One of the mistakes made early in the days of the United Kingdom’s attempt to launch high speed rail, was the choice of name.
High Speed 2 (HS2) set expectations around the performance of the system and not around the needs of the United Kingdom, which had long required increased capacity and better network resilience. Easy watchwords for journalists and politicians to latch onto rarely help the development of robust business cases and as a result, the scheme nearly died. One could argue that time savings of around 20 minutes hardly made an invigorating story for £55bn of investment.
Today, Hyperloop schemes are unfortunately being clad with that same mantle; a focus on the speed they could provide and with little regard to the function they can perform. It is time for us to help them find their place.
A decade ago, I watched Jeremy Clarkson describe the Bugatti Veyron as "the greatest car ever made and the greatest car we will ever see in our lifetime".
The Veyron was without doubt a pinnacle of automotive engineering – and while things have moved on a little, his sentiment was broadly correct. The Bugatti pushed against the very limits of combustion, air resistance and adhesion. I think the Veyron is beautiful* and in many ways, represents the place that high speed rail is reaching.
When we want to take people further, faster, we design our trains to be stronger, more powerful and more luxurious. Doing so comes at a price – and not one necessarily visible to the travelling public or taxpayer.
Heavier, faster trains result in increased track wear, particularly on curved route sections. Noise levels increase, with expensive mitigation required, slab track becomes more common and the carbon footprint falls – a difficult balancing act for any network that needs ongoing asset management, monitoring and maintenance, but more importantly a challenging economic equation for most countries to assess.
The need for the capacity afforded by schemes such as HS2 is without doubt; but continuing to push the envelope of rail engineering in pure pursuit of speed is neither sensible, nor sustainable when alternatives emerge.
In much the same way that the Bugatti Veyron was close to the pinnacle of petrol cars, high speed rail cannot have much further to go. When Stephenson’s Rocket first rolled out of the Forth Street Works in 1829, I imagine that while proud, he would have felt somewhat disappointed that 200 years later, we would still be building and deploying fundamentally identical infrastructure.
Something I learned very early on when I started my career with in the automotive industry was that every technology has its day and while the quote most attributed to Henry Ford of ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” may well be apocryphal, it is undoubtedly a truism.
Today, in the rail industry, we have a huge inertia, both economic and cultural which drives to perpetuate our industry, pushing us to optimise both rolling stock and infrastructure. But I believe that as an industry, we are - much like Henry Ford’s horse – unconsciously blinkered.
Hyperloop, with its promise of ultra-low maintenance has arrived, to throw the transportation market into upheaval in much the same way as Uber did for taxis. As suppliers and advocates for the rail industry, we must be brave and embrace this shift. Hyperloop is no different a disruptor than Stephenson’s Rocket was to the horse and carriage. For all its sci-fi aura, this is fundamentally a composite of well understood engineering, packaged to provide a genuinely new form of transport and as such, it is one our industry can adapt to.
While we could talk about the challenges of thermal expansion, pod stabilisation or the challenge of optimising both air skis and Halbach arrays for variable speeds, at its heart, Hyperloop has the potential to be beautifully, wonderfully, boring – and that is why I am so confident that its time has come.
Hyperloop can be built today – it is now time for the engineers to write their last chapter and for the economists to step forward, because while we are on the cusp of a deliverable product, it in no way means that it will succeed in the marketplace.
We have already touched on the fact that we are pushing the boundaries of conventional rail engineering, but is there a need to go further and faster than that which rail can deliver today? Simply put, the heart of our challenge lies in whether or not Hyperloop actually addresses a genuine user need.
Setting aside the pure geek appeal of levitating transport that depends entirely on where we consider Hyperloop sitting in the market. First posited as a futuristic alternative to high speed rail, we must remember that it is not technology that will determine Hyperloop’s success, but human behavior – why would we choose to travel by Hyperloop?
The reality is likely to be quite dull. While there will undoubtedly be a ‘Concorde’ moment for those first travelling, the point where Hyperloop must find its ‘sweet spot’ is surely as it passes over that threshold in journey time where the choice of train invariably shifts to plane.
Traditionally, this is a time based decision. At around four hours journey time or 400 miles, the attraction of dinner in a small collection of vacuum formed plastic pots starts to weigh in, and by around 8 hours, it’s pretty irresistible at the same price point. Up until then, being squashed under the armpits of our fellow travelers seems the way to go – something that the autonomous car movement may soon wish to argue with.
Hyperloop cannot be the same type of mass transit as rail. With 1g acceleration, the average passenger is not going be standing – at least not for long. Dedicated seats will have to be the norm, but if Hyperloop can somehow achieve the rock up and go flexibility of rail, combined with the speed of air travel, then that boundary around the four hour boundary actually becomes an entire market zone where it stands alone between the two.
Time, then rather than distance is likely to remain the key determinant in initial deployments. However, with speeds of 768mph, the constraints on Hyperloop routing are rapidly determined by the political and geographic landscape – and for many areas of the world, that becomes a major challenge.
Over long distances, the flexibility of point to multipoint travel afforded by air is also not something that can be easily replicated by Hyperloop – like any form of mass transit, it will need passenger volume to run economically and that means city to city travel flow. This means that while I have no doubt small scale deployments will take place outside Europe first, for it to truly flourish, Hyperloop must be built in Europe.
Why? Because at its simplest, there are somewhere in the region of 60 cities in Europe, each with a population of over 500 thousand people; and the richest continent has preexisting demand for fast travel – both for business users and tourists. Europeans have a culture of mobility and integration and above all, a large number of these cities fall within the potential ‘sweet spot’ for travel time based upon behavioral shift.
With congested skies and public reluctance to develop new airports on one side and with hard engineering limits for high speed rail on the other, Hyperloop starts to offer a low impact alternative to drive Europe’s economy forward.
The next couple of years will show if we are brave enough to take it.
To find out more about how Atkins is helping its clients to shape the future of transportation at this year's InnoTrans, visit the Speakers’ Corner (Hall 15.2) at 11.30am on Wednesday 21 September and come to stand 225A, CityCube A to speak to one of its consultants.