The first commercial hyperloop systems should be in operation this decade, according to developers of the high-speed transit technology.
“The 2020s will be the decade of hyperloop,” said Josh Giegel, chief technology officer and co-founder of Virgin Hyperloop.
Andres De Leon, CEO of HyperloopTT, Virgin Hyperloop’s most prominent competitor, said that if all goes well, operations could begin late this decade on at least a portion of a proposed Chicago-Cleveland-Pittsburgh line. The company expects to be transporting passengers on a 3- to 5-kilometer hyperloop test in Abu Dhabi during the first half of the decade.
The developing technology uses magnetic levitation to propel pods, similar in size to a single train car, through a vacuum-sealed tunnel or tube. The near absence of friction, due both to the levitation and the extremely low atmospheric pressure in the tube, helps the pods reach aircraft-like speeds.
Hyperloops are to be powered electrically using solar or other green energies and would produce no audible noise outside the tunnel.
Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop made history in November when Giegel and the company’s director of passenger experience, Sara Luchian, became the first people to ride in a hyperloop pod. The two reached more than 100 mph on the 500-meter, 15-second ride at Virgin’s test track in the desert near Las Vegas.
Among the routes the company is considering are a 90-mile tube from Mumbai to Pune in India; a connector between downtown and the airport in Bangalore, India; a Kansas City-to-St. Louis tube following I-70 in Missouri; and a hyperloop connecting Chicago with Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh.
Virgin expects its next major step to be construction of a certification center in West Virginia. Planning work on the center will start this year, Giegel said. He envisions the construction of a test track of 6 or 7 miles in length, which would be used to demonstrate not only the technology, but also the costs of construction and operations. Virgin’s goal is to achieve certification around 2025.
Hyperloop developers achieved important progress on the regulatory front in July when the Department of Transportation determined that the emerging technology could be regulated under the authority of the Federal Railroad Administration. Among other things, the determination made hyperloop projects eligible for federal funding.
De Leon said that the U.S. and the EU are both pushing forward on a regulatory framework. “I am really happy about all of this,” he said. “I think things are moving really, really fast.”
He said that the U.S. and Australia are the two countries most suited to house the first full-length HyperloopTT line because each is large and lacks high-speed rail. In a best-case scenario, De Leon said, the preparation and regulation could be in place to start construction on the Chicago-Cleveland-Pittsburgh line in three to four years, followed by a build-out window of five to seven years.
De Leon said that HyperloopTT is taking a different approach to development than Virgin. No one-off passenger test rides, for example, are planned. Instead, the company is focusing on system integration at its testing center in Toulouse, France, where it has a 320-meter hyperloop tube. When the company does start moving people, it plans to do so first on a small commercial scale in Abu Dhabi.
Recent milestones include HyperloopTT’s December agreement with Spain-based multinational transport infrastructure designer Ferrovial to jointly analyze U.S. hyperloop opportunities and a technology partnership with Italy’s Hitachi Rail, which is a leader in high-speed railway signaling.