Talk began about Hyperloop: a travel of future, when Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk shared a white paper [PDF] on Hyperloop Alpha in August 2013. In the white paper, Musk talked about developing a 350 miles (563 Km) long tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco equipped with a special indoor environment inside where the Capsules (or Pods, as he refereed those vehicles) will travel at an almost sonic speed of one Mach or 1220 kmph.
This Hyperloop technology was expected to reduce the travel time from 6 hours for a car or a 90 min for a flight to mere 30 minutes. Further the cost of travel was also expected to reduce from a $100 by flight to a mere $20. This proposed concept to revolutionise the transportation industry took the world by storm. Within a year, many start-up firms emerged (including Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Arrivo, etc.) around the proposed concept, taking up the charge to transform the travel of future into reality.
In September 2017, the Andhra Pradesh Government junked the Metro project in Vijayawada and signed up an MoU with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies for introducing the futuristic Hyperloop in the capital city Amrawati. The proposed Hyperloop will connect the city of Vijayawada and Amrawati and will cover a distance of 25 km between them in just 5 minutes.
The Andhra government had back then claimed that a feasibility study will be carried out regarding the project and now reports have emerged claiming that the project might indeed turn into a reality if everything turns out well. The expected project cost though is yet to be disclosed.
As per Denver Post report in September 2017, the Transportation department of Colorado had agreed to develop a Hyperloop connecting Cheyenne, Denver & Pueblo with Vail. The project covering about 576 km was expected to cost $24 Billion or Rs 1.56 Lakh Crores. With the physical, economical and commercial viability of Hyperloop yet to be proven, the question arises whether Hyperloop be an instant reality or transport of Future.
In his whitepaper, Elon Musk charted out the whole plan at a cost of $6 Billion for Hyperloop capable of moving around 15 Million people per year between Los Angeles & San Francisco at a speed of 760 Mph. This when amortised for 20 years, gives an approximate ticket price of $20 (INR 1300). However, as per the current trends as seen in the recently proposed project in Colorado, the project seems to be costing $24 Billion for almost the same length, which makes the Ticket price at almost 80$ (INR 5200). This is almost four times of what Musk calculated. Also, as per Arabian Business, the Hyperloop from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, having a length of 93 Miles, has a whooping cost of $5 Billion which is in line with the Colorado Project.
Most recently, even Sir Richard Branson announced that a deal was struck with the Maharashtra government for the construction of Hyperloop route linking Mumbai to Pune, a distance of 150 km, which would reduce the time of travel from 3 Hours to just under 25 minutes. It is expected to have a capacity of 150 Million passenger trips per year and will be completed in a time frame of approx. 6 to 7 years.
However no official announcement was made regarding the cost of the project but it was stated that it will be well in range of regular airfare. If a simple interpolation of cost is done in line with the Colorado Project or with Abu Dhabi to Dubai route it can be said that the given project may cost approx. $5 Billion or Rs 33,000 crores. However if its capacity is taken as per the white paper, then the 150 Million capacity sounds highly exaggerated.
As per Musk’s white paper, the Hyperloop capacity was pegged as 15 Million for 350 Miles at a speed of 760 Miles per hour. For Pune it will be much lesser due to lower speed and distance. The continuum of pods travelling at a gap of 10 minutes too will be lower as compared to the conditions in white paper, which pegs the maximum capacity at 8-10 Million.
If this capacity is amortised for 20 years with an 80% capacity, the price per head arrives to be approximately Rs 2000-2500 with various cost of operations and maintenance or capital not considered. Seeing these trends, it can clearly be said that what Musk proposed may be technologically viable, but financially its going to be almost double the cost of High Speed Rail considering the financial costs.
The startups which have emerged have tested the Hyperloop idea of a low pressure tube with capsules supported on air cushion being accelerated or decelerated by magnetic linear accelerators. Hyperloop One seems to have been in the fore front of these tests. They have carried out three test as on date, as listed. The first one on 12th May 2017, the second one on 2nd August 2017, and the third one on 15th Dec 2017, all at Nevada desert:
From the tests conducted by Hyperloop One, it can be seen that they have successfully carried out test for pods running a few hundred meters and have achieved a maximum speed of 240 Mph approximately. Even the Pod designed by SpaceX has been tested only up to 220 Mph. But the required speed of the proposed project is 760 Mph and no test has been able to achieve anything close to that till date.
Further, the low pressure tube has only been tested up to 437 meters. Tubes with low pressure running for miles with turns and gradients are yet to be tested and established as safe. Even adverse situations and possible response to them like drop air pressure, earthquake, temperature, thermal expansion and its effects needs to be tested. And the list of so many ‘things to be tested’ goes on.
So finally, based on the available trends, with so many tests/hypothesis yet to be proven, it seems it is too early to say that Hyperloop is a go-to mode of transportation and High Speed Rail might still be the thing in the near future. However, with the issues resolved, it can undoubtedly revolutionise the industry and transform itself from the Travel of Future to the Travel of the Present.