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Imagine travelling to work at nearly 1,000 km/h, hovering just above the ground with no engine sound. It may sound like a sci-fi movie, but this scenario edged closer to reality as Virgin’s Hyperloop completed its first ever passenger test journey recently.
While the test only reached around a fifth of desired speed, it was a key milestone towards ensuring the safety of this ground-breaking technology. The project is the first of several of its kind around the world which would change the way we travel forever. But just how long do we have to wait for this to become reality, and what consequences will it have?
A 2030 target
The test took place in the Nevada desert, where Virgin have a special DeviLoop track to carry out their trials. Two Virgin executives, Josh Giegel and Sarah Luchian, were the first people to experience the Hyperloop in person, strapped in to one of the pods which had leather seats and small windows.
The trial run reached only a fraction of the potential speed, around 170km/h, and Giegel compared it to being inside an accelerating sports car. His colleague Luchian, however, said it was a lot smoother than she expected, which is a promising sign for the next stage of the process. This will come in the form of a $500 million high-speed test track in West Virginia – construction is scheduled to begin in 2022 – where there’ll be an attempt to reach a top-speed passenger journey.
Should all go well then Virgin will aim for full certification by 2025, with a view to the Hyperloop hitting the streets five years later. By that point, a transport revolution may well have begun.
Slashing journey times
So, just how will high-speed hovering affect our daily lives? Train passengers in many countries around the world are used to carriages that rumble along at snail’s pace at the moment, dragging along bleary-eyed commuters who are plugged into their phones listening to podcasts or playing mobile games to relieve the tedium. The hyperloop would change all that.
Currently, travelling from New York to Washington D.C., for example, takes almost three hours: the Hyperloop would cut this down to thirty minutes: half as long as a current commercial flight between the two cities. It will achieve this via a series of vacuum tubes using airlock-based technology – normally seen in space shuttles – to whisk people from one place to another.
The impact of this would be revolutionary. Reduced journey times would relieve congestion, improve worker productivity and ultimately make huge gains for the economy. It will also produce societal advantages, such as more leisure time for workers and improved travel options. The technology would jump straight out of the pages of science fiction books into our daily lives. But will there be any the downsides?
Accidents, G-force and money
Despite all the fantastic advantages the hyperloop offers, some people have expressed concerns about the technology’s drawbacks. Central to these is safety. Hurtling through the air at such a speed is pretty exciting, but what happens if there’s an accident, such as a malfunctioning section of the track? Also, any type of crack in the pod would surely be catastrophic with the air pressure involved. The chances of survival for anyone inside would be minimal.
Another thing to consider is the potential effect on the human body. Some have asked if we can physically withstand the G force generated by such high speed, but Virgin are confident that it will be similar to the feeling we feel when taking off on a regular flight.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most pressing concern for the people behind the project, is the cost and planning permission of bringing the Hyperloop into being. Critics have pointed out the huge expanse of infrastructure that the transport requires, with enormous networks of tubes that require swathes of land. While Virgin have raised a huge amount of private funding for construction, any government that takes on the system will need to provide public money to cover other major expenses, as well as ensure that the land is fit for purpose.
Despite these concerns, optimism remains high that all safety and costs concerns will be dealt with, especially after Virgin boss Richard Branson predicted that tickets would cost no more than a standard rail ticket today.
Virgin isn’t the only company with grand designs on a revolutionary hyperloop. Canada-based TransPod secured the first official support from a G7 nation after the Canadian government backed their plans, although without financial support. Their timescale towards completion is similar to Virgin’s with construction starting around 2025 and taking several years to complete. Journey times between Calgary and Edmonton, currently a 50-minute flight or 4hr 30 min journey, would be slashed to just half an hour.
In Europe, Spain’s Zeleros firm recently raised over €7 million in its first round of funding from strategic investors, and a route between Paris and Berlin is high on the list of targets. The company is a cleantech startup and will place an emphasis on using sustainable energy.
While there are significant obstacles on the way to full-scale use for all of the companies concerned, there’s no denying that the recent news takes us a step closer to high-speed daily travel. Before we know it, we could be travelling in airtight tubes that we normally only see in sci-fi movies.