Hyperloop technology started life as a 2012 comment made by Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, Paypal, SpaceX and the Boring Company. He described a ‘fifth’ mode of transport to add to cars, boats, trains and planes that was like “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.” More precisely, the hyperloop technology concept is passenger pods travelling at up to 700 mph over an electro-magnetic track in a tube with very low air pressure.
Musk isn’t afraid of throwing out ideas like sound more than a little like science fiction. Despite that, he actually has a decent record at making them a reality, though SpaceX, his commercial space flight company and Tesla, the electric and driverless vehicle enterprise, are yet to prove they have sustainable business models. The fact that he also said he didn’t have time for Hyperloop and was throwing it out there for others to develop may have caused pause for thought. If it’s a technology so ‘out there’ even Musk isn’t going to chase the dream, and also convince investors to throw billions behind it, who is?
As it turns out, Richard Branson, the enigmatic British billionaire and owner of Virgin was. And he wasn’t the only one. Even Musk has subsequently come back to his hyperloop concept. He recently stated his ambitions for the Boring Company to build a hyperloop connection between LA and San Francisco, as well as revolutionising cross-LA travel.
Last year Branson led an $85 billion in US hyperloop start-up Hyperloop One, co-founded by former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan, who has since left the company, and Shervin Pishevar, the US-Iranian venture capitalist. The company has since been re-branded Virgin Hyperloop One and is working on a hyperloop line between Mumbai and Pune in India as well as competing for a proposed 100 km hyperloop connecting Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Branson also recently described his ambition to create a hyperloop network in the UK that would enable passengers to travel between London and Edinburgh in 45 minutes.
He believes hyperloop networks could eventually go a long way to replacing short haul air travel, commenting:
“If you had Hyperloop between London and Edinburgh . . . I think people would almost definitely prefer to jump on a Hyperloop than jump on a plane. Short-haul travel will be affected.”
Another hyperloop company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT) are also pursuing Musk’s original vision. Dirk Ahlborn, the company’s CEO, says they already have agreements in place for feasibility studies for hyperloop lines in Czech Republic, France, India, Indonesia, Slovakia, South Korea and the United States. However, Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One is thought to be ahead in the race and has a ‘full-scale, full-system’ test site in Nevada that is says means they have tested all the components of their system.
Timelines for the first operational hyperloop line have been put at 2021 by Branson. Dubai, with its love of anything that can be described as the latest technology in the world of infrastructure and construction, seems the favourite to host the first working line. However, plenty of scepticism has also been directed at how realistic a working example is in the next decade. Proponents argue hyperloop will be much cheaper than building a high speed railway line but real costs are not yet known, never mind safety concerns around catapulting humans through a tube at 700 mph. However, whether it’s 3 years or 10, with the likes of Branson and Musk behind hyperloop, it certainly stands a chance of becoming reality however much it sounds like something straight out of The Jetsons.
Virgin Hyperloop One is intended to have a top speed of 670mph, with some other developers promising even higher speeds.
The Virgin founder told BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme: “Most definitely it could be built in the UK, and it would end up transporting people far quicker, in far greater numbers, with far greater convenience than any other train network in the UK.