After the first passenger tests in November 2020, Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop grabbed international headlines. We chronicle the most crucial milestones in the hyperloop’s history while other firms try to make it a mainstream means of transportation.

When Josh Giegel, chief technology officer and co-founder of Virgin Hyperloop, and Sara Luchian, director of passenger experience, first stepped onboard the company’s custom-built pod, they knew they were making history.

“I was quite excited, and I suppose any nerves I had were just about the significance of the moment and realizing that we may be writing history,” Luchian told Railway Technology.

The business made international headlines on November 8, 2020, when it executed the first passenger test on its hyperloop system. Virgin Hyperloop’s partner, the Virgin Group, deemed the trial, which took place in the Nevada desert, a success.

Despite the fact that Virgin Hyperloop began working on the project in 2019, hyperloop technology has been under development for years, dating back to a research paper published in 2013 by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

We investigate the growth of the concept, from its origins to the ground-breaking futuristic networks being developed today, as hyperloop initiatives spring up around the world.

What is Hyperloop? 

Virgin Hyperloop, a futuristic rail service that promised a new era of passenger transport, has announced that it will instead focus on cargo.

A hyperloop is a super-fast ground-level transportation system in which humans may travel at speeds of up to 760 mph (1220 km/h), just shy of the speed of sound, in a hovering pod inside a vacuum tube. Magnetic levitation is part of Virgin’s system, which is similar to the technology used in sophisticated high-speed rail projects in Japan and Germany.

Vacuum tube transit systems have been around for a surprising amount of time as a notion for quick transportation. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer and the forerunner of Elon Musk, suggested building a tube in southwest England in 1845 that would drive trains at a dizzying speed of 70 mph (110 km/h) at the time. Brunel’s plan was abandoned after the project became impracticable due to a shortage of materials that could maintain it.

Despite Brunel’s efforts, it took more than a century for Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to reintroduce tubular transit technology to the world. He outlined the architecture of Hyperloop, a solar-powered transportation system that he described as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table” in a 58-page technical document published in 2013.

Musk said that the vehicle could travel 350 miles (560 kilometers) between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes for $20 and that the infrastructure would cost $6 billion. He also stated that the new transit system will be safer than any current means of transportation, as it will be weatherproof and earthquake resistant. Musk never put much effort into making the concept a reality, although he did offer his Hyperloop Alpha design as an open-source design for colleges and businesses to study and develop.

Virgin Hyperloop was formed in 2014 with the goal of realizing Musk’s vision of a futuristic transportation system. The business has made significant technical revisions to Musk’s first design and has decided not to pursue Musk’s proposed Los Angeles–to–San Francisco route. Virgin, on the other hand, intends to keep the futuristic vehicle environmentally friendly, with vegan leather seats and recycled content in some of the pod materials.

How Does Hyperloop Train Work?

At its most basic level, a hyperloop system aims to eliminate the two factors that slow down conventional vehicles: friction and air resistance. To avoid the latter, the pod must hover above its track, effectively turning hyperloop into a magnetic levitation (maglev) train.

To put it simply, maglev trains employ two sets of magnets: one set repels and pushes the train off the track, and the other set propels the floating train forward using the lack of friction. According to Sam Gurol, former head of Maglev Systems at General Atomics, an energy and defense business based in San Diego, “once two sets of magnetic waves are established, they function in unison to propel the vehicle forward.”

Credit: SpaceX

“The advantage of maglev is that it allows you to go at very high speeds while also providing a really pleasant journey,” Gurol explains. “It’s like taking a magical carpet ride.”

Hyperloop’s super speed, on the other hand, is attained by substantially reducing air resistance. Passenger pods travel through a low-pressure, vacuum-sealed tunnel that removes nearly all of the air. The air pressure inside the chamber is so low that it simulates being at an altitude of nearly 200,000 feet (61,000 meters). Because the system is enclosed in a tube, it is shielded from the elements and can work in practically any weather.

Tracks Made of Magnets

“Focusing on pallets is easier to achieve – there is less risk for passengers and less of a regulatory process,” DP World, a logistics business owned by the Dubai government and a majority stakeholder in Virgin Hyperloop, told the Financial Times.

The pods would travel at over 600mph (1,000km/h) through the tubes on magnetic rails identical to those used by existing Maglev trains.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Virgin Hyperloop are two companies attempting to make the concept a reality.

After British entrepreneur Richard Branson invested $85 million (£62 million) in Virgin Hyperloop in 2017, the company was renamed Hyperloop Technologies.

It was touted as “the world’s most groundbreaking railway service” at the time.

The company announced its vision for the future of Hyperloop travel in late 2020, with a film that walks viewers through a typical ride “from arriving at the portal to boarding the pod”, reports BBC.

Hyperloop Cost

Despite the fact that the technology addresses friction and air resistance, hyperloop initiatives have faced a different kind of stumbling block: cost. Musk’s $6 billion price figure, according to financial and transportation experts, significantly understates the expense of designing, creating, constructing, and testing an entirely new mode of transportation. According to leaked financial figures from 2016, Musk’s Hyperloop might cost up to $13 billion, or $121 million per mile.

Hyperloop transportation, like any other mode of transportation, entails inherent hazards, and contingencies for any unanticipated calamities must still be included into the system. Even a minor earthquake or the tiniest vacuum tube fracture at high speeds would pose a considerable risk to passengers and crew. A hyperloop system must provide pricing that will attract paying customers away from present modes of transportation, in addition to ensuring their safety.

Hyperloop One

Saudi Arabia reportedly canceled a $1 billion deal with Virgin Hyperloop in 2018 after the company’s ex-chairman Richard Branson condemned the monarchy over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Financial Times. Despite this, the business had received $400 million from private investors as of May 2019 and aims to commence commercial operations in 2030. (pushed back from early predictions that envisioned a passenger-ready hyperloop in 2021).

Aside from Virgin, the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), a U.S.-based startup that recently signed an agreement in China to build a test track, Hardt Hyperloop in the Netherlands, and TransPod, a Canadian company, are all working to overcome the challenges of this mode of transportation.

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