Hyperloop, the Train of the Future: Racing through Airless Tubes at the Speed of Sound

It is more than five years since entrepreneur Elon Musk first presented his train of the future Hyperloop. Travelling at almost the speed of sound, a capsule will carry passages through airless tubes and connect metropolises together. What sounded like a pipedream then, and to some extent still does, is now slowly becoming a reality.

At the end of October, a tweet by Elon Musk attracted a lot of attention in the world of mobility: “The first tunnel is almost done,” the bustling investor tweeted. However, he was not talking about a construction for his Tesla electric vehicle group. Instead, this announcement referred to a test track for the new Hyperloop transport system from his high-tech company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Hyperloop is a revolutionary train, albeit not one that fits the traditional definition of a rail vehicle any longer. Vacuum pumps create an airless space inside a closed tunnel system, thus reducing drag. The electromagnetically powered capsules should then be able to hover in the tunnels, reaching almost sonic speeds – more than 1200 kilometers per hour – with extremely low energy consumption. “Our Hyperloop will have the speed of a plane, the capacity of a train and the timing of public transport,” says Musk enthusiastically.

The test tunnel in the metropolitan region of Los Angeles, with its approximately 14 million inhabitants, should open on 10 December 2018. Free test journeys are planned the following day, although they will not travel at anywhere near the envisaged top speeds. The Hyperloop will initially hover along at an almost leisurely speed of 250 to 300 kilometers per hour. The tunnel runs approximately 3.2 kilometers under the streets of Hawthorne in the greater Los Angeles region, where the headquarters of Musk’s space business SpaceX are also located.

Initial Hyperloop Tests in Europe too

The idea of the Hyperloop is not just a trend any more, it has transformed into a whole industry with several different competitors. The plans are global too: commercial Hyperloop systems are to be built in China, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and several European countries. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has also made the leap to Europe. To start with, they started constructing a short 320 meter long closed Hyperloop test track in the French city of Toulouse in spring 2018. In addition, there are also plans for a further test track a thousand meters long and four meters in diameter, supported by pylons six meters high. These dimensions correspond to a real connection to be built later, although there are currently no plans for its routing as of yet. The closed Hyperloop test system will be ready for operation as early as 2018, and the long test track will then follow the year after.

With his company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Elon Musk is planning to build a tunnel across the west of Los Angeles and another between a subway line and the Dodger baseball stadium, amongst other things.

Also in the running for the first commercial route is Virgin Hyperloop One. The technology company founded by billionaire Richard Branson faced serious setbacks during the construction of its first Hyperloop line in Saudi Arabia, as plans have just been halted due to political reasons. It therefore remains unclear when and where the first regular Hyperloop link will be put into operation, or whether it will happen at all, since critics consider the system extremely difficult to realize. They point to many still unresolved physical problems, aside from the high construction costs. For example, there is still no technical solution for points or junctions in the system. Rescuing passengers in the case of emergencies, such as earthquakes or attacks, would also be extremely difficult because of the hermetically sealed, airless tubes.

Neither will there be any “real” windows in the passenger capsules, since there would simply be no point in having them inside the tubes. However, the developers have planned large interactive screens for the walls where virtual worlds – or even commercials – can be displayed.

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Images: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies