Can Hyperloop transform how Indians travel?

Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. are, and both are keen to introduce the Hyperloop in India


Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has proposed linking Mumbai and Pune with the company’s ultra-high speed transport system. Photo: AFP
Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has proposed linking Mumbai and Pune with the company’s ultra-high speed transport system. Photo: AFP

On 27 and 28 February, five teams from India will present their models on how Hyperloop can be used to connect Bengaluru to Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai to Bengaluru (two teams), Mumbai to Chennai, and Mumbai to Delhi.

Hyperloop, a low-pressure tube in which magnetically levitated pod-like vehicles can ferry passengers, sometimes at speeds in excess of 1,000 kmph, is the brainchild of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. But Musk, busy with his other ventures, is not developing a commercial Hyperloop. Two firms—Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. (HTT)—are, and both are keen to introduce the Hyperloop in India.

Hyperloop One is currently building a prototype in the Nevada desert in the US. Simultaneously, it is scouting for partners to whom it can license its technology to build Hyperloop routes in various countries. To that end, it launched a global competition—the Hyperloop One Global Challenge—in which several consortia participated. Of these, 30 were shortlisted, including five from India, (prn.to/2jwi9UP), according to Nick Earle, senior vice-president of global field operations, Hyperloop One.

“By March this year,” said Earle, who is on his first visit to India, “we will demonstrate a pod travelling in passive magnetic levitation in a forward motion inside a pressure-reduced tube (not 100% vacuum). We are just weeks away from proving the technology with the world’s first demonstration.”

Unlike what his competitors are doing, insists Earle, the build-out at Nevada is “a full-scale prototype with everything that you need to build a real-world Hyperloop”. He said his company’s philosophy is to build it, engineer it, prove that it works and then go to different countries to deploy it.

Earle and his team are in India to meet government officials and potential partners and review the work of the five Indian teams.

“When we look at which country could benefit the most from Hyperloop, we look for large ridership population or freight demand, GDP growth, requirement for national productivity, and the engineering and academic prowess to build this locally,” said Earle who likens the Hyperloop concept to “broadband for transportation”.

India, then, is a natural fit.

Alan James, vice-president of worldwide business development for passenger systems at Hyperloop One added, “India is the primary spot in Asia as far as Hyperloop is concerned”.

Hyperloop One’s rival HTT was founded on a crowd-funding model. In December, Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of HTT, met India’s union minister of road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari (bit.ly/2glawkG), and proposed linking Mumbai and Pune with its ultra-high speed transport system.

“The cost (of building the track) depends on the location. To be generic, it will be $40 million per km. But it is one-fourth of high-speed rail. When you consider investment in infrastructure, you also consider how fast you can recoup it. This investment can be recouped in eight years,” Gresta said.

HTT has an exclusive agreement with the US-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for using its passive magnetic levitation system as the core of “low-cost, safety-conscious construction and design” in its Hyperloop, according to the company’s website.

Maglev, or magnetic levitation, is a technology that enables a train to float 1-6 inches above the track on a cushion of magnetic power and runs at a minimum speed of 350 kmph and a maximum of 500 kmph.

Earle too says the Hyperloop will cost less than high-speed trains—“50% or less compared to the cost of high-speed rail or similar transport systems over a 30-year operational cycle, but we expect economic benefits to be three-and-a-half to four times greater”.

Apart from HTT and Hyperloop One, Spain’s Talgo SA, Germany’s Siemens AG and Knorr Bremse AG, are wooing Indian policymakers with their transport technologies. Mint reported on 5 January (bit.ly/2joNU4s) that the ministry of road transport and highways has sought approval from the Niti Aayog to experiment and introduce new mass rapid transportation technologies such as Hyperloop and pod-taxis. Some pilots are already in the works. For instance, a pod-taxi pilot, with Metrino-PRT, will soon let passengers use India’s first driverless pods on a 12.3km stretch from the Delhi-Haryana border to Badshapur via Rajiv Chowk in Delhi and Iffco Chowk and Sohna Road in Gurgaon. The project will cost Rs800 crore.

Indeed, across the country governments and government departments are setting aside money for such projects.

The Indian Railways, which seems sincere about high-speed trains this time and which has been running some trials with them, is planning a capital expenditure of around Rs1.3 trillion for the fiscal year 2017-18—the highest-ever capital outlay and is expecting a gross budgetary support of around Rs55,000 crore from the finance ministry.

To be sure, it’s early days yet for Hyperloop. The technology solution is some time away, and the cost of developing it will run into billions of dollars. Both Hyperloop One and HTT are rushing to raise funds from investors.

On 1 December, HTT said it surpassed $100 million in total investment. This included an equity investment of $31.8 million and “in kind and land value investments” of $77 million. Earle of Hyperloop One, on the other hand, insisted that all the $160 million his company has been able to raise so far is in real, hard cash.

Meanwhile, critics of Hyperloop claim that at such high speeds, there could be health hazards arising from travelling in Hyperloop (which can be built on the ground, in tunnels or higher up on pylons). Dismissing these concerns, Earle believes that “the travel experience will be similar to what people have in air travel—only, there would not be any turbulence because things here are happening in a controlled environment”

According to Earle, “an airplane starts stationary, then it accelerates at about 0.3-0.4g—which is what the Hyperloop pod accelerates at—it then goes up in the sky, whereas the pod stays close to the ground. The reason the plane goes up in the sky is that it needs low air pressure to travel at 600 miles an hour; we take the low air pressure and bring it down to the ground. In its final leg, the plane decelerates and stops; that’s exactly how the Hyperloop works: stationary, accelerating at 0.3g, travelling at 700 miles an hour, decelerating and then stopping. The human body doesn’t sense speed; it senses acceleration, which is the same as in air travel.”

Does Hyperloop make sense for a country like India?

G. Raghuram, professor, Public Systems Group, at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, says the “concept of Hyperloop is a good one, as it can reduce energy consumption significantly and speed up transport”. However, he cautions that from a safety point of view, the technology is yet to be proven. “Also, I’m not sure how useful it will be for a country like India that needs to transport people on a large scale. In my opinion, India should not jump headlong into it but take a wait-and-watch approach and see the implementation elsewhere first.”

Still, the prospect of travelling from Mumbai to Pune in around 30 minutes or Delhi to Mumbai in under two hours, without flying, is attractive.

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