Beyond the hype of hyperloop

Is the turbocharged tube the solution to modern-day transport woes or a mere pipe dream? Four experts discuss


  • René Lavanchy

05 June 2019

Image: Irena Gajic

Hyperloop can improve our quality of life

As soon as I mention to people I work for Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO), they talk about their commute. The time we spend travelling, the impact that has on our stress levels what we're looking at doing is disrupting transportation as we know it.

We're trying to really set ourselves apart from high-speed rail or air travel; we're offering a mode of transport that is faster, cost competitive and environmentally more sustainable. We're looking at offering a service that deploys vehicles  pods  in a frequency of a few minutes or less, and enables peak passenger movement in excess of 12,000 passengers per hour per direction. We have run more than 300 tests to date on our prototype in Las Vegas.

We're developing a roadmap that will get us to commercialisation in a passenger offering by the mid 2020s. The furthest along of our projects is a route between Pune and Mumbai in India. We're proposing a 12km demonstration track, which will lend confidence to existing and future investors that the technology is ready, safe and makes sense as an investment.

Brandon Kluzniak is senior manager for civil infrastructure at Virgin Hyperloop One, Los Angeles, US

It can be economically viable, if the technology works

Our scope was to run a feasibility study for Virgin Hyperloop One and the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition to see if it's feasible to build a hyperloop from St Louis to Kansas City, with the route, potential economics and so on. The conclusion was this project would work. We didn't evaluate VHO's technology, instead we made an assumption that they can get up to 500-600mph as promised.

When you're moving in a tube at the speeds that VHO is proposing, it needs to be relatively flat and straight or you end up with potential for a rollercoaster effect. Almost all of the route would be within the interstate highway's right of way. We looked at potential ridership; by reducing travel time from four hours to 30 minutes we would save $410m in wasted productivity. Our high-level capital expenditure cost estimate for the route is $8bn- $10bn; VHO provided the numbers for operating expenditure.

The next step should be a sample project of enough size and scale to sort out regulatory authorities, do the proof of concept and have much better cost information.

Drew Thompson is a director at engineering consultant Black & Veatch, Kansas, US

It won't solve the transport crisis but has its uses

The major crisis in transport in most cities in the world is urban transport, short-distance commuting. The kind of speeds they are talking about for Hyperloop  in a dense urban area  you will never achieve. We need better last-mile connectivity.

When you need to create near-vacuum conditions, cost wise, this is a big guess. The turning radius for Hyperloop has to be very big, with no margin for error. Whether over or underground, because of that radius you're looking at a high cost. You've got to maintain this near-vacuum condition in the tubes. Who knows what the costs are when you have 200 miles of this. This technology is not moving any more people compared with an Airbus A320 or a Japanese high-speed train.

I think some elements of Hyperloop are going to be useful in moving people or freight. Amazon, for example, should be interested; with humans you have safety issues, but you can move packages around. This may not be the end product, but something will come out of it.

Ira Gupta is a London-based commercial adviser to transport and energy clients worldwide

Hyperloop is not a reality, and may never be

Hyperloop can't be a solution to any current transport problem, as it doesn't exist. This is like the Wright brothers pitching airports before they'd flown an aeroplane it's a bit premature. Magnetic levitation technology has been around for years and we've had pneumatic tubes since the 1800s. Putting these two technologies together doesn't work at this time. There's no reason public agencies should propose to build lines until they've built a test track that functions.

Long tubes of metal are going to expand and contract. You can imagine shorter tubes connected by rubber or something, but what's the loss of vacuum? We don't know. Nobody's built one. Since they've never put a person in a hyperloop, they have no idea how people are going to react.

In addition to not having technology, they don't have a business case. How do they get passenger flows that justify the cost? This isn't faster than anything that has come before  we have aeroplanes. They haven't come up with a market where this works better than anything we already have.

David Levinson is professor of transport at the University of Sydney