By Michael Rothenborg, October 2016
It sounds a bit like a far-out sci-fi movie from the 1970s: Sending a train full of people through a giant, depressurised tube. As the tube is a near-vacuum, the train can move at speeds of over 1,000 km per hour, much faster and in a more climate friendly way than any commercial aircraft – and at around three times the speed of the Japanese Shinkansen and other modern bullet trains.
Make no mistake, however. The Hyperloop train might be coming to a capital near you within the next decade – and thereby solve a lot of congestion problems.
“As a long-term researcher in the field I look positively on the project, which will take current train technology to a new level of innovation,” says Folke Snickars, Professor and Research Leader at KTH, Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.
He is not alone with his optimism. This type of low-air-resistance tube transport has been widely touted as the new future of mass transport, and those flirting with the idea range from French national rail company SNCF to the biggest investor in Uber and Airbnb, Shervin Pishevar. Leading magazines are writing more serious articles about the technology than they were just a year ago. For example, TechNewsWorld has a headline proclaiming “Hyperloop dreams are getting real”. And engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed passenger pods to be built and tested in a prototype tube in the USA. They hope to refute sceptics’ argument that a train ride that fast will inevitably be unpleasantly bumpy, with rollercoaster-like acceleration.
Competing with airline and car travel
In a paper written in 2012, American entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk first envisioned the Hyperloop technology as “a fifth mode of transport” – a way to compete with domestic airline and car travel.
Two companies are conducting tests and vying to be the first operator. Hyperloop Transportation Technology (HTT) is planning a track in Quay Valley, California, slated for completion by 2017 and ready for public use the following year.
Hyperloop One will invite the public to a full-scale demonstration of the complete system in early 2017. The company’s development partners include Deutsche Bahn, transport planning consultants Systra, public accounting firm KPMG, architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group – and Ramboll as a technical advisor. KPMG and Ramboll have conducted a pre-feasibility study on the plans to link the two capital cities of Sweden and Finland with a tube that will cut the 500-km journey to less than half an hour.
“Our expertise has been within rock engineering; civil engineering; environmental planning for a sub-Baltic sea corridor, a rock tunnel between the countries; and two land-based corridors, one in Sweden and one in Finland,” explains Malcolm Sjödahl, Head of Business Development at Ramboll Sweden.
Ramboll has also helped calculate the costs of the project, which are forecast to hover around EUR 19 billion. However, this will still be cheaper than traditional high-speed train projects like the UK’s London to Birmingham fast rail and California’s high-speed rail. Moreover, factors like ticket sales, saved transport time and other advantages connected with creating a new, super-city of five million people – a mega-region far larger than Greater Copenhagen and Malmo – could mean a yearly profit of EUR 1.15 billion. On the basis of the findings, the city of Salo, Finland, has signed a letter of intent with Hyperloop One to become the first city along the proposed Helsinki-Stockholm route.