Will the super-fast ‘Hyperloop’ train ever happen?

Transpod has set up a test track for its Hyperloop project in Limousin. But Yves Crozet, of Sciences Po Lyon’s LAET Transport, Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory, says speed-of-sound ‘train’ travel is a long way from reality.

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Hyperloop is supposed to revolutionise the future of transport, promising aircraft speeds and Métro frequency - but will it ever happen?

Tesla boss Elon Musk first promised that Hyperloop shuttles, flying in a vacuum, could reach 1,200kph, the speed of sound. Now that estimate has been halved, and there are doubts about whether it is even viable.

Canadian company Transpod announced in August that it was to start construction at Droux, Limousin. It will become the second French site, after Toulouse in April, to prepare test tracks to catapult shuttles to 1,000kph inside long tubes built on pylons.

But Yves Crozet, of Sciences Po Lyon’s Transport, Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory, says commuters face a long wait before they can travel across France at the speed of sound … if it ever happens.

Transpod forecasts its first commercial Hyperloop routes will be running by 2030. Competitor Hyperloop One aims to inaugurate its first line in 2020 at the Dubai World Expo.

These forecasts are extremely optimistic.

Current tests are being carried out over distances of barely one kilometre and there are many technical obstacles to overcome, such as ensuring tubes are airtight.

Ten years ago, technical failures forced Swiss engineers to abandon an earlier magnetic levitation train project. And the infrastructure question is a giant unknown: how can the pylons and tubes be built in such a short time?

It took seven years to build the Tours-Bordeaux TGV line – and that just involved laying ballast and rails.

In the longer term, is Hyperloop an attractive investment in France?

Originally, Musk suggested the Hyperloop idea as a rival to a high-speed line in California that was estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars.

Musk reckoned that project was far too expensive and delusional, so he proposed an alternative: a tenth of the price and three times faster. Obviously it was an intriguing and attractive option.

Today in France we are not talking in the same terms, either in speed or costs.

A paper was presented to the National Assembly on the subject, and it spoke of a speed of 600kph – far from Musk’s initial project, which promised nothing less than the speed of sound, 1,200kph.

To give an example, a hypothetical Paris-Lyon trip at 600kph would gain barely an hour on today’s two-hour trip. It has been said that Hyperloop is, at best, a pipe dream – and, at worst, a scam. Even at half speed, Hyperloop’s speed is still meaningful… but if it is to make a difference in mobility, it must be accessible to as many people as possible, like the car or the TGV.

If a mode of transport cannot be made classless, it has no chance of working. We have seen that already in projects in France: look at the aérotrain, abandoned even before it got into service, or Concorde, that flew for only a few years. The two were similar in beating speed records, but only with a very limited number of passengers onboard.

While a TGV can carry 1,000 passengers, a Hyperloop shuttle holds a maximum of about 50. What counts for most people is not speed but passenger throughput.

Could we not increase the number of Hyperloop departures to carry an equivalent number of passengers?

TGV trains can run every three or four minutes. It’s a safety issue: if there’s a problem, the following train needs time to stop. It needs platforms where passengers can disembark. Even by cutting the interval to 10 seconds, Hyperloop shuttles would have fewer passengers than TGVs.

This article first appeared in the Journal du Dimanche. Translation by Ken Seaton