Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, the vacuum tube-based train he once claimed would complete the 350-mile trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour, has taken its first baby steps towards reality after reaching 192mph in a test.
In concept, Hyperloop is not only faster than a regular train, it’s faster than any planes carrying the public around. If they work, he’ll even export them to Mars. It sounds outlandish, but Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX have gone well so far, so he has some credibility in the bank.
In this case, he’s an ideas man rather than an engineer, and the Nevada test was undertaken by Hyperloop One, one of several unaffiliated companies started up to make his dream a reality.
But if you haven’t been paying close attention, you might be surprised to find that things aren’t going exactly as planned.
It is not that fast
While 192mph is a fairly fast speed for an average train and proof that Hyperloop One’s engineers can get some kind of vehicle through a tube, it’s also a somewhat disappointing introduction to the world.
Bullet trains in Japan go 2oomph all the time. The Eurostar, between Paris and London, goes up to 186mph on its current route, without utilising bleeding-edge technology.
The Hyperloop will undoubtedly speed up as engineers get to grips with their project, but it’s a matter of degree. To go fast enough to get from LA to SF in half an hour, as The Verge points out in an interesting explainer, the Hyperloop would have to go more than 700mph on average.
The test is nowhere close, and the way the technology looks, it’s going to be difficult to make gains beyond what conventional trains can already do.
It’s not what he said it was
Musk’s original top-of-the-head plan for Hyperloop – he excels at top-of-the-head plans – was for tiny three-person pods which shoot down one-way tubes. They would initially be propelled, and then would slide quickly and effortlessly through the vacuum.
What happened in the test does not closely resemble that plan. The test pod was 28 feet long and 11 feet in diameter – it looks a bit like a bus with a beak, or a conventional bullet train – and it was launched by an electric system before switching to magnetic levitation, or maglev.
This is not the same as levitating through a vacuum – though the engineers did pump most of the air out of their concrete tube to speed the craft’s travel.
Fast trains already exist
The thing about using maglev for Hyperloop is that maglev already exists. It works. In Japan, it has reached speeds of up to 375mph – manned – in tests, and the Shanghai version goes 270mph in the wild.
Trains long and short, fast and slow, are being levitated by magnets across the world. If the question posed on California’s west coast is “how do we ferry people quickly from Los Angeles to San Francisco”, then the obvious answer is “maglev”.
The Japanese version, due open this year, will make the 250-mile trip from Tokyo to Osaka in just over an hour. It’s not quite the 30 minute LA-SF trip, but it also doesn’t require inventing questionably practical new technology to make a pod go 700mph in a vacuum tube.
The current train from LA to SF takes about 12 hours direct, although it’s a sightseeing route, and the half-train half-bus route through inland Bakersfield takes 10. If train travel was a priority, would they not have improved on this already?
They’re trying. The California High Speed Rail Authority has planned a high-speed link by 2029 that will run the course in 2 hours 30 minutes – unless the Hyperloop hype gets in the way of its funding and planning.
Its technical requirements will be nearly impossible to fulfill
Let’s say Hyperloop works as promised. Let’s say it can theoretically travel 700mph through a vacuum tube and get passengers – perhaps even a beaked bus full of passengers rather than a three-person pod – across a distance of 350 miles.
It still has to be built, and this is where much of the backlash so far falls. Musk promised it would cost just £6bn – a sixth of the budget for Crossrail 2, which is set to cover the slightly less traversed Broxbourne to Surrey route.
That would drastically undercut the California High Speed Rail Authority’s plan, if it was remotely realistic.
It assumes the tubes can fit in all manner of strange places, including the middle parts of motorways – less likely now they look like they’ll be bigger – and that the sheen of Silicon Valley disruption will make it somehow vastly cheaper to build things like viaducts across valleys – which would revolutionise civil engineering in general and is also very unlikely.
Why viaducts? Because a pod shooting along a vacuum in a tube needs to be going very straight. If it’s going 700mph, with all the G-force implications with the slightest turn, then the tube needs to be very, very straight.
And it’s hard, to say the least, to secure the rights to an exactly straight line worth of land between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
…but we might still get something out of it
Of course, there is no obligation for anyone to make the exact vacuum tube envisioned by Elon Musk. And there are places in need of fast, relatively environmentally friendly travel outside California.
Hyperloop One is just one among a variety of companies which have proposed hyperloops everywhere from India to Australia to the Czech Republic to Britain’s East Coast Main Line.
The sometimes blind faith in Musk’s abilities as a visionary is driving investment – and even if California turns out to be a disaster, it might teach us lessons we can apply elsewhere. London to Manchester in 26 minutes anyone?