California, when he described it as being immune to bad weather, run no risk of collisions, travel twice as fast as an airplane, and benefit from low fuel consumption. Between 2012 and 2013, a group of engineers at Tesla and SpaceX began working on the first ever Hyperloop models. They went on to publish their results and invite other companies to work on the project. We are, as you may see, talking about a very recent technology – one that is brand new, largely yet to be explored and modelled.
These fast trains travel through tubes in an environment similar to a vacuum: the capsule uses magnetic levitation technology and is powered by an ultra-efficient electric motor against only minimal friction. Especially on very long journeys, such an absence of resistance makes it possible to reach high speeds while keeping consumption extremely low.
Elon Musk’s brainchild is a highly-ambitious means of transport that will require resolving many different challenges. As we shall see, a number of companies believe it is feasible, and have launched their own projects to turn this dream into reality in around the world.
Companies Working on the Hyperloop
Since 2013, piggybacking on Elon Musk’s proposal, a number of companies have been founded and started to work more or less independently on their own Hyperloop projects. The first company to embark on this path was Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). Founded by Dirk Ahlborn and Bibop Gresta, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is currently working on four different prototypes: the most famous of these is in Abu Dhabi, linking the city to Al Ain via Dubai. The first section is scheduled to be up and running by 2023. Other HTT projects are located in Toulouse, France, where work began on building a test tunnel in 2017, in the Great Lakes region of North America, and in Hamburg, Germany.
Virgin Hyperloop (formerly known as Hyperloop One) is another company that has been particularly dynamic in early construction Hyperloop. Founded by Shervin Pishevar and Brogan BamBrogan, the company’s main investors now include Virgin owner Richard Branson. Since 2017, the company has selected ten different routes for its first Hyperloop networks in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and India.
Other companies working on early Hyperloops are TransPod of Canada, DGWHyperloop of India, Arrivo in California, Hardt Global Mobility in Holland, Zeleros in Spain, Nevomo in Poland, and last but not least, Hyperloop Italia in Italy.
Ongoing Hyperloop Tests
Following in the footsteps of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Virgin Hyperloop, all these companies have carried out tests over the years, running experiments around the world, from the Dubai desert to huge indoor experiment warehouses in Europe. Between 2017 and 2020, Virgin Hyperloop performed more than five hundred tests on a 500-metre-long tube. Even over this short distance, the prototype reached 380 kilometres per hour. On much longer routes, the ultimate goal is to hit cruising speeds of around 1,200 kilometres per hour. Given the difficulties in obtaining permits to build longer tubes, however, for the time being such speeds are unlikely to be achieved. The problem is not just obtaining the permits, either: longer tubes – ideally, for a full test the tube should be fifteen kilometres long or so – need to be built on flat, clear land so that the tube is perfectly straight and level. As Diane Zohu of Virgin Hyperloop explains to Spectrum News, “We’d like the ride to be as smooth as possible. Basically, it’ll have to work like a train: you get into the capsule, it accelerates gradually up to its maximum speed, but you don’t notice because it’s so gradual. Then, once you’re at full speed, it feels like you’re travelling normally.”
The three places most likely to lay claim to the world’s first operational hyperloop are Hyperloop Dubai, the Great Lakes area in the States, and Mumbai, India. Recently, there has been talk of an Italian Hyperloop. Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) announced the project earlier this summer, setting a goal of 2030 for a hyperfast train, initially on a short route, something like Milan to Malpensa in just ten minutes.