From hype to hyperloop

Vacuum-based hyperloop technology could transport passengers between cities cheaply at more than half the speed of sound – or so its proponents claim. Jon Cartwright takes a closer look

In the late summer of 1864, anyone wanting to travel along the east side of Crystal Palace Park in London could buy a train ticket for sixpence – but this was no ordinary railway. Designed by the British engineer Thomas Webster Rammell, the Crystal Palace pneumatic railway consisted of a carriage that fitted snugly inside a tunnel, such that when a huge fan was turned on, the carriage was sucked from one end of the tunnel to the other. Average speeds of around 40 km/h meant that passengers could make the 550 metre trip in a little under a minute – twice as fast as the carriage’s horse-drawn competitors.

Rammell’s pneumatic railway was experimental, and it only ran for two months. A century and a half later, however, the idea of getting from A to B inside depressurized passages is back, thanks to another entrepreneurial visionary: Elon Musk, the South-African born, Canadian-American multibillionaire behind Tesla electric cars and SpaceX rockets. In 2013 Musk published a white paper outlining the concept of a hyperloop: an evacuated steel tube through which passenger “pods” travel cheaply and efficiently over continental distances. Thanks to the minimal air resistance, Musk claimed, the pods could be accelerated to speeds of up to 760 km/h.

The hyperloop sounds almost too good to be true, and many critics have said as much, branding Musk’s idea impractical, unsafe and – for various political and economic reasons – unrealizable. But in the four years since Musk’s white paper, at least three major start-ups have been created, and dozens of academics and industry professionals have climbed on board – figuratively if not yet literally. Their hope is to revolutionize public transport and, in so doing, restructure society for the better. […]

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