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Is a high-speed hyperloop close to becoming a reality?

Hyperloop
The procurement process is underway on the first Hyperloop in India. Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One
(Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One)

Would you get into a 10-seater 'vac-pod' to be whisked through a vacuum tube at 670mph? What if it cut your journey time by a staggering 90%?

The hyperloop concept, first mooted by Elon Musk in 2013 (or, at least, updated for the modern age), at last looks like becoming a reality. In India.

Hyperloop

Hyperloop will bring airplane speeds to ground level. Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One  (Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One)

What is Virgin Hyperloop One planning in India?

The first operational hyperloop. Despite being just 90 miles southeast of Mumbai in India, the journey from 'cultural capital' Pune to India's economic powerhouse city takes three hours. On a good day.

The Mumbai Pune Expressway is India's busiest corridor, with over 130,000 vehicles crawling between the two cities. The trains are full to bursting. Something has to give. Cue a concept for an ultra high-speed hyperloop between the two cities that could cut the journey time to just 25 minutes.

The plan is to construct a hyperloop between central Pune and Mumbai designed to take freight as well as people. And it might just be happening.

Authorities signed an agreement with Virgin Hyperloop One in 2017 to do feasibility studies and recently announced the company as Official Project Proponent. It will now invite suggestions and objections, and move to a bidding process.

This is as close as any hyperloop project has come so far. So what is a hyperloop, exactly?

Hyperloop

Hyperloops could send pods down a tube at 670 mph. Image credit: Hyperloop TT  (Image credit: Hyperloop TT)

What is the tech behind Virgin Hyperloop One?

Magnetic levitation. Although Musk's concept involved air bearings, the engineers at Virgin One Hyperloop have come up with their own spin.

"The original hyperloop ran on air bearings, but when we tested it, it took too much energy and also wasn't as stable as we wanted to be, so we moved to a magnetic levitation system," says Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications at Virgin Hyperloop One.

Also called maglev, this isn't new propulsion technology. It's about 30 years old, and currently only used on the Shanghai Transrapid, which travels from Shanghai's Pudong International Airport to Longyang Road in downtown Shangai in eight minutes, reaching top speeds of 268 mph.

Maglev tech replaces wheels with superconducting magnets on both the train and the track; the magnets are ranged so their opposite poles attract, with the fixed magnets on the track staying in place while repelling away from the magnets on the bottom of the train.

Hyperloop

Virgin Hyperloop One is inspired by the maglev tech used in an airport train in Shanghai. Image credit: Alex Needham/Wikipedia (public domain) (Image credit: Alex Needham/Wikipedia (public domain))

How does it differ from maglev?

The journey takes place in a vacuum tube, so there’s less friction from the air. "It's an iteration of maglev, but we're also evacuating the tube – we've engineered a maglev system that can work in a low-pressure environment similar to about 200,000 feet above sea level," says Kelly. "Maglev tech from bullet trains doesn't work in a vacuum (and) we can go two or three times faster than a maglev train, but use the same energy, hopefully less."

A critical part of the concept is that there's also an autonomous platform control and switching system. "It's not only about going fast," says Kelly. "It's also a point-to-point, direct-to-destination system – and it will be on-demand."

The idea is that passengers can enter a hyperloop station in the centre of a city, request a specific destination, and depart almost immediately in a pod. "The proprietary switching system will allow for pods to seamlessly travel at full speed in the main tube until its departure off something similar to a ramp and in order to switch, the pod and the track interact with one another," says Kelly. "You show up when you want, and we're able to customise journeys more than trains can, and balance supply and demand."

Hyperloop

DevLoop is a hyperloop test track near Las Vegas. Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One  (Image credit: Virgin Hyperloop One)

What is DevLoop?

DevLoop is Virgin’s full-scale hyperloop test site in the Nevada Desert, just outside Las Vegas. Around 500 meters (1,640 feet) long, it's where all the performance and safety tests are done, though it can't yet take people.

"Ask an engineer about why DevLoop is important and they will say that it's all about testing the product, and that's true, but we're talking about a new mass transportation system," says Kelly, who thinks DevLoop is just as important because it allows government officials and investors to see a hyperloop up close.

"We haven't seen a new type of mass transportation in over a hundred years, this is something completely new, so DevLoop is pivotal."

How is Virgin Hyperloop One different to Boring Co?

Yes, there are two main companies in this space, but don't get to fixated on the Richard Branson vs Elon Musk dynamic (besides, Branson recently stepped down as chairman of Virgin Hyperloop One). After all, Elon Musk's original paper was an open-source call-to-action, not a blueprint for his own company's plans.

Nevertheless, in December Musk unveiled a test tunnel of a proposed underground transportation network across Los Angeles. However, The Boring Co plans for a hyperloop are quite different to Virgin's.

"Boring is interesting," says Kelly. "It's focusing more on travel within cities whereas we're looking at creating mega-regions and connecting two cities together." However, the fast-digging tech pioneered by Boring Co could at last make tunneling cost-efficient and effective.

"Tunneling is so cost-prohibitive – the original concept of hyperloop was for them to be primarily underground, but the majority of our systems will be above-ground, from a cost-efficiency standpoint, and looking like a monorail," says Kelly. 

Other competitors to Virgin Hyperloop One include Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in France (which claims to have a test track in Toulouse), Canadian firm TransPod and Delft Hyperloop in the Netherlands.

Transpod

Canadian company Transpod is one of many companies with hyperloop concepts and mock-ups. Image credit: Transpod  (Image credit: Transpod)

How Hyperloop could work where you live

If you worked in London but could get to work in 20 minutes from another part of the UK where house prices were cheaper, would you leave the capital?

With hyperloops it would be possible to live in Edinburgh but work in London, or live in San Francisco but work in Los Angeles, or better still in terms of house prices, commute to a big city from a rural area.

"To give you an example, London Heathrow airport's planned third runway will cost between US$13-19 billion," says Kelly. "You could take that money and build a hyperloop between all of London's airports, Gatwick, Stansted, and Heathrow, have one check-in process, and balance supply and demand depending on what runways are open."

That specific route is no being discussed, but airport links could well prove to be the first use for live hyperloops. In fact, the mooted Pune-Mumbai hyperloop will have a node at the now-under-construction Navi Mumbai International Airport, which will be completed by 2032.

Where else will we see the first hyperloops?

You can find the time-saving benefits for any route you may care to dream-up on Virgin One Hyperloop’s online route estimator. Although there are advanced plans to create hyperloops in Missouri (St Louis to Kansas City in 31 minutes) and the Midwest (Pittsburgh to Chicago via Columbus in 30 minutes), the most likely to happen after the Pune to Mumbai line is in the UAE, where Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes looks like a strong candidate for an early showpiece hyperloop.

Either way, expect hyperloop to be a major talking point at the World Expo in Dubai in 2020 when we get a glimpse of exactly what's coming down the pipeline.