Believe it or not, you might be able to travel to Pune from Mumbai in only 23 minutes, thanks to a futuristic transportation system called Hyperloop.
In 2019, Hyperloop was designated a public infrastructure project by Maharashtra, which might make India the first ever country to get the Hyperloop train.
Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, is the brain behind this novel mode of transport that will enable passengers to travel between locations through floating pods suspended in massive low-pressure tubes, at speeds of 1100 kilometres per hour.
Elon described Hyperloop as a cross between “a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.”
The history of Hyperloop
The idea of using low-pressure or vacuum tubes for transport was first experimented by British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the late 1800s. Similar pneumatic tubes were also used to send mail packages between buildings in the 19th century, and still exist in supermarkets and banks.
Another similar concept was the ‘vactrain’ developed by Robert Goddard in the 20th century.
However, the interest in Hyperloop in the modem era must be credited to Elon Musk who suggested its possibility in his ‘Hyperloop Alpha’ paper in August 2013. He proposed an idea for a service running between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which would not only save time but will prove to be cheaper, safer, weather-proof and self-powering.
Hyperloop service could be the answer to travel between cities less than 1500 km or 900 miles apart.
The working of Hyperloop
Hyperloop, essentially, is a vacuum tube where a pod moves along a track that is magnetized so that there is very little resistance. This environment allows the pod to move at extremely high speeds using minimal electricity, which makes it low-cost to build and operate and so potentially much less expensive for passengers to buy tickets. Each pod is expected to carry 28 passengers and depart at 30 seconds interval.
While today’s bullet trains travel at 200 miles per hour and commercial airplanes at 500-600 mph, the hyperloop has projected speeds of 700-800 mph. And since a hyperloop can avoid the takeoff and landing that an airplane needs, it can shave off that extra time from the journey and create a more efficient trip.
Turning idea into reality
While Elon Musk envisioned the Hyperloop, there are several other companies trying to turn his dream into reality.
One of the most prominent ones is Virgin Hyperloop One, which is trying to create a commercially viable Hyperloop. Founded in 2014, it has already raised USD 295 million, with the aim of building an operational system by 2021. As of now, some of its projects are underway in Missouri, Texas, Colorado, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Virgin Hyperloop One has also announced plans to build a Hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai, with DP World as its partner.
The 60,500 crore project was to begin in 2020, but with the Covid-19 crisis hitting businesses globally, there are no new developments so far. The ambitious project is yet to find a regulator who can oversee its construction and safety aspects. The company had earlier mentioned that it would take a good 5-7 years to build the project.
Another player, Hyperloop TT, signed an MoU with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board to build a Hyperloop between the city centers of Vijayawada and Amaravati, potentially turning a trip of more than one hour into a six-minute ride.
The company is also working on the development of a route from Bratislava, Slovakia to Brno, Czech Republic.
The big challenges
These companies are looking to get the Hyperloop up and running, but despite their optimistic outlook, most of them are still in the pilot stages. It’s not easy to suddenly jump from short test routes to hundreds of kilometres in a go!
The technology is still in the development stage, and the success of Hyperloop does not depend on a one-size-fits-all model. It will depend on the destinations, local economics, and geography.
Another issue that can crop up is that of capacity – as of now, it is not clear if Hyperloop can move a large number of people in the pods. Some say it is next to impossible to achieve numbers like traditional rail. Some also argue that travelling in a Hyperloop might be uncomfortable, but Virgin Hyperloop One assures that it will be similar to an elevator or airplane ride.
There are also several engineering hurdles, like building tubes that are strong enough to carry high-speed pods, and finding energy-efficient ways to operate at low pressure.
Lastly, finding the right price for the service is essential.
The way forward
Hyperloop is a futuristic technology that is likely to have a huge impact. It will reduce air travel between big cities, build economies and trade and also reduce pressure on housing in cities allowing commuters to live far away. But there are several engineering hurdles this transportation system will have to overcome to carry passengers in comfort through a pneumatic tube.
The next stage for Hyperloop is to move beyond initial testing and feasibility studies, start longer distance trials of the technology and, even more importantly, test the service with passengers.
Only when all this is done will it become clear whether Hyperloop can really become a success.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)