Future of Transport: London to Edinburgh in 35 minutes?

Opinion

Hyperloop, which claims to be the first genuinely new mode of transport since the aeroplane, completed its first successful test runs last year. Aiming to move passengers and freight between cities at over 600 mph, cutting journey time between e.g. London and Edinburgh to around 35 minutes, Hyperloop conjures up visions of Jetson-style commutes.

But how close are we to seeing widespread adoption of near-supersonic, fully-automated point-to-point journeys? And what might the wider implications be for the economy and our lives?

Your 21st Century rail replacement service

Hyperloop is the most well-known of a handful of initiatives aiming to revolutionise mass-transit through the use of pods zipping through evacuated tubes. The term was coined by Elon Musk in a 2013 research paper written in response to California’s decision to build high-speed rail system. Musk’s paper wasn’t particularly innovative – as he acknowledges, the idea of vehicles running between cities in evacuated tubes has been around for some time – but the billionaire entrepreneur (and expert showman) reignited interest in faster, more efficient alternatives to high-speed rail. And, through design competitions sponsored by his company SpaceX, he’s inspired a flurry of startups aiming to make Hyperloop a commercial reality.

Hyperloop transforms journey times of hours into minutes, just like the railways transformed journey times of days into hours, and so we can expect a similar ‘clocking up’ effect on the economy.

Hyperloop One is the best-funded of these startups and the one that’s demonstrated the most advanced prototype to date. Its system uses pods, which can carry passengers or cargo, running on maglev rails, using linear electric propulsion motors, through low-pressure steel tubes. They claim they’ll be able to get their pods up to 670 mph, with point-to-point journeys (i.e. no stops) that are more environmentally friendly and less expensive than equivalent high-speed rail systems.

Meanwhile, despite his early assertions that he wouldn’t be entering the market himself, Musk’s The Boring Company has plans to tunnel beneath west Los Angeles to put in place a system that transports pods on autonomous skates. The third Hyperloop startup of note, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has signed agreements to build routes in India and South Korea.

Turbocharging the economy

When the railways arrived in Britain courtesy of Robert Stephenson’s breakthrough design, they revolutionised the economy and created so many jobs that by 1900, nearly 5 percent of the population worked in the rail industry. Even today, the presence of a train station is widely recognised as providing a boost to the local economy. Hyperloop transforms journey times of hours into minutes, just like the railways transformed journey times of days into hours, and so we can expect a similar ‘clocking up’ effect on the economy. Faster transport of people has obvious benefits for tourism and commuting, but it might be high-speed cargo which has the greatest impact.

Freight or flight?

Most of us have seen, and been wowed by, Amazon’s plans to offer delivery by drone in under 30 minutes. One of the key requirements of such a system would be the ability to move goods between Amazon warehouses quickly, to meet demand at the local level. The UK’s congested roads and sclerotic rail system don’t cut the mustard in this respect, whereas Hyperloop could whizz products, parts and raw materials between cities in minutes. Distributed manufacturing, mass customisation and just-in-time delivery of the freshest produce all become much more attainable with high-speed point-to-point travel. With so many people currently focussed on the ‘last mile’, Hyperloop looks to the longer distances that these systems will link in to.

Then there’s the added benefit of taking heavy goods vehicles off the roads, reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality in urban centres, and relieving congestion.

Nationwide commuter belt

Unlike in the US, where the railways allowed the creation of many new cities, all the major UK cities had already gone through population booms when rail travel arrived. Similarly, Hyperloop is unlikely to lead to mass migration or the creation of new urban centres. But, just like the automobile dramatically increased the distance that people would happily travel from home to work (Marchetti’s constant posits that people, on average, will only tolerate about an hour of travel time per day), Hyperloop has the potential to allow very-long-distance commuting. This could help regenerate suburban areas which have become less attractive as congestion on the roads has increased.

Hyperloop could also help cities outside of the South East compete with London, by making them much more easily accessible to tourists and business travellers. On the other hand, by expanding the talent pool available to London, it could reinforce the dominance of that city as the place where work is done, while everywhere else is just for living. Studies on the impact of HS2 and Crossrail have shown how these kinds of infrastructure projects can widen disparities between areas which are connected and areas which aren’t.

Not a silver bullet train

As Nick Earle, SVP of Global Field Operations for Hyperloop One, admitted in a recent episode of Alexa Stop, Hyperloop is still many years away from becoming mainstream. As well as the tricky technical problem of sorting out how to actually get pods off the loop when they arrive at their destinations (quite a big deal), there are many other hurdles to widespread roll-out of Hyperloop.

For a start, while Hyperloop cuts long-distance journey times dramatically, the impact is less meaningful if the local journeys from start point to Hyperloop terminal, and Hyperloop terminal to end point, still take hours. Before the gains can be fully realised, local transport for both people and goods will need to be vastly improved (enter the driverless cars and drones respectively) and interoperability standards will have to be agreed that allow local (and international) modes of transport to blend seamlessly with a Hyperloop-style system – consider the extent to which our airports are currently designed around the automobile.

And then there are the political hurdles. In a recent Future Thinking post, Neal Gandhi pointed out how the sunk cost fallacy can prevent politicians and planners abandoning their costly pet infrastructure projects, even if those projects look like they’re going to be obsolete before they’re finished. With the ink still drying on the HS2 contracts, a Hyperloop system in the UK looks like a distant prospect. Hyperloop’s debut is much more likely to happen in a country with lower population density and fewer legacy infrastructure projects. A route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi looks like the best bet so far.