End of the line for high-speed rail?

When the California high speed rail project got the go-ahead in 2012 some of the whizz-kids in Silicon Valley were horrified. They said the 220mph scheme linking Los Angeles with San Francisco would be slowest bullet train in the world and have the highest cost per mile.

Polymath Elon Musk -founder of Tesla (the electric car company) and SpaceX (the space exploration company) and of many other things as well – was aghast at the prospect  and came up with an alternative way of travelling between the two cities for a fraction of the time or cost.

Thus ‘Hyperloop’ was born, or rather conceptualised: Hyperloop is described as a fifth transport mode; it’s not a train, or an aircraft, or a tube, but a combination of all three. It’s a new ultra high speed transport system that can carry passengers – and goods – in sealed pods and whisk them away in enclosed overhead tubes at 760 mph (1,223 kph). That’s just lower than the speed of sound and many times faster than the fastest trains around, and faster than any civilian aircraft (except Concorde, which is now no more).

Such speeds are only possible because the tubes –elevated 20ft above the ground –are near vacuums with low air pressure and no friction. Magnetic levitation will keep the pods off the ‘track’, and the capsules will be propelled by linear induction motors powered by solar panels on top of the tubes.

Musk says all the technology is proven; it just needs someone to put it together and make it work.

Hyperloop aficionados say high speed railways have become dinosaur industries.  Hyperloop will cut journey times between San Francisco and LA (around 350 miles) to just 36 minutes, whereas the best the California bullet train will be able to achieve would be 2hrs 40mins. They estimate the cost of the former at $16bn and quote $68bn for the latter.

Hyperloop could be running in the next decade.

Hyperloop

Far from being dismissed as science fiction, Musk’s ideas are being taken seriously and appear to be gaining ground. Two companies are vying to be first to introduce the new system and are busy setting up experimental test tracks – Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and the confusingly similar sounding Hyperloop Technologies (HT).

HTT has just reached an agreement with the Slovakian government to link the capitals Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest by 2020, and this could be operational before the Californian version.

What relevance has any of this for the UK? Well, if the system works and if it has the capacity to do the job, and if it proves to be economically viable, then HS2 would be out of date before construction is even started.

But these are very big ifs . . . time will tell whether Hyperloop is a new beginning or just another false dawn.

For more information about Hyperloop:

http://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/hyperloop_alpha-20130812.pdf

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