Hyperloop: The Future of Intercity Transportation?

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(Disponible en français : L’Hyperloop : l’avenir du transport interurbain?)

Although the Hyperloop concept is not new, its main features were revealed in 2013 by Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, with the publication of his Hyperloop Alpha white paper. This mode of transportation would allow for the rapid movement of people or cargo within capsules (pods) propelled by a magnetic field in suspension through bidirectional low pressure tubes. These tubes could be built under or above ground and passengers could enter and exit capsules at stations located at the end of the tubes or anywhere along the tube length.

This illustration shows a Hyperloop elevated on pylons.

From the very start, the concept attracted the curiosity not only of the public, but also of the scientific community, engineers and governments. The implementation of the Hyperloop concept could revolutionize intercity transportation as it could be faster than flying, cheaper to build than high-speed rail, would use little energy, would be affordable for the public and would be unaffected by weather.

As research and feasibility studies progress and an increasing number of prototypes and test tracks are built, is this fifth mode of transportation the future of intercity travel, or will it remain within the realm of science fiction?

The Hyperloop Race

Space X’s white paper presented Hyperloop as an “open source” concept of transportation, which has led to the creation of several companies such as the Canadian company TransPod and U.S. companies Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Hyperloop TT) and Hyperloop One. Since then, capsule prototypes such as Hyperloop TT’s Quintero one have been developed, and test tracks have been built, such as Hyperloop One in the Nevada desert. Several agreements have also been signed between these companies and various governments to conduct feasibility studies within their own jurisdictions.

Transport Canada is also interested in the concept; on 27 March 2019 it issued a tender notice for a preliminary feasibility study of Hyperloop technology. The department is particularly interested in the viability of the technology, passenger safety and the cost of Hyperloop compared to high-speed rail and Maglev. Maglev is a magnetic levitation train, but unlike the Hyperloop concept, the cars are not in low pressure tubes. A commercial version of Maglev has been in operation since 2004 in China (the Shanghai Transrapid), and another is currently under construction in Japan (the SCMAGLEV).

Since the Hyperloop concept is a hybrid between air and rail, it poses significant regulatory challenges. That is why Transport Canada’s tender notice specifies that the selected consultant is to recommend whether the existing regulatory framework for railway and air transportation in Canada can be applied to the construction and operation of the Hyperloop or whether a new framework should be established. In 2017, the Science Advisory Council of the U.K. Department for Transport issued a statement that “Hyperloop systems would likely require a new regulatory framework and associated safety standards.”

Various industry representatives have formed partnerships, including government ministries of certain countries in a few cases, to lay the groundwork for a possible regulatory framework for Hyperloop. For example, TransPod, Hardt Hyperloop, Zeleros Hyperloop and Hyper Poland have formed an international partnership to “define, establish, and standardize the methodology and framework to regulate” Hyperloop travel systems.

The European Union also created its European Hyperloop Program, which will begin in December 2019. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced the creation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council, which will identify and resolve jurisdictional and regulatory gaps that could hinder the development and implementation of new technologies such as Hyperloop.

Comparison with Other Modes of Transportation

In July 2016, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the DOT Volpe National Transportation Systems released a Hyperloop feasibility analysis. It is particularly interested in the route proposed by Elon Musk between Los Angeles and San Francisco in his white paper. Hyperloop appears to offer significant advantages in terms of travel time and departure frequency compared to air travel, Maglev and high-speed rail. However, despite its frequent departures, it does not appear to accommodate more passengers per hour than Maglev or high-speed rail, and it is not certain that Hyperloop is any more energy efficient.

This graphic compares Hyperloop, aircraft, Maglev and high-speed rail technologies by departure frequency, power source, capacity, average speed and travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Hyperloop would be first in terms of frequency with 30 to 120 departures per hour, but the capsules would accommodate fewer passengers than other modes of transport. Like the TGV and Maglev, the Hyperloop would use electricity as a power source. The average speed of the Hyperloop would be approximately 966 km/h, which is more than twice as fast as an aircraft and the Maglev. Travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles could be 35 minutes with the Hyperloop, compared to 83 minutes by air or 160 minutes by high-speed rail with the California High-Speed Rail.

Note: Travel time is comprised of three components: line haul time, station time and access/exit time (depends on the location of the stations or the airport).
Source: Infographic prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Taylor, Catherine L., David J. Hyde and Lawrence C. Barr. Hyperloop Commercial Feasibility Analysis: High Level Overview, “Table 1– Travel Time Comparisons”, “Table 2 – Frequency Comparisons”, “Table 6 – Energy Consumption Comparisons” and “Table 7 – Capacity Comparisons”, report no. DOT-VNTSC-NASA-16-01, John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, United States, 1 July 2016.

According to the aforementioned feasibility analysis, infrastructure costs would be lower compared to Maglev and high-speed rail. In any case, the cost estimates are still preliminary and vary considerably by company, depending on the proposed route and whether or not they are considering land acquisitions.

For example, the 2013 Space X white paper estimated that the total infrastructure cost for Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco (563 km) would be US$6 billion (nearly $11 million per kilometre). However, in a report on a possible Hyperloop project between Toronto and Windsor, Ontario, TransPod estimated the initial cost at C$29 million per kilometre, which they said would be half the cost of high-speed rail on the same route.

In both cases, the authors appear to assume that Hyperloop could be built along an existing road (or rail) right-of-way, which would reduce the generally very high cost of land acquisition.

Hyperloop in Canada?

In addition to the challenges posed by Hyperloop regulations and safety standards, other considerations would also come into play when determining the feasibility of such a system in Canada. These include:

  • Comfort: Several questions remain regarding the possible discomfort experienced by passengers in capsules that can travel faster than 1,200 km/h, particularly during acceleration and deceleration.
  • Safety: Although Elon Musk’s white paper refers to various safety features such as emergency brakes and oxygen masks, it would be worthwhile to analyze passenger safety in the event of capsule depressurization, a power failure, an earthquake or a crack in one of the tubes.
  • Cost: There continues to be considerable uncertainty about the costs associated with the infrastructure required to operate and maintain the Hyperloop system. Also, while the technology is already in place for Maglev and high-speed rail, Hyperloop technology still needs to be developed, tested, refined and certified. It will also be necessary to determine how such a project would be financed and how much, if any, of that should come from public subsidies. In July 2018, Transport Canada awarded a $50,000 grant to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology for two projects, one of which is an active levitation and propulsion system for Hyperloop transportation.
  • Access to the service and accessibility: One of the benefits of Hyperloop could be to provide residents of rural or remote communities with greater access to employment or services generally available in urban areas. That being said, a balance will need to be struck regarding ticket prices to ensure that they are affordable while also ensuring the system’s viability. The issue of taking into account women, seniors and vulnerable populations will also arise in the design of capsules, as will the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities, especially since the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act in June 2018. One of the objectives of this bill is to ensure that Canada’s transportation system is accessible to persons with disabilities without barriers. It should also be noted that the Canadian Transportation Agency published, in March 2019, proposed Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations in Part I of the Canada Gazette.

Author: Geneviève Gosselin, Library of Parliament

Categories: Business, industry and trade, Science and technology

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