THERE is a new buzz in the country at the prospect of an ultra-modern, even futuristic, transportation system making a debut in India, among the first few countries to host this much-touted system. If it becomes reality, it would be yet another instance of India leading the march of highly developed tech-led countries, the dream being actively promoted among the “aspirational classes” in this country, not satisfied with just a bullet train but looking to leapfrog to the next generation transport. Or so the public is led to believe, if one goes by the media hype surrounding a couple of promotional events in the capital last week for possible Hyperloop pilot projects in India. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) as well as Hyperloop One made well-attended presentations in which senior union ministers of railways, transport and other related portfolios participated, with potential projects supposedly having support of concerned state governments.
So what is the Hyperloop transportation system, and how close is it to becoming a reality? Where else in the world is it being thought of? What are its pros and cons? Is it a viable system, or is it just a pipedream (pardon the pun), at least in India?
WHAT IS HYPERLOOP?
Hyperloop is an experimental or proposed mode of transport involving separate pods carrying passengers or goods, propelled along a near-vacuum tube or pipe without touching its sides, at speeds exceeding those of contemporary commercial aircraft. To clarify further, Hyperloop is not a train or a set of carriages like in a Metro, but consists of individual pods which can join the loop at a chosen time and can also branch off into offshoot lines as desired.
In its current concept – a full-scale test version is not ready yet – the tube contains air at very low pressure with the pods magnetically levitating above rails and zipping through the tube at high speeds enabled by the near vacuum, and propelled by electric induction motors on the tube walls. This is much like the high speeds attained by aircraft flying through extremely thin air at high altitudes, but at even greater speeds due to the near-vacuum conditions and requiring very low power, cruising on the momentum generated during the initial acceleration. In the alpha-level concept, passenger pods are to be about 2.23 metres (7 feet 4 inches) in diameter, not as cramped as it sounds (see photo) reaching speeds of around 1200 kmph (a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet has maximum speed of 850kmph) with maximum acceleration of about 0.5g or about 2-3 times the acceleration felt in a commercial plane during take-off. Incidentally, no sonic boom is expected at these speeds.
People are already used to high speed travel on rail or by air. Essentially, passengers do not really experience speed during air travel, but rather feel acceleration especially during take-off. On rails it is the uneven motion, rattling along tracks, and noise that lead to experience of speed or discomfort. This is expected to be sharply reduced in the Hyperloop or in MagLev systems due to near absence of friction and physical contact with rails etc. Some experts, however, have cautioned about the likely effects of even small deviations of the tube from straight line paths both as regards reduction of speed and passenger discomfort.
The idea was originally conceived and made public in 2013 by intrepid tech entrepreneur Elon Musk as a disruptive technology for a “fifth mode” of transportation (after road, rail, air and water), and called it Hyperloop because the tubes were envisaged as covering a loop and the view was ultimately to travel at hypersonic speeds, several times the speed of sound. Musk however, already having his hands full with electric car Tesla and private space business SpaceX, whose engineers worked together to develop the concept, decided not to commercialise the idea himself. Rather he put it in the public domain while remaining engaged with the concept’s development. The “Hyperloop” name was registered as a trademark in several countries by SpaceX but, apart from that, the design process has been placed in the public domain to be developed in open source mode, with several companies and academic institutions working on different aspects and, in the process, building what has become known as the “hyperloop community.”
NO DEPLOYMENT YET
So far Hyperloop has not been demonstrated or even tested anywhere, leave alone being deployed in active service. A 1.6km long test track was laid out by SpaceX in mid-2015 near its Hawthorne, California, facility to enable different pod developers to test their designs. But, as may be imagined, the test track is so short that it does not permit pods to accelerate at rates anywhere near operational requirements and therefore only serves to prove design concepts to a limited extent.
Two US-based companies, both of whom were in India in February 2017 making presentations, are front runners towards commercialisation, ahead of others by a considerable margin. Of the two, even though Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) protested vigorously that Hyperloop One was an interloper trying to upstage it in India, Hyperloop One has done far more engineering work and is closer to making an operational system.
Although Hyperloop One has no formal connections with SpaceX or Elon Musk, many of its top engineers and executives have close links with them. The firm was incorporated in 2014 and has raised $160 million from a host of angel and venture capitalists and other investors such as port major DP World Group of Dubai, French national rail company SNCF, US’ General Electric and Russian state fund RDIF.
Hyperloop One recently released photographs (see photo 2) of the first full-scale but short length 500 metre, 3.3 metre diameter test track known as DevLoop in the Nevada desert.
Earlier this year, it also announced finalisation of plans with the Dubai government to conduct detailed feasibility studies for Hyperloop cargo and passenger services between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, potentially connecting different commercial centres, ports and population centres in the Emirates, such as Jebel Ali, Burj Khalifa and Al Ain in what could be the first commercial roll out of Hyperloop. The company says that, in technological terms, the system could be operational in around five years. The 125 km distance by road is expected to be covered in 12 minutes.
Most other plans too are either preliminary studies or more detailed feasibility studies. These include a Helsinki-Stockholm 500km route in 30 minutes via a tunnel under the Baltic Sea. Passenger routes in Russia and a cargo route linking Chinese ports to far-eastern Russian ports have also been studied. Musk’s initial proposal was a San Francisco-Los Angeles loop in direct competition with the High Speed Rail project which he projected would cost twice as much for infrastructure and operations.
Other companies are evaluating other routes. Hyper Poland and Warsaw University are looking into a Krakow-Gdansk link, Delft Hyperloop at Paris-Amsterdam, and Transpod at Toronto-Montreal, currently served by the busiest highway in North America.
HTT is an interesting example of how disruptive tech start-ups operate. It has around 500 part-time engineers located in different parts of the US who collaborate through periodic data-sharing and teleconferences. They do not draw any salaries but get stock options for their work. HTT admits that it will take around 10 years to get their system operational. In mid-2015 HTT announced setting up of an 8 km test track somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco but till date has not been able to obtain necessary clearances.
HTT too has been conducting several feasibility studies, for instance with the Abu Dhabi government for a Dubai-Abu Dhabi loop. HTT is also conducting feasibility studies in Indonesia, Czech Republic-Slovakia, Vienna-Budapest etc. There appears to be considerable overlap in the potential customer base between Hyperloop One and HTT, which also indicates the targeting of very similar traffic-terrain-technology profiles by the two companies. For instance, there seems to be a conscious effort to target sectors where bullet trains are being thought of, with claims that a Hyperloop could cost one-tenth of High Speed Rail (HSR) and that countries on the cusp of now embarking on HSR should seriously consider leapfrogging to Hyperloop. This was the pitch made to India by HTT chief Bibop Gresta.
INDIA AND HYPERLOOP
The presentations, ideas and pitches in India also reflect the nearly identical approaches of both HTT and Hyperloop One, and the intensity of the rivalry was obvious.
HTT made much of the fact that it had been in close touch with transport minister Nitin Gadkari who, they claimed, had also visited their offices in the US. HTT accused Hyperloop One of clouding the Hyperloop brand and creating confusion in India. They also expressed surprise that railway minister Suresh Prabhu attended the Hyperloop One presentation.
Both companies claimed they had the support of five state governments and several Indian corporate partners. Both targeted routes that are also being considered for bullet trains.
Hyperloop One had conducted a Global Challenge in 2016 inviting proposals from academic institutions, governments, corporates and investors from all countries. From 2600 entrants in 90 countries, they had announced 35 “semi-finalists,” including five from India, to be showcased in three events in the first half of 2017. The first of these was in Delhi on February 27.
The India entries were for Bangalore-Thiruvananthapuram (two proposals) (736kn, 41 mins), Bengaluru-Chennai (334km, 20 mins), Delhi-Mumbai via Jodhpur and Indore (1317 km in 55 mins), Mumbai-Chennai via Bengaluru (1102 km, 50 mins) and a Multi-Port Connector. According to the company, operations could start as early as 2021.
HTT did not spell out possible routes in India in detail at its press conference in Mumbai but said they are considering high density routes such as Mumbai-Bengaluru or Delhi-Mumbai, and are raising $100 million for detailed studies and building a 5-8 km test track in whichever state gave them land. They claimed they would have a full system up and running in 36-38 months at a cost of roughly $20-$40 million/km and were confident of breaking even in about 8-10 years.
HTT CEO Bibop Gresta made an aggressive pitch against bullet trains and for Hyperloop. He argued that India was at a crossroads, being at the cusp of launching HSR but with prospects of opting for Hyperloop. At a recent conference in Kuala Lumpur he said, “This can be the biggest opportunity or the biggest disaster for India… they can either choose the wrong technology and throw the country into the 19th century or bring the country into the 22nd century"!
Sales pitch hyperbole apart, problem is that virtually everything is known about HSR but virtually nothing is known about what the picture will look like when Hyperloop becomes reality because most of Hyperloop technology is still hypothetical. And this is true of most technical as well as cost issues crucial to the feasibility of the system.
POINTS TO PONDER
There is also a long way to go before many technical issues especially with regard to safety, and a host of regulatory issues again including safety, are dealt with and built-in to the system.
Technical issues include possible problems caused by supersonic airflows around the pods, and relates stresses in the structure. Many modeling studies have suggested a larger diameter for the tube, greater gap between pod and tube wall, and reshaped pods. Some studies have suggested limiting speeds to 0.85 Mach or substantially less than the speed of sound. Engineering of the pressure system, minimising vibrations and buffeting especially due to minor deviations of the track from straight line paths, and handling of heat generated inside the system are other problems.
Huge regulatory issues are involved especially as regards safety. Former transportation ministers from several countries including the US have suggested that these complexities are themselves enough to keep Hyperloop deployment from becoming a reality for several years, citing examples of self-driving vehicles and drones.
Costs are the elephant in the room. In the absence of hard data from full-scale test tracks, cost of infrastructure and running expenses, safety features and the like, figures currently being bandied about seem to mean very little. Both Hyperloop One and HTT have said their systems would cost “a tenth” or “a fraction” of HSR, but that does not match up with the notional figure of $20-40 million/km floated for Hyperloop, while the latest HSR track in China has cost about $18 million/km. True that Hyperloop would take roughly the equivalent of flight time to cover longer distances, but fares also appear comparable, such as a notional fare of $30 (Rs 2000) cited for a 500km journey. Many experts have questioned current highly speculative cost estimates and have suggested that real-life conditions will throw up very different numbers.
These would be crucial in cost and price sensitive developing countries such as India where even bullet trains have raised many concerns. Is there really room for pipe dreams in such a scenario?