TUNNEL VISIONS

The concept of using vacuum systems to move people through tubes at high speeds dates back centuries, but in the five years since Elon Musk proposed a high-tech version, the hyperloop has taken on new life, with dozens of projects under consideration. Still, no one can say for sure that it will be feasible.

(TW Illustration by Jenn Martins)

(TW Illustration by Jenn Martins)

In October, Virgin Hyperloop One delivered what it surely considered to be bombshell news. An independent feasibility study, undertaken in cooperation with the state of Missouri, had confirmed the viability of a hyperloop route connecting St. Louis and Kansas City, with a stop in Columbia in the middle of the state.

Route time to cover the 250 miles would be just 28 minutes, compared with three and a half hours via automobile. The cost of taking the hyperloop, the engineering consulting firm Black & Veatch estimated, would be lower than the cost to drive, in part because system development costs would be approximately 40% less than with high-speed rail. 

“The preliminary numbers look like it’s way cheaper to build and way faster,” said Bill Turpin, CEO of the Columbia-based Missouri Innovation Center, which is a part of the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, a public-private partnership.

Other U.S. states and regional transit entities are also undertaking hyperloop feasibility studies, but the Missouri study is the first of its kind to have been completed in the U.S.

Hyperloops are a nascent rapid-transit technology that, should they actually be built, have the potential to transform the travel industry and, indeed, the world. 

Advertisement

Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One

Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One

“Airlines should be afraid,” asserted Craig Hodgetts, a UCLA professor of architecture, who collaborated with California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HyperloopTT, and students at the UCLA Ideas Campus to produce a 300-plus-page conceptual report on hyperloops. 

The proposed workings of various hyperloop systems aren’t uniform. Indeed, the term hyperloop is something of a catch-all that works conveniently for marketing purposes and headline writers. Bloomberg, for example, uses the much drier phraseology, “tube-encased, high-speed trains.”

In their purest sense though, hyperloops are systems in which pods, similar in size to a single train car, travel through a vacuum-sealed tunnel or tube, hovering via magnetic levitation. The near absence of friction, due both to the levitation and the extremely low atmospheric pressure in the tube, would help the pods reach speeds of around 700 mph, faster than commercial aircraft. 

Hyperloops would be powered electrically, using solar or other green energies. Just as important, they would produce no audible noise outside the tunnel. 

HyperloopTT, one of the two primary players working on hyperloop development, promotes the technology on its website this way: “Hyperloop brings airplane speeds to ground level, safely. Passengers and cargo capsules will hover through a network of low-pressure tubes between cities, transforming travel time from hours to minutes.” 

Imagine, in other words, Los Angeles to San Francisco in 43 minutes, New York to Boston in 26 minutes or Detroit to Chicago in 31 minutes, all without having to suffer through TSA security. Each of those are time estimates from Virgin Hyperloop One, which anticipates that its pods will reach speeds of 671 mph, according to head of marketing Ryan Kelly, who spoke at a September presentation at the Future Travel Experience Global conference in Las Vegas. 

Virgin Hyperloop One expects its pods, each holding eight to 12 people, would depart from designated stations on a nearly continuous basis. So no waiting around for the handful of departures or even hourly frequencies that airlines offer on their much larger planes. 

Advertisement
Virgin Hyperloop One loads a pod into its test tunnel in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. The company was the first to open such a test track. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One loads a pod into its test tunnel in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. The company was the first to open such a test track. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One’s third-of-a-mile test tunnel, which has carried a pod at 220 mph. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One’s third-of-a-mile test tunnel, which has carried a pod at 220 mph. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

The HyperloopTT test tunnel on its way to the Toulouse test site. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

The HyperloopTT test tunnel on its way to the Toulouse test site. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a hyperloop station as envisioned by HyperloopTT. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a hyperloop station as envisioned by HyperloopTT. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of the proposed Chicago O’Hare Loop station from which Elon Musk’s Boring Company plans to ferry passengers to downtown in 12 minutes. (Courtesy of The Boring Company)

A rendering of the proposed Chicago O’Hare Loop station from which Elon Musk’s Boring Company plans to ferry passengers to downtown in 12 minutes. (Courtesy of The Boring Company)

Virgin Hyperloop One loads a pod into its test tunnel in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. The company was the first to open such a test track. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One loads a pod into its test tunnel in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. The company was the first to open such a test track. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One’s third-of-a-mile test tunnel, which has carried a pod at 220 mph. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One’s third-of-a-mile test tunnel, which has carried a pod at 220 mph. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

The HyperloopTT test tunnel on its way to the Toulouse test site. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

The HyperloopTT test tunnel on its way to the Toulouse test site. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a hyperloop station as envisioned by HyperloopTT. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a hyperloop station as envisioned by HyperloopTT. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of the proposed Chicago O’Hare Loop station from which Elon Musk’s Boring Company plans to ferry passengers to downtown in 12 minutes. (Courtesy of The Boring Company)

A rendering of the proposed Chicago O’Hare Loop station from which Elon Musk’s Boring Company plans to ferry passengers to downtown in 12 minutes. (Courtesy of The Boring Company)

ORIGINS 

As a modern idea, the explosion of interest in hyperloops dates to 2013, when SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk presented a groundbreaking white paper on the concept and challenged other innovators to develop the systems. 

However, the idea of using vacuum systems to move items rapidly through tubes dates back hundreds of years. In the 19th century, for example, several European cities built vacuum-propelled tubular railways powered by steam. In 1873, the Beach Pneumatic Transit, a subway predecessor in Manhattan, used compressed air to move its single car. 

And in 1910, the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, who was a physicist and engineer by training, proposed a train levitated by magnets that would travel from New York to Boston in 12 minutes inside a vacuum-sealed tunnel. That system was never built. 

Nevertheless, Musk’s white paper triggered a new era of hyperloop interest, research and, yes, hype. 

Just five years later, companies and governments around the world are inking agreements and proposing hyperloop systems. 

In South Korea, for example, the government entered into a licensing agreement in 2017 with HyperloopTT to build a system between Seoul and the southern city of Busan. 

In India, Virgin Hyperloop One has entered into a framework agreement with the state of Maharashtra for a system between Mumbai and the manufacturing hub of Pune, approximately 100 miles away.

Meanwhile, in the United Arab Emirates, Virgin Hyperloop One and HyperloopTT are duking it out for the right to build a line between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

A rendering of a HyperloopTT tube crossing a desert. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a HyperloopTT tube crossing a desert. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

A rendering of a HyperloopTT tube crossing a desert. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

Among other countries that have entered into hyperloop agreements are China, Indonesia and Ukraine. 

Numerous routes have been proposed in the U.S. as well, though governments haven’t gone so far as to enter into licensing agreements.

Like Missouri, Colorado is working with Virgin Hyperloop One on a feasibility study, this one for a 215-mile route from Cheyenne, Wyo., in the north to Pueblo, Colo., in the south via Denver and Colorado Springs. Proposals also call for a 100-mile, east-west spur between Denver and Vail. Colorado Department of Transportation communications director Amy Ford said in October that state officials expect to complete the study this year. 

Likewise, in June, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission decided to include a feasibility and environmental impact study for a Pittsburg-Chicago hyperloop line via Columbus as part of a broader analysis that also includes high-speed rail. Not to be left out of the Chicago mix, HyperloopTT partnered in February with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Committee to begin a feasibility study on a Cleveland to Chicago line. 

Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Despite the hype, however, hyperloop technology requires more testing. To date, no company has built a test track long enough to prove that hyperloop pods can actually go 600 mph to 700 mph — or that they can do it safely. 

In the spring of 2017, Virgin Hyperloop One became the first company to open a test track of any scale when it did so in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. The system’s performance was promising, with the hyperloop pod reaching 220 mph over the tunnel’s third-of-a-mile course. But the company would need a longer test tunnel to achieve full speed. 

HyperloopTT, meanwhile, is building a test track in Toulouse, France, which it expects to be operational in the spring. In October, the company also unveiled a full-scale hyperloop pod to be used on that track. 

The full-scale hyperloop pod that HyperloopTT will use in the test tube it is building in Toulouse, France, which the company expects to be operational in the spring. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

The full-scale hyperloop pod that HyperloopTT will use in the test tube it is building in Toulouse, France, which the company expects to be operational in the spring. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

The full-scale hyperloop pod that HyperloopTT will use in the test tube it is building in Toulouse, France, which the company expects to be operational in the spring. (Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

In an email, HyperloopTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn said the company plans to begin construction in Abu Dhabi next year on its first commercial line and that it hopes to have the first portion of that line operational for the World Expo there in October 2020. 

Ahlborn said he sees hyperloops as especially ideal for connecting cities a few hundred kilometers apart as well as for local metro systems. Long-range travel is likely to remain cheaper and more convenient by air. 

Still, some transportation experts remain dubious.

“While I do hope something like this will happen, it distracts us from the real challenges we have,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance for the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank. Those real problems include ordinary tasks such as fixing bridges and potholes and making sure buses run on time.

Lewis concluded, “In reality, the systems that have been the underlying basis of our transportation systems for decades will continue to be so.” 

While he doesn’t question the basic technological premise of hyperloops, Lewis is deeply skeptical, from both a regulatory and cost perspective, about the feasibility of actually building them. 

On the regulatory end, there would be large challenges in obtaining rights of way. Unlike train tracks, which are able to take frequent bends and turns, hyperloop tunnels will need to be built on lines that are as straight as possible due to the high speed at which the pods would travel. Think of the turning radius of a passenger airplane, said UCLA’s Hodgetts. Hyperloops, too, would have to turn in broad arcs. 

Obtaining the land for such systems would be difficult, especially in crowded corridors such as California and the Eastern Seaboard. 

“When we built the railroads, we stole lands from Native Americans,” Lewis said. “Highways, we stole land from farmers and city dwellers. Those are things we wouldn’t do now.”

In the case of underground hyperloop tunnels, the situation is made more complicated by the proliferation of existing underground infrastructure, including utility and sewer lines. In fact, because no hyperloops currently exist, regulatory agencies must first determine how would they even classify the systems. 

That’s one issue Colorado is pondering in its feasibility study, Ford said. 

“What’s the environmental process?” she asked. “Is it a train? A pipeline? A road? Who governs that? Who owns the right of way?” 

That lack of definition, however, could also enable governments to be creative, especially in cases where the hyperloop tunnel is elevated, as is proposed in Missouri.

Turpin of the Missouri Innovation Center, for example, said that in some respects a hyperloop tunnel resembles a power line more than it does a train or highway. Both are nearly silent and can cross over farmland without disturbing it.

“If humanity would have stopped at regulatory challenges, I’m not sure where we would be today,” Turpin said.

In Lewis’ view, the largest looming barrier to hyperloop development is its cost. 

High-speed rail, he said, wins out over hyperloops in terms of ease of construction and maintenance. The operational cost of hyperloops would also be higher than that of trains, Lewis said, owing largely to the cost of constantly running vacuum pumps to take air out of the system. 

Air travel infrastructure also wins out in a cost comparison with hyperloops, according to Lewis.

“It’s a whole lot cheaper to build two miles of runway than it is to build 200 miles of hyperloop,” he said. 

Others paint a rosier picture on hyperloops’ costs. 

“Our feasibility studies, conducted alongside government transportation departments and leading construction engineering firms, have concluded that the cost per mile and kilometer for hyperloop systems is significantly less than high-speed rail, often in the tens of millions [of dollars] less,” Ahlborn wrote. He added that operational costs are also low enough to allow for full cost recovery in eight to 12 years. 

“Even if we double that time to 24 years,” he said, “it is amazing compared to the return on investment of other transportation modes.”

On its website, Virgin Hyperloop One asserts that third parties have concluded that the capital and operational costs of a hyperloop could be two-thirds the cost of high-speed rail. 

The interior of test tunnel. Such hyperloops employ magnetic levitation. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

The interior of test tunnel. Such hyperloops employ magnetic levitation. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

The interior of test tunnel. Such hyperloops employ magnetic levitation. (Courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

And the press release describing the results of the Missouri feasibility study indicates system development costs from St. Louis to Kansas City would be approximately 40% less than for high-speed rail. 

However, as of the end of November, some six weeks after that release went out, the report itself hadn’t been made available to the public. Officials hope to release it by the end of the year, Turpin said. 

As for rider costs, Hodgetts said that during his time working with HyperloopTT, the company had a fare price of $30 in mind for a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Even so, Lewis said that none of the claims about affordability to this point have been backed up by data.

“Other than just throwing numbers out, there has been no real analysis,” he said. 

Still, he does concede that there are smart and dedicated people whose perspective on the future of hyperloops is far more optimistic.

Hodgetts, for one, said he thinks such systems are much more than just a fanciful vision for dreamer types. At a conference two summers ago in Ulsan, South Korea, he said he listened as designers and physicists talked about hyperloop nuances ranging from how to dispel body heat through the vacuum tube to how to facilitate cellphone connections while traveling at speed in the system.

“Those questions had me thinking to myself, ‘These guys are serious,’” he said. 

Advertisement

Variations on the hyperloop theme

Hyperloops aren’t the only tube-encased, high-speed transit concepts currently in the works. In Chicago, for example, the city has tapped Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build, at its own expense, what Musk calls a Loop system connecting O’Hare Airport with downtown in 12 minutes. 

The Loop is to feature platforms holding 12 to 24 passengers that would travel under electric power and via tunnel at speeds of up to 150 mph. The Boring Company was set to open its test tunnel for Loop technology on Dec. 10 beneath the streets of the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, where SpaceX is headquartered. 

Another hyperloop derivative, this one proposed by the Los Angeles-based startup Arrivo, would use magnetic levitation, but not vacuum pressure, to propel commuters at speeds of 200 mph. It would be designed for regional rather than long-distance transit and could make use of existing roadways. 

The company plans to build a test track in Denver. The system could even potentially enable drivers to ride in their own vehicles, which would be driven onto what Arrivo is calling a “skate,” essentially a levitated platform that is electrically propelled with the aid of magnets. The state of Colorado is working with Arrivo on a feasibility study.

—R.S.

Advertisement