Author Mark Fairlie

While the political world seems to have been focused on the tens of billions of pounds being spent on the high-speed rail line, HS2, is a quiet transport revolution going to overshadow it?

Hyperloop, a new form of transportation, is undergoing its first major test trials in North America. Initially promising to take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 miles at a top speed of 760 miles an hour, newly-formed company Hyperloop One asked the people of the world where it wanted Hyperloop systems to be built.

The people of the UK answered. Three routes were proposed –

  • Scotland/England/Wales route taking 89 minutes and travelling a distance of 1060km,
  • The Northern Loop from Glasgow to Liverpool via Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester taking 47 minutes covering 545km, and
  • The Edinburgh-London route taking in Manchester and Birmingham with a travel time of 50 minutes over a distance of 666km

Leslie Horwitz, the strategic communications manager for Hyperloop One, in a blog post where it was announced that the Edinburgh to London route was the UK winner, said that

“(Hyperloop would) address the UK’s growing economic inequality between the South and North … innovative investment structures (like this) are essential to supporting UK growth in a pro-Brexit environment (and) … (these) proposals are good examples of how Hyperloop can be a politically unifying factor”.

But what exactly is Hyperloop and what are the chances of the Edinburgh-London route eventually being built?

Hyperloop – a short history

A hyperloop is a tube in which the pressure has been reduced and through which pressurised cabins travel at speed.

Initially envisaged by an American engineer, professor, physicist, and inventor Robert Goddard, the idea was developed by Elon Musk, the force behind Tesla electronic cars, and then open-sourced. Open sourcing is where an inventor or a company releases all their ideas, notes, and developments to the public with no copyright attached. The reason Musk open-sourced his idea was to encourage other companies to develop the concept.

Seven companies around the world are now working on Hyperloop projects, one of which, Hyperloop One, was behind the competition to suggest future developments in the UK (and around Europe).


By Camilo Sanchez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How the Hyperloop works

There are many reasons why other types of transport have limited speeds. Rail, road, and air transport is slowed down by friction from either the track, the road, or moving air in the atmosphere.

The Hyperloop concept is that pods will travel through a steel tube maintained at a partial vacuum, floating on a half-inch layer of air provided under pressure to the pod’s skis. Special motors placed along the loop would control the speed of the pod, at the same time providing enough forward propulsion to glide to the next motor.

In reality, will it work?

There are a number of factors to overcome. Arguably the largest is cost. A price tag of $6bn was proposed for the original Los Angeles to San Francisco route although many economists and transport experts believe that this “understates the cost of designing, developing, constructing, and testing an all-new form of transportation.

The original plan to power Hyperloop by solar panels has been criticised because experts argue that solar power would not generate the energy needed. If this is a problem in sunny California, what chance a solar-powered system for the UK?

The experience of travelling on the Hyperloop would be a “barf ride”, according to transport blogger Alon Levy and as reported by Business Insider. Passengers would find riding in a cramped, windowless pod at speed extremely unpleasant, and that’s before any potential nausea caused by the acceleration forces and potential seismic activities the journey will stimulate.

A lot has to happen before Hyperloop anywhere becomes a reality so, for the time being, it may be that you catch HS2 long before you catch a Hyperloop.