The Hyperloop: What’s This Revolutionary Means of Transportation?

While Kenya is still developing its standard gauge railway and upgrading its diesel locomotives, the First World is racing to unveil the first Hyperloop systems.

So what’s this new green means of transport?

Virgin Hyperloop, Image: Courtesy.

Hyperloops burst onto the scene in 2013. Eccentric billionaire Elon Musk detailed a new type of train service in a low-pressure tube that would reach speeds up to 760 mph (1223Kmph). The train would float on a cushion of air and be powered down the tracks by powerful electromagnets.

Like many of Musk’s other endeavours, including electric cars and rockets, it didn’t involve inventing everything from scratch. He took existing ideas, re-packaged and rethought them, in the hope of carrying humanity towards a brighter future. But critics aren’t yet entirely convinced the new hyperloop can solve old issues.
Magnetic levitation was a concept already used on high-speed trains in Japan and Germany, and low-pressure pneumatic tubes have been used to move objects since the early 19th century. Combining the two would make higher speeds possible, Musk said. Trips between the county lines of Los Angeles and San Francisco would take 35 minutes, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO said. It would be much cheaper and faster than high-speed rail, he said.
UK billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin is among the companies attempting to develop hyperloop technology to improve on existing trains.

“Hyperloop is novel and interesting, and at the same time a very old idea,” Molly Wright Steenson, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, who studies technology, communications, and design, told CNN Business. “We still face a lot of the problems we faced in the 19th century. We’re trying to get people very quickly across time and space, and we still have to contend with traffic.”

Pneumatic tubes were popularised in the 1800s, scholars say, as an alternative to ground transportation. Capsules containing letters were pushed and sucked through tubes at speeds of about 20 or 30mph, generally in tunnels under big cities.

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First passengers in a Hyperloop, Image :Courtesy.

The first successful Hyperloop test took place on Sunday afternoon, 21st November, at the Virgin DevLoop test track in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The first two passengers were Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Josh Giegel, and head of passenger experience Sara Luchian.

After strapping into their seats in the company’s gleaming white and red hyperloop pod, dubbed Pegasus, they were transferred into an airlock as the air inside the enclosed vacuum tube was removed. The pod then accelerated to a brisk 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) down the length of the track, before slowing down to a stop.

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The DevLoop test track is 500 metres long and 3.3 metres in diameter. The track is located about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, out in the kind of desert that hyperloop pods could one day traverse in minutes. The company says it has conducted over 400 tests on that track, but never before with human passengers.

“No one has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, told the media. “This is a full-scale, working hyperloop that is not just going to run in a vacuum environment but is going to have a person in it. No one has come close to doing it.”

The Pegasus pod used for the first passenger test, also called XP-2, was designed with help from famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ design firm. It represents a scaled-down version of what Virgin Hyperloop hopes will eventually be a full-sized pod capable of carrying up to 23 passengers. It weighs 2.5 tons and measures about 15-18 feet long, according to Giegel.

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Inside, its lush white interior is meant to be familiar to passengers, who may not be immediately comfortable with the idea of slingshotting through a vacuum-sealed tube at the speed of a commercial jet.

“This is not like some crazy, newfangled science fiction invention,” Luchian said in an interview several days before the test. “This is something that reminds me of a place that I’ve been and I’ve used many times, that I would feel comfortable putting grandma in and sending her on a visit somewhere.”

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