Lots of people have dreams of building rockets and supercars, but very few actually do it.
That’s why when self-made billionaire Elon Musk – a man who has turned both dreams into viable businesses with Tesla Motors and SpaceX – announces plans for a revolutionary new form of transport, you sit up and take notice.
On Monday, he unveiled a hypothetical new transport system called Hyperloop. It is radically different from anything currently in use- so radical in fact that it seems unlikely such a thing could ever to come to fruition. But this is Elon Musk we are talking about, a man who’s SpaceX company recently became the first commercial entity to resupply the International Space Station. When he thinks big it tends to happen, and it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
The idea itself is relatively simple. Hyperloop is a transport system made up of capsules that travel on a cushion of air through a tube from one point to another. It works a lot like the pneumatic tubes that were used to deliver messages around factories and offices, and should be able to carry passengers at a top speed of 760 mph. To put that into perspective, trains categorised as ‘high-speed rail’ such as the proposed HS2 line between London and Birmingham need travel at only 155 mph.
Musk is pitching Hyperloop as a solution to connect two cities under 900 miles apart, and has designed the system with a particular route in mind, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. With journeys longer than this, he believes supersonic aircraft offer a faster and more efficient solution (although we don’t have any of those available to passengers at the moment either). This 900 mile limit covers every point in the UK though, so it’s hardly a deal breaker for us.
The route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is 382 miles by road and takes just over five and a half hours to drive. Hyperloop can do it in 35 minutes. This is faster than any high-speed train could ever hope to achieve, and it does it whilst having far less of an impact on the environment. The Hyperloop tube is to be carried on pylons alongside existing roads, diminishing the amount of land that it must take up. Unlike high-speed rail networks which require 100 ft strips of land to carry the rails and cut off those on one side of the tracks from the other, Hyperloop’s pylons have about as much impact on the environment as telegraph pole that farmers have been putting up with for decades.
When it comes to its green credentials though, Hyperloop has an ace up its sleeve. The entire system is powered by solar panels covering the tube itself. Early indications are that the system will actually produce far more electricity than it will use, even taking into account night running and extended periods of overcast weather. With all this in mind, it might surprise you to learn that the estimated cost of building a 350 mile route from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a mere $6 billion. That might sound like a lot, but compare it to the £21.4 billion, 117 mile HS2 route from London to Birmingham that is on the way and it seems like a bargain. In fact, it begs the question why are bothering with high-speed rail at all?
High speed rail is, in the grand scheme of things and despite the name, slow. HS2 is projected to cut journey times from London to Birmingham from 84 minutes to 49 minutes. Hyperloop could do it in 12 minutes, and it would be cheaper. With statistics like that, it’s hard to see HS2 being anything other than utterly obsolete when it finally opens in 2026, if it isn’t already.
Other companies also have plans for tube-based, high-speed transport. ET3 are one such outfit whose plans are even more extravagant than Musk’s. Their idea is to maintain a vacuum in the tube and levitate the capsules magnetically, eliminating any friction or resistance and enabling travel at up to 4000 mph. That’s London to New York in under an hour. However, the plan is fraught with difficulty. It’s hard enough to maintain a vacuum in a room, let alone a network of many thousands of miles of tubing with entry and exit points for passengers, and a single leak could bring the whole system to a halt. It’s issues like this that allow politicians and administrators to be cynical about future technologies and play safe. Radically new technology is difficult to design and even harder to implement, yet Elon Musk has a track record in this area that lends Hyperloop much greater credibility than its rivals and may allow it to overcome this initial cynicism, especially if it turns out to be as cheap to build as he says it is. If it happens, it will surely be the death knell for high speed rail that, to be honest, is long overdue.
There’s an old saying about trying to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps it’s time we did without them all together.