Beyond Hyperloop Hype

Super-Fast Transport Mode Offers Vast Opportunities

By Paul Scott Abbott

With transport capabilities transcending the speed of sound, hyperloop technology is zooming beyond the hype, gathering momentum to begin to realize multitrillion-dollar potential in reshaping freight and passenger movement, while also affording worldwide opportunities for shipment of project cargoes.

Building upon a concept dating back to the early 19th century, hyperloop is speeding toward reality with such recent developments as a joint venture to bring the technology to cargo operations at Germany’s Port of Hamburg among partnerships extending from Spain to Brazil to India, as well as numerous North American markets.

In conversations with Breakbulk, leaders of several leading-edge hyperloop firms indicated they believe the environmentally friendly, time- and cost-saving technology will be in real-world use moving goods and people well within the coming decade.

“We see hyperloop as being transformative to the freight industry,” said Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Culver City, California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which in December announced its agreement with Hamburger Hafen und Logistik Aktiengessellschaft, the leading container terminal operator in the Port of Hamburg, with plans to efficaciously link Hamburg docks with inland points through a system which could then be marketed to other ports and logistics companies.

“Part of our focus with our venture in Hamburg is to develop ways to make ports more efficient by using hyperloop technology to expand port capacity and reduce freight traffic on urban roads and railways,” said Ahlborn, whose company is known as HyperloopTT for short.

Global Pacts Abound

HyperloopTT, which last year led development of a global safety and regulatory framework for hyperloop, also already has international commercial agreements in the United Arab Emirates, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Indonesia, China, Korea and Brazil. In spring 2018, HyperloopTT began construction in Toulouse, France, of the world’s first full-scale hyperloop tube system, and it unveiled a global innovation research center in the Brazilian city of Contagem, with support from the Brazilian state and municipal governments and others.

Earlier last year, the company, in conjunction with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, Illinois Department of Transportation and several other public and private entities, embarked upon studies for the Great Lakes Hyperloop, to link Cleveland and Chicago and perhaps other cities.

The fact HyperloopTT is one of more than a dozen companies worldwide engaging in development of hyperloop systems – using technology such as electromagnetically levitated pods propelled through vacuum tubes – underscores that implementation of the mode is zipping forward.

Most recently, in March of this year, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission signed a pact with Los Angeles-based engineering and construction giant AECOM to study a hyperloop system to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with a branch from Harrisburg to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

AECOM is the same firm which three years earlier built the first hyperloop test track, in Hawthorne, California, for SpaceX, the space transportation company founded by Tesla and PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk is credited with bringing to the fore in 2012 the hyperloop concept that has its roots in the “atmospheric railway” concept proposed more than 200 years ago by British inventor George Medhurst and further advanced by rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard’s 1909 vacuum train proposal.

Testing Advances

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One promotes its DevLoop, located in the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas, with its first phase opened in mid-2017, as the first fully functioning hyperloop prototype in the world, with vacuum pumps reducing tube air to 1/1,000th of atmospheric pressure. Last August, Virgin Hyperloop One signed an agreement with the Spanish government’s rail administration for its first European development and testing facility, to be built in the Andalusian province of Malaga.

The company, known simply as Hyperloop One prior to the engagement of Virgin Group entrepreneur Richard Branson, was one of the first to pursue hyperloop development in earnest with its 2016 prefeasibility study, in collaboration with global accounting firm KPMG and multi-stakeholder consortium FS Links, for a 310-mile connection, linking Finland and Sweden through a tunnel under the Baltic Sea, which could whisk cargo or passengers in less than half an hour between Helsinki, Finland, and Stockholm.

“Now,” said Ryan Kelly, Virgin Hyperloop One’s head of marketing and communications, “we are working with governments and organizations around the world to progress the first projects. We’ve already seen groundbreaking commitments from governments around the world who understand that transformative technology like hyperloop can leapfrog their economies and deliver unprecedented connectivity and opportunity to their citizens.”

Virgin Hyperloop One, in early 2018, became the first company to sign a framework agreement with the intention of building a hyperloop corridor in India to connect Mumbai and Pune in 25 minutes. A detailed feasibility study has been completed, and a comprehensive project report is in the works. The initial report projects US$55 billion in socioeconomic benefits over 30 years of operation, inclusive of productivity improvements, economic catalysts, emissions and accident reductions, and more, while easing severe expressway congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by as many as 150,000 tons a year.

“As with any new transport infrastructure,” Kelly said, “there will be regulatory hurdles to overcome. We believe that hyperloop will require a fresh approach to regulation, and collaboration with forward-thinking countries like India will be key.”

DP World Engaged

On the cargo-specific front, Virgin Hyperloop One and Dubai-based global port terminal operator DP World in April 2018 introduced DP World Cargospeed – a product to provide hyperloop-enabled cargo systems to support fast, sustainable and efficient delivery of palletized cargo and high-priority goods in Arab states of the Middle East Gulf region and beyond.

“DP World Cargospeed systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking,” Kelly said. “The system will revolutionize logistics, support economic zones and create thriving economic megaregions.

“Virgin Hyperloop One-enabled supply chains can dramatically impact bottom lines by reducing both finished goods inventory and required warehouse space by 25 percent,” Kelly continued. “This can add up to far more than the savings in transportation costs, especially for high-value and time-sensitive products.”

In the U.S., Virgin Hyperloop One has completed an in-depth feasibility study for a Missouri route, and is wrapping up feasibility studies for Ohio, Colorado and Texas routes. The company also is participating in a first-of-its-kind environmental impact study of hyperloop routes in Ohio and Texas.

The Virgin Hyperloop One Global Challenge, launched in mid-2016, drew interest from more than 2,000 teams seeking to have routes deemed worthy of the company’s engagement. Among 35 semifinalists across 17 countries, 10 routes were chosen by an expert panel as most meriting pursuit.

The four in the U.S. are:
• Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh.
• Miami-Orlando.
• Dallas-Laredo-Houston.
• Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo.

Non-U.S. winners are:
• Bengaluru-Chennai and Mumbai-Chennai in India.
• Edinburgh-London and Glasgow-Liverpool in the UK.
• Mexico City-Guadalajara in Mexico.
• Toronto-Montreal in Canada.

Alberta Link Nears

Canadian routes are part of the focus of Toronto-based TransPod, which, in addition to pursuing a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal link, is proceeding toward a 2020 construction start on a route in Alberta between Calgary and Edmonton. Because, according to Sebatien Gendron, TransPod’s co-founder and CEO, most of the investment the company has secured to date has come from Europe, TransPod has initiated activities in Italy and France as well. Australian lines between Melbourne and Sydney and between Sydney and Brisbane are also targeted in TransPod’s future plans.

TransPod, through a French subsidiary, is building a test track in Limoges, a city 250 miles south of Paris historically known for its fine porcelain and now intended as site for construction of a working prototype for TransPod’s new hyperloop vacuum train. Gendron said plans call for system certification between 2023 and 2025.

“There’s actually a lot more need and interest than we thought initially, and the European Union is leading the pack,” Gendron said, adding that EU officials met for the first time with leadership of TransPod in December in seeking development of standardized global practices related to hyperloop development, including common track specifications. Also part of the industry consortium taking part in the ongoing series of meetings are representatives of Hardt Hyperloop, from the Netherlands; Zeleros, from Spain; and Hyper Poland, from Poland.
“It’s good the EU is onboard, because it’s key if you want to be able to use it commercially speaking,” Gendron said. “As with an aircraft or a train, you need to have the stamp from the authorities to be able to operate such a system.”

Gendron said the working group is to soon include Transport Canada officials, and he expects representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation to be taking part by the end of 2019. With extensive hyperloop construction planned in Canadian and U.S. markets, this participation and support is of critical importance.

Customers Targeted

TransPod, according to Gendron, looks to sell the hyperloop freight vehicles it is developing to potential customers including such major shipping concerns as FedEx, UPS and Amazon, while infrastructure lines are to be built with a boost from companies such as AECOM, with the financial capabilities to finance hyperloop corridors.

Gendron said he perceives “a huge opportunity” in particular for hyperloop transportation of time-sensitive freight, including food and e-commerce goods, in addition to passengers.

Also, getting the requisite components to hyperloop construction sites should afford opportunities for project cargo shipments. For example, one of TransPod’s partner companies, Indian-owned, Luxembourg-based steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal, is looking to on-site building of hyperloop tube installations using prefabricated pillars, steel plates and other materials brought by ship and truck.

Gendron said he believes global demand for hyperloop systems is sufficient to keep numerous companies busy for decades, adding that he sees a competitive advantage for TransPod as a Canadian company with European investors.

“The market is there,” Gendron said, “and the benefits are many. Hyperloop is faster, cheaper and more convenient, and it’s sustainable.”

Green Benefits Seen

Such “green” sustainability gains are viewed as vital by Jelte Altena, head of marketing for Hardt Hyperloop, headquartered in Delft, Netherlands.

“The biggest benefit is that the hyperloop responds concretely to a growing need and a lack of a form that both meets current requirements and is environmentally friendly and affordable,” Altena said. “The hyperloop makes long-distance travel possible without concessions in terms of time, comfort, price, safety and living environment.
“It is the most environmentally friendly form of transport, with no less than 30 times less energy per passenger than the plane and even four times less than the train,” Altena continued. “It offers a concrete solution for the increasing number of short-haul flight movements with associated consequences for the climate and the living environment.”

Because, he said, hyperloop consists of a network of low-pressure tubes built where possible along existing infrastructure and, where this is not possible, to a large extent underground, hyperloop will have hardly any impact on nature and the built environment.

“Where above-ground construction takes place, the infrastructure will be provided with solar panels,” Altena said. “This will provide a smart and efficient energy network, with which urban areas along the route can be supplied with green energy. In this way, the hyperloop provides more energy than it uses.”

Cargo Coming First

Like other leaders in the hyperloop industry, Altena said he believes the technology is likely to be applied to the cargo market before the passenger sector. When used specifically for cargo transport, tube diameters, travel speeds and service frequencies can be defined to meet demands for goods movement rather than passenger comfort. In combination markets, he said, cargo and passenger schedules can easily be alternated automatically.

Hardt Hyperloop’s vision is realization of a hyperloop network reaching throughout Western Europe, to be formed by connecting various corridors, including the route between Amsterdam and Frankfort examined in a recently completed concept study. The study found the 280-mile trip can be completed in 50 minutes via hyperloop compared with four hours using existing modes.

The Hardt firm, with a hyperloop test facility in the Netherlands, is also collaborating with Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on implementation of hyperloop in the field of aviation.

“Essential to our development is the cooperation between public, private and semiprivate institutions, including those of research institutes,” Altena said. “We believe that the hyperloop, with its major impact on our future society, is not a development that may depend on a few parties, but must be a widely supported social discussion.”

For example, parties with which Hardt Hyperloop cooperates and/or is a consortium partner include state-owned rail companies of the Netherlands and Germany, Mumbai-based Tata Steel, Dutch maritime vessel and services provider Royal IHC, Dutch construction group Royal BAM, Dutch architectural design firm UNStudio and German automotive equipment manufacturer Continental AG. Plus the Hardt firm enjoys the support of the House of Representatives of Dutch Parliament.

Spain First

Spain’s first hyperloop company, Zeleros, founded in Valencia in late 2016, emerged from a Spanish student team formed to take part in a Musk-led competition, partners with Renfe, Spain’s state-owned rail company, and in March announced it is collaborating with German conglomerate Siemens on hyperloop technology. Other Zeleros partners include the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Technical University of Madrid, Paris-based Altran Technologies, and investors ranging from Europe’s primary climate initiative to Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play Tech Center. With the support of regional government, Zeleros is building a test track in Valencia.

“The technologies exist,” said Juan Vicen, chief communications officer at Zeleros. “Now, the main challenge is the integration of all the technologies that already exist and the establishment of a public-private partnership powerful enough to make it a reality and start implementing real routes. We are working hard in that aspect.”
Vicen is among the several hyperloop executives who anticipate cargo transport to lead the way on hyperloop corridors and who expect abundant opportunities for project cargo shipping in construction phases.

“Although we see a bright future in the movement of passengers,” Vicen said, “we foresee that the fastest application of hyperloop will be for freight, since the requirements in safety and operation will be less in comparison to passenger transport.

“Hyperloop infrastructure will need project cargo shipments, as key materials for construction of hyperloop routes will need distribution across the world to develop specific routes,” he said. “It will be the case of tubes and other key elements, and it will depend on the location of the route and the origin of the materials.

“All in all,” Vicen said, “the hyperloop has the potential to offer wider economic, sustainability and societal benefits that will contribute to the progress of mankind, becoming one of the key technological developments of the following decades.”

So just how vast is the potential for hyperloop?

Pointing to estimates pegging the annual worldwide transportation market at US$8.7 trillion, about evenly split between moving cargo and passengers, Hyper Chariot’s founder Nick Garzilli said: “We see a system where eventually over 90 percent of that US$8.7 trillion could be moved by Hyper Chariot.”

And possibilities extend even beyond the planet Earth, with Musk, who states he wants to send humans to Mars as soon as 2024, saying the hyperloop concept would be well-suited to the Red Planet, where no tubes would be needed due to the very low density of the Martian atmosphere.  

A professional journalist for nearly 50 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott has focused on transportation topics since the late 1980s.

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