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A help or a hindrance? What Hyperloop means for our railways

20 min

The once-mystical idea of a Hyperloop system in the UK could soon become a reality very soon – but what could a British system look like? What are its challenges? And could it eventually usurp conventional rail as the preferred choice of transport for Brits? Quadrant Transport

finds out more.

We hit the sub-basement and went at once to the express tubes. A two passenger capsule was just emptying; Dak shoved me in so quickly that I did not see him set the door combination…

The few minutes we had been crammed in the vacutube had been long enough for me to devise a plan…” Double Star, Robert Heinlein, 1956

Flying cars; hologram dinners; sky-high Utopian metropolises adorning the landscape. When you think of the term ‘Hyperloop’, until this decade the very concept of people travelling via tunnel pods at breath-taking speeds was seen as an idea more suited for a movie script than a metro system. Yet the historical mode of moving goods and products using tubes was still a viable option for many, and the concept of using tunnels has been a centuries-old practice; one of which that, in recent years, has surfaced as a potential solution to our daily transport troubles.

As far back as 1844, George Medhurst, one of pioneers of using compressed air as a propulsion tool, created the Brunel Jolly-sailor railway system: a passenger carriage system which used pneumatics for transporting rail users. The creation was truly ahead of its time, with aspects of the propulsion technology extracted and adapted to modern railways today – most notably in the Aeromovel system in operation at Porto Alegre, Brazil. Towards the 20th Century, pneumatic tube and tunnel systems became an innovative method of moving mail and messages around buildings in urban areas – some of which in different forms still exist today.

Progress on a passenger-based tunnel service stalled during the 1900s, however, despite examples of Hyperloop travel continuing to crop up in public discussion: the ‘vacutube’ form of travel illustrated by author Heinlein in his 1956 novel Double Star was a vision as to what a fully functioning Hyperloop could look like. It wasn’t until the mercurial inventor and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, publicly mulled over the concept back in 2012 that the Hyperloop conversation was thrust back into the spotlight.

Dubbed by the South African entrepreneur Musk as a “fifth mode of transport,” the selling point of the service is an amalgamation of the best of the alternative four modes: Hyperloop is inexpensive and demand responsive as it is in roads, it slashes journey times as air travel does, and is environmentally friendly – one of the positive attributes of rail.  Since Musk’s musings seven years ago, in recent months competing Hyperloop technology firm Virgin Hyperloop One has signed a deal with the state of Maharashtra in India and Saudi Arabia to build a full passenger Hyperloop system and a test pilot track in the respective countries.  Elsewhere in the industry, the commercial sector has sought to know more about how Hyperloop can help customers in changing spending society.

Magway, an e-commerce delivery system using pipe technology, is looking to change the nature of online shopping by using pipes installed around the UK to deliver goods. “We see Magway as the convergence of road and rail; and as a new mode of transport. We’re very much focussed on movement of goods for e-commerce and in and out of airports,” Phill Davies, co-founder of Magway told Quadrant Transport. Magway already has a live demonstrator in Wembley, showing the public what a full system moving goods around the country could look like – the firm is also looking at sites in Old Oak and Park Royal, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Oxford, and Cambridge to set up their first live transportation test pilot. Goods can be whisked between distribution and consolidation centres through underground pipes using electromagnetic technology along the hard shoulder of motorways, and it is capable of moving around 12m carriages/parcels per week.

“As part of our Innovate project, Space Syntax has mapped out 35 potential links going through the UK: initially shorter links into airports, between manufacturing or warehousing sites, and then there’s longer commercial links,” Phill explained. “Each of those routes are commercially viable on a standalone basis, i.e. there’s sufficient goods at the end of those pipes to justify those routes.”

The basis for delving deeper into the potential of Hyperloop is strong when you assess the challenges transport services face as a whole. Phill said that global online e-commerce sales hit the $1tn mark in 2012, and are forecast to grow to an eyewatering $4tn by 2021. The UK, like the rest of the world, is spending more and more online: online retail sales account for 23% of all retail sales, and are forecast to grow to 53% within the next10 years. With the current system, this means more goods in haulage – whether that be by truck, train, or air travel, increasing its carbon footprints further and hampering the UK government’s ambitions to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

Phill continued that access to people in the cities is being restricted by congestion charging, ultra-low emission zones, and congestion itself: “So how do you service that population, getting goods in and out of cities? That is what Magway is designed to do,” he said.

On paper, Hyperloop working in tandem with other modes of transport sounds not only feasible, but it could turbocharge a UK economy with an uncertain future by the impact of Brexit and the fiscal difficulties it could bring. Countries like Saudi Arabia and India have already made steps towards constructing a Hyperloop track to put the concept through a real life assessment; but in the UK, a crowded island where there isn’t exactly a wealth of spare land, one could be sceptical about the UK’s practical contribution to a Hyperloop system – despite its wealth of knowledge in the core technology.

Alan Nettleton, senior technologist at Connected Places Catapult, travelled to the United States last year to visit the facilities of Virgin Hyperloop One’s and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, companies at the forefront of making the Hyperloop vision a reality. Sent to find out what the UK supply chain and skills base could do to advance Hyperloop projects round the world, Alan noted that UK engineers could do a lot for Hyperloop, but was also optimistic around the possibility of a Hyperloop system adding value to Great Britain.

Alan explained: “There’s something about the Hyperloop concept that really appeals to people and people want to get involved in it – and it does attract some of the best engineering minds. I think that’s one reason to be optimistic about the prospects of it in the UK.

“Some people say ‘Hyperloop is not something for the UK, it will be developed overseas’ – I don’t necessarily agree with that view, because there may be advantages in a more densely-populated area. You can do things on a slightly smaller scale that still attracts the passenger demand. We have a number of corridors of potentially high demand that could be served, and this could be done as a complementary network that fills some of the gaps in the rest of the public transport network.”

Is the potential of a passenger Hyperloop system in the UK a possibility? “I think we’ve got to keep an open mind as to what the possibilities are, and also thinking about the opportunities for a complementary express service that could take people the longer distances at higher speeds,” Alan said.

I would prefer the rail industry to start to embrace this technology because they would be best placed to help deliver it

“Often when you think about Hyperloop, you start thinking about London to Edinburgh in 35 minutes, or London to Cardiff, or all of these fantastic claims – I think we’ve got a long way to go before we start thinking about that. Maybe an initial route – there’s been ideas around connecting some of the smaller northern cities together, or maybe linking airports together is a sensible idea to create an airport hub.”

For the senior technologist, the freight industry specifically could benefit from a tunnel transport system for goods: “The safety case around moving tins of baked beans is far easier than moving people,” Alan argued. “So there is a clear freight opportunity, and if we can be ambitious and crack that particular challenge – in the short term pick a couple of locations and get the system working, then start to roll it out – I think the export potential of that could be massive.”

For the rail industry, some would perceive Hyperloop as a threat: a faster service, devoid of guards, and built at a fraction of the cost (see: HS2’s potential £80-90bn final bill) as well as lower maintenance costs, Hyperloop could eventually usurp conventional rail as the future of transport. But Alan said that the rail industry should look at tunnel technologies as an opportunity, not a menace. “In a way I would prefer the rail industry to start to embrace this technology because they would be best placed to help deliver it,” he said.

“They have the expertise. Think about how many tunnels are being built as a result of Crossrail, HS2 etc. They know all there is to know about creating a right of way that’s needed for a mode of transport along a fixed corridor. I don’t think we should get too concerned or too wedded to one particular technology, i.e. steel wheels on steel rails, and not consider anything else. I just don’t see the reason for that.”

Nettleton suggested that Hyperloop engineers could really tap into the demand-responsive element of the travel experience, potentially using smaller vehicles that go in a point-to-point fashion from your home, as opposed to a traditional rail-style stations and stops system. This concept has been taken one further by the Technical University of Munich’s (TUM) Hyperloop team, which is advocating for a personal Hyperloop tunnel able to take you anywhere, at any time.

Domenik Radeck, research lead at the university team, said: “What we’re thinking about at the moment is not this normal Hyperloop, which is more train size and style – we are currently thinking about something way smaller; just to get cheaper.

“The far long-term vision would be to have such a tube in the basement of every house, like a water pipe. So you just get in there and it drives exactly where you want to go, so the pod capacity would be something like one or two people.”

For Domenik, the basement Hyperloop is individual in nature: “Why is the car so popular? It goes when you want, where you want. You don’t have to wait for it, you don’t have to squeeze into it, you can’t miss it, and you’re comfortable in it. People want that option to take a system that does what you want.

“That’s why having this small thing makes it really economically sound – and a private person can raise the money, build their own pod and track, and make sure that every time a person passes through then they can earn money like that – giving you after, say 12 years, you make your money back.”

The TUM team’s ideas are an example of the innovation at the forefront of the Hyperloop movement; and that’s no different at the Hyperloop Pod Competition, held every year by Musk’s SpaceX in the United States. The July 2019 event, held at the SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles, played host to over 20 university teams, all fervent on producing the fastest carriage to send through the Hyperloop tunnel. The TUM team were this year’s repeat winners, this time besting their previous pace and breaking the world record at a breakneck speed of 288mph. With a team of around 50 students – 30 on the competition team, 11 on the research team, and a handful of business & admin team members. Domenik said this year was the most exhausting and competitive competition his team has attended.

TUM engineers made a variety of improvements to the pod, this time foregoing the shelf-bought Lithium polymer battery packs the team used last year. “This year we got just a single cell from China and assembled everything our own end. You need your own special electronics for that, and it took so much time it was really tough in the end,” Domenik said.

“For this competition, it’s all about the power density: the power to weight ratio. So what we did is we used the same motors, but last year we ran them with 15KW, whereas this year we ran with 35KW – so we had to use much bigger motor controllers. That’s why we got more power. And then every single part of the pod was optimised for weight.”

The event was equally enjoyable yet tiresome for Maksymilian Kozarzewski, treasurer of the University of Edinburgh Hyperloop Team, HYPED – the only UK university that got through to the final stage of the event.

For Maks, the level of competition – and standard of testing to allow the pods to run through the tube during the event – made this year a challenge to his team’s engineers. After coming in sixth out of around 1000 entries last year, the HYPED team kicked it up a notch. “We decided to do something bigger and better this year, and we went for a magnetic propulsion, we ditched the idea of levitation as it’s very heavy and the track was too short for it to make any positive difference. That’s how the Flying Podsman, our newest prototype, came up,” he said.

“I think the best thing about the model is the propulsion system it has. It’s something that no one has ever done before. When we asked some companies to manufacture the propulsion system for us, they either said that it can’t be done, or that it will cost something around £100,000.  We went on and did it ourselves, and the propulsion system worked perfectly. But we had another very minor issue with the brakes that prevented us from running; it was a great experience, and building on from this year we’re hoping to get to the tunnel next year.”

The SpaceX competition really is the crème de la crème of student engineering. Maks said the competition’s ultimate stage takes 21 finalists, and these are already the best teams in the world, out of around 1000 competitors. “So all of the designs are really good,” he added.

Testing standards at the event are also rigorous. “At the competition there is a testing week where there are more than 120 tests, so everything has to work perfectly, and also SpaceX was really worried about the state of the track,” Maks said.

“I would say we have around 15 subsystems, and even if one doesn’t work, and that’s at the beginning of testing week, we can’t progress any further and we can’t do any more testing.” Just four out of the 21 finalists were able to actually run their pods through the tube, highlighting the precision and expertise required to reach the final stage.

Speaking to both Maks and Domenik from their respective Hyperloop teams, the passion for engineering and Hyperloop technologies from the entrants was indisputable. One of the most striking examples of the positive work from the education sector was Edinburgh University’s outreach team: covering three continents next year (Africa, Europe, and Asia), members from the team teach Hyperloop concepts in local schools and educational institutes; training the future wave of talented engineers.

A three-year veteran of the HYPED unit, Maks praised his engineering team: “Proving that the system of the first and second years of engineering was working to a SpaceX engineer is sometimes really tricky. Most of the times, it’s amazing what our members do.

“We have a first years who design a subsystem on their own and then go over to SpaceX and convince the engineers that actually it will work. It really makes their year.”

For the TUM team, Domenik hopes his team’s work will help inform the general public of what a Hyperloop system could do for them. He explained: “If you talk to the people, it’s very diverse – everybody is talking about how something has to change, and in my opinion this is absolutely the way to go.

“We have 50 people in the team who work day and night without getting any money, and of course the main motivation is that we’re working on something that is changing the future.”

For all of the promise of what a Hyperloop transport system in the UK could bring, the vision still has its critics. Many argue that the technology is still lagging behind to create a secure and error-free Hyperloop passenger service. In a recent article by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, experts claim that to bring in a new transport system is a “formidable task” that requires all parts to be at technology readiness level (TRL) 8. “In tests in a 500m tube, the maximum Hyperloop pod speed achieved to date is 387km/h. Such research facility testing is at TRL 4,” the article writes. “Moreover, many aspects of the system are only at the stage of establishing basic principles (TRL 1). These include vehicle suspension, air locks, vacuum-tight tube expansion joints and switches.”

We have 50 people in the team who work day and night without getting any money, and of course the main motivation is that we’re working on something that is changing the future

It’s not just engineering challenges developers are facing in creating a full-scale Hyperloop, either. Going back to Hyperloop’s selling points versus high-speed rail, Hyperloop Alpha, SpaceX Musk’s 2013 concept of how his fully system would look, could carry 1,680 passengers an hour, if its 28-seat pods transport groups at every minute. HS2’s 18 trains an hour, on the other hand, would be able to transport 10 times that number. Evaluating the safety aspect of a Hyperloop tunnel, external factors such as terror attacks, earthquakes – particularly if the tunnels are built on pylons to transport passengers, in areas such as quake-prone California, where much of the Hyperloop technologies are being developed – or mechanical errors in a vacuumed tunnel could also lead to health disasters that firms will need to account for and ensure are nullified.

Though for the experts interviewed as part of this research, the response was to unlock the potential of the UK’s engineering sector by diving into the Hyperloop industry. The University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research forecasts a demand in engineering enterprises for 265,000 skilled entrants through to 2024 – 186,000 of which will need to be in engineering occupations to meet the demand. The Transport Research Laboratory, a London-based transport research hub, called for the UK Government to open a UK Centre of Excellence for Hyperloop technologies in a bid to spark excitement in young engineers and seize the opportunity that the country’s skills base has – calls of which have been echoed around the engineering sector.

“If we get too cautious about these things, we would have never ended up building the canal system, or the rail system, or tried to fly aeroplanes across countries or anything like that,” Catapult’s Alan Nettleton said. “I think we have to accept that there’s an element of risk, but there’s also potential of a huge reward.

“I think what’s quite exciting is things like the SpaceX competition where we are getting a lot of students engaged. Some of the universities have large teams of 80, 90 students where they all want to contribute, this is great. Whether Hyperloop happens or not, these skills people are picking up will be transferrable to so many different industries, and the technology that gets developed through these competitions could be transferrable to so many different industries.”

It’s a process, it’s a new, big, game-changing solution, with the equivalent of the birth of the railways, that’s where we’re sitting at the moment

From the education side, for Maks and Domenik a Hyperloop system in the UK is absolutely doable – but the UK Government will need to invest in research on the sector to clear up any confusion on what a full-scale system could bring. “If you can prove that such a Hyperloop system is cheaper than the traditional high-speed rail and has the same throughput, why shouldn’t they do this?” Domenik from the TUM Team asks. “If you talk to the public, their opinions are very diverse – everybody is talking about how something has to change in transport, and in my opinion this is absolutely the way to go. That’s why we do the research, because we just don’t have the information yet.”

Maks of the HYPED team made the point that the Conservative government will be reluctant to embrace Hyperloop with construction for HS2 ongoing, but argued that a Centre for Excellence can inform the public of the benefits of tunnel travel compared to high-speed rail. He continued: “I think in general the response to Hyperloop is very positive. People are worried about the safety of systems, since you are going incredibly fast. What I would wait for is a proof of concept – once we can see a system like this working, for example in India, where it is already being built, people are travelling in it, and it is safe, it’s a very simple relation that once we get the system up and running, most of the general public will be convinced – but before that, a Centre of Excellence for Hyperloop would be a great way of convincing and getting more information out there.”

Not just on the passenger side of the industry, the commercial potential of what a Hyperloop system could bring to the UK could be huge – something the country should look to unlock with uncertain times brought about by the country’s departure from the European Union. For Phill Davies from Magway, transport is at a crossroads. “It’s a process, it’s a new, big, game-changing solution, with the equivalent of the birth of the railways, that’s where we’re sitting at the moment,” Davies claimed. “What I would say is we see Magway as a step towards full scale Hyperloop. We’re celebrating 50 years since the moon landing, but that didn’t happen overnight – they put a dog into space, they put a monkey into space, they created an orbit.

“I think the government needs to recognise first of all that this is a massive opportunity for the UK – the underlying linear motor technology was invented in the UK. We still have a lot of specialist knowledge here. This a global opportunity to capitalise on.”

In the hands of the next generation of engineers like those of the TUM and HYPED teams, the possibilities of Hyperloop travel in the UK seem boundless – but with companies like Magway, SpaceX, and Virgin Hyperloop One, those in the commercial industry will need to ensure the Hyperloop pilot sites today are safe, secure, and able to achieve what alternative modes of transport can’t. With test sites in the works for India and Saudi Arabia, and a 10km Hyperloop track planned by SpaceX’s Elon Musk next year, we will be finding out sooner rather than later whether Hyperloop is truly the future of transport.