Could Hyperloop come to the UK?

hyperloopDon’t like flying? How does being fired the length of the country at over 700mph in something not entirely dissimilar to Futurama’s vacuum tubes sound? Incredibly, this could soon be a reality. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) have announced that they’ll start work on building a $6bn track in California this month which should be open by 2019 – and they want to bring it to Britain.

The Hyperloop concept, dreamed up by Telsa and SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2013, involves individual ‘pods’ running in sealed tubes. The air in the tubes is kept at very low pressure, while a cushion of high-pressure air supports the pods. This does away with the need for conventional rails or magnetic levitation. The pods are then fired along the tubes by linear induction motors in a system that Musk himself has described as “a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table.”

When HTT get their first track up-and-running in California they’ll be sending passengers down it at 160mph, slightly slower than Eurostar speeds. However, they’ll be testing empty carriages at up to 780mph. The aim is that eventually they’ll be able to move people at those speeds too.

HTT have said that the UK is a candidate for the first ever construction of a full length Hyperloop, connecting London to Glasgow in as little as 30 minutes. While they’re confident their technology works, the bigger problem for HTT will be actually constructing the tubes. Given the speeds the pods will be travelling at, Hyperloop tubes need to be as flat and straight as possible. HTT have said they’d build the tubes on raised legs, and CEO Dirk Ahlborn argues they could be built over existing railways to reduce the cost of buying new land. Ahlborn tells Shortlist that he believes Hyperloop could end up replacing the government’s current High Speed 2 project.

“Our system produces more energy than we’re using, thanks to solar panels, wind and kinetic energy,” he says. “High Speed Rail doesn’t make sense economically. Once you have a system that generates income versus one that doesn’t recover your initial investment, I think every government will be switching over to the better system. For High Speed Rail projects that are starting now, there’s a huge possibility that they’re not going to be finished.”

Published in Shortlist, 12 November 2015.