Does Britain need a Hyperloop?

Sam Stephens | 05 Jun 2015 | Comments

Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Brin, Page. The Silicon Valley hall of fame, the first three are now household names, even on the other side of the world in Britain. But one name who still gets mixed reaction from people I talk to is Elon Musk. Perhaps all that is needed is time, and perhaps he will go down as one of the most influential engineers of the 21st Century. His aspirations of us being a multi-planet species and ending the use of fossil fuels led him to set up companies he believes in. He founded SpaceX, the private organisation ferrying cargo to the International Space Station, Tesla the pioneering electric car company and SolarCity, one of the fastest growing domestic and distributed solar firms in the US. He did this using seed capital from the sale of PayPal to eBay. It’s hard not to be impressed by his vision, determination and ability to come up with (sometimes obvious) solutions to engineering problems in the face of adversity. The world needs a few more big thinkers like this, ones who will create the solutions that, in 50 years’ time, make our problems now seem really easy.

In case you missed it, in 2013 he had an idea and asked a few of his engineers at SpaceX to work up a feasibility proposal for a new transport system called the Hyperloop, essentially a solar powered self-propelled bullet in a big pipe between San Francisco and Los Angeles. For anyone familiar with the west coast of America, you’ll know the geographic circumstances; two major conurbations almost 400 miles apart with a high demand for communication between the two and in between is the tortuous Pacific Coast Highway, or the broad open agricultural heartland of the Central Valley. With poor rail links, a road (‘the 5’) that is well travelled and takes just as long its name and regular flights which are more of a hop and a skip, it is a route yearning for another option. The Hyperloop’s big headline was that it would be faster (less than 1 hour journey time), quicker to develop and cheaper to fund than the recently proposed high speed rail link. While the speed remains to be seen – NASA contributors to the crowdsourcing concept development on JumpStartFund have done some pretty impressive analysis that challenges the original pipe size and headline speeds – the cost and programme definitely seem rather optimistic. Despite low land costs, developing a new form of transport and installing it adjacent to major highways and over active fault lines would make me a little cautious.

However, the concept is bold, daring and a completely different way of looking at a problem that is replicated across the globe. It has also grabbed attention and inspired people to dream. The key however is that they have also identified a gap in the market, less than 100 miles travel distance a car will almost certainly win, and over 500 miles a plane will be quicker and more convenient. It is in the middle ground that an efficient rail system should operate, but does it? Generally, I think Elon has identified a few things that are inhibiting rail, firstly that trains are not fast enough, they carry too many people to be flexible and as such aren’t frequent enough. Solve these three things and suddenly a rail type system is more efficient than waiting at an airport or sitting on the freeway. In this respect, the Hyperloop is a great new way of looking at the way we connect our cities.

Channel Tunnel St Pancras International station
The fit out of St Pancras International was the final stage of the overall high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link project which started in 1999 with a total construction cost of £5.2 billion. The tunnel and its ability to quickly link the major cities of London and Paris may be one of the key obstacles for a UK Hyperloop system.

So this leads me on to thinking, would it work in the UK? Unfortunately there are a number of factors against us here in Britain. Firstly we don’t have two mega cities that are so far apart with almost nothing else in between (sorry Fresno and Bakersfield). London does dominate the UK economy (rightly or wrongly) with the next major city being Paris. This route would be an obvious choice, however we do have a couple of pretty good feats of engineering and politics that have helped in the last two decades, notably the Channel Tunnel and HighSpeed1. Secondly, our topography isn’t quite as predictably flat as the Central Valley and thirdly we’re not a big country and as such land isn’t cheap. Finally, we have some pretty good countryside with plenty of natural variation that generally people don’t like building on. For these reasons, while I’d love to see Hyperloop in the UK, I don’t think it will be any time soon before we start contemplating it.

But hang on, does that mean our rail system is adequate for the 21st century? The appetite for HighSpeed2 between London and northern cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds clearly has identified a demand and desire to modernise. Atkins is also supporting the electrification of the Great Western Route from London which with Crossrail will be great for routes west of the capital. We’re also part of an alliance with Heriot-Watt University to support research into future rail technology.

But is this enough? The developments in automotive transport, that I wrote about in a recent Angles opinion piece, a world where we hail an Autonomous Electric Vehicle on our smartphone, really puts pressure on us to think more carefully about how our collective transportation systems interface with personal transport systems. Are there any of Elon’s ideas that we could steal and use to adapt our existing infrastructure? Can we re-engineer our rail vehicles to be more compact, hold fewer people and run closer to the track to travel faster and be more efficient? Can we re-engineer our stations to facilitate more non-stop services and the different rail vehicles? And with these improvements, can we provide more flexible and frequent services to provide a truly integrated system? These are the big questions on my mind at the moment, the perspective of an engineer looking from the outside in to our rail network.