Hype or Reality? Questions emerge as Hyperloop One edges towards proof of concept

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Leanne Wheeler,

Operations Manager / Senior Consultant,

Special Correspondent airrail NEWS

EVENTS: Arguably the star of the 11th Middle East Rail Conference held on 7th-8th March in Dubai (UAE), Hyperloop One announced that it is gearing towards conducting its first full-scale tests of the system. This follows motor propulsion tests conducted last year and the recent signing of a MoU with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to develop a regulatory framework for the new mode’s operation that can be used as a baseline model for gaining safety accreditation throughout the world.

Hyperloop One announced at the conference that a full-scale test facility (termed ‘Devloop’) has been under construction in the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas in recent months, with combined tests of the system’s vacuum air pressure, passive maglev, motor propulsion and braking due to be underway in a full-scale loop by mid-2017. This timeline aligns with the organisation’s desire to enter the first freight carrying pods into service in 2020, with passenger services following by 2021.

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Although making the announcement at a rail conference, Hyperloop One was keen to highlight in its keynote that the system is not a new form of rail but will instead represent a brand new and innovative mode of transport altogether, predicting the impact of the system’s launch to be similar to that of the aeroplane in 1903. Accordingly, Hyperloop One will ‘redefine regions’, revolutionise trade and bring unprecedented benefits to global and regional economies. Indeed, with predicted journey times of just 12 minutes between Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and an eventual plan for no two cities in the GCC to be more than an hour apart) it is easy to see how this transformative mode could do just that.

However, by presenting at a rail conference Hyperloop One opened itself to challenge from the operational and technical experts in the room. Perhaps aware of this, Nick Earle, SVP Global Field Operations for Hyperloop One commented that: “Elon Musk first said that when people are presented with the concept of Hyperloop, there are two reactions. The first is to think that this is a sci-fi idea that will never work and the second is to question why it hasn’t been done years before”.

It remains to be seen whether the former will prove true. Rail experts understandably questioned the system’s safety, robustness in times of disruption and ability to operate with an expected 10-20 second headway at speeds of 671 mph (1000kmph or 300m/s). To put this into context, at the lower 10 second headway, this would see pods travelling just 1.86 miles apart at supersonic speeds. What happens if the one in front breaks down, for example?

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Upon questioning at the stand, representatives from Hyperloop appeared evasive on the specifics, which is perhaps forgivable given that the system is yet to undergo any form of dynamic testing. Further probing elicited that pods would “talk to each other” in the event of a breakdown and that there would be suitable provisions made for exits along the route to facilitate emergency evacuations if required.

Other equally pressing questions remain. For pods to travel at such speeds, tubes would surely need to be constructed along a perfectly straight trajectory, with zero gradient. Whilst this may be easily depicted at the design stage, it is somewhat hard to believe that this can work in practice across varied global geographies. After all, railway professionals are acutely aware that first and foremost, the railway is a triumph of engineering as hills, mountains, rivers, and other topological constraints all need to be overcome.

Given the many questions that loom large over the horizon of the Nevada desert as Devloop gets underway, it is hard at this stage to think of Hyperloop as anything more than a concept; albeit an exciting one at that. For this reason, Hyperloop One’s presentations at the conference were met with at best a mixture of keen interest and reserved anticipation and at worst a form of disbelief that bordered on disdain. 

That said, it is perfectly feasible to imagine that similar questions existed over 200 years ago prior to the launch of the first train and 125 years ago prior to the first aeroplane taking off and landing. Now Hyperloop One threatens to disrupt the prevalence of both modes and perhaps replace them altogether. 

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“Broadband for people and freight” – Hyperloop explained.

  • Innovative entrepreneur Elon Musk first conceptualised the idea of a Hyperloop transport system in a 2013 whitepaper. Currently there are five organisations progressing the concept, with Hyperloop One being the first to announce full-scale research and testing. 
  • Hyperloop One will operate as a ‘point-to-point, autonomous’ service, likened to Uber, with passengers choosing their destination at the departure terminal and climbing into pods that arrive on demand.
  • The system’s Application Programming Interface (API) will be opened to developers to encourage innovation and interoperability. This will complement evolving travel trends such as customers buying ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) and enable seamless integration with other autonomous modes.
  • Pods will travel at more than airline speeds and be capable of coasting for 40-50km with zero degradation to speed. Consequently, the system is incredibly low-energy intensive.
  • Global accounting firm KPMG has confirmed that Hyperloop could ultimately represent a 2/3 cost saving in comparison to High Speed Rail.
  • Hyperloop One is keen to point out that whilst the system’s benefits relate principally to giving people the “value of time” and of “redefining regions”, the true benefits of Hyperloop are probably yet to be even imagined. This was likened to the impact of broadband having been “more than just web pages loading faster”. The system was thus likened to being “broadband for people and freight”.
  • Hyperloop One has so far raised US$160 bn to conduct research on the system, with this figure set to increase given the recent recruitment of ex-Uber CFO Brent Callinicos. 
  • The proposed journey time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi is just 12 minutes, with tickets set to cost just 28AED (US$ 7.62). Similarly, a proposed link between Stockholm and Helsinki is set to take 28 minutes and cost 28 EUR (US$29.79).
  • Hyperloop One is rapidly expanding, with the firm set to double its number of employees from 250 to 500 by the end of this year alone.