Hyperloop travel is coming to Europe

Be it rail or road, plane or boat, there are four main types of transportation humans use to get around. To most traveling any other way seems like a vision from the future, but the future may only be a pod ride away.

"Hyperloop" is a system of vacuum tubes that could theoretically transport passengers and cargo in capsules at subsonic speeds. While the idea of pneumatic tube travel has been tossed around in scientific circles since the 1800s, it was only really in 2013 when venture capitalist Elon Musk brought the technological challenge into the 21st century.

The modern innovation is to have capsules levitated by air pressure or magnetic rails propelled through an extremely low pressure tube. Passengers would glide at aircraft speeds without the emissions. Commuters would travel twice as fast as high speed trains, and it could cost half as much to build. 

Futurists are eager to laud hyperloop as a revolution to the way we live now. A handful of private companies are racing to develop the technology that could reinvent transportation. One of them, the Los Angeles-based startup Hyperloop One, announced this week that it had fully tested its hyperloop system in a vacuum environment in May.

"We'll be able to move between cities as if cities themselves are metro stops," said Hyperloop One co-founder Shervin Pishevar in a statement. Yet moving capsules through a vacuum tube is an important technological hurdle in developing the hyperloop corridor. The low pressure environment is critical to making the journey between cities like Helsinki and Stockholm or Berlin and Munich take less than 30 minutes.

Catastrophe | 08.11.2016

Partnerships for the future

Even though Hyperloop One and its competitors are in the relatively early stages of development, that hasn't stopped them from proposing routes and getting investors and governments on board. The US-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has an exploratory agreement to develop a hyperloop corridor between the Czech cities of Brno and Prague to Bratislava in Slovakia. Recently the company announced that it had licensed its technology to the government of South Korea.

Australien Tesla Elon Musk

Hyperloop enthusiast Elon Musk

Contrary to the innovate first, ask for permission later that's been the playbook model for industry disruptors like Uber and Airbnb, HTT and Hyperloop One seem to see partnerships as a tandem strategy to getting their technology off the ground.

Read: Is Elon Musk's futuristic dream about to become true?

Hyperloop One's strategy has been to sponsor "global challenges" or competitions to collect bids on how different regions could implement their technology. Last month at their Vision for Europe summit in Amsterdam, the company unveiled an ambitious set of proposals that would connect some 75 million Europeans living in 44 cities.

Melanie Schultz van Haegen, self-proclaimed "hyperloop enthusiast" and Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, gave the keynote speech. "Hyperloop can be the game changer," she said, listing as reasons growing traffic jams, the increasing numbers using public transportation and the need to reduce carbon emissions. "The Netherlands has every reason to encourage innovative mobility. If we don't our country will grind to a halt."

Deutschland Hyperloop

Hyperloop prototype from WARR

In addition to launching Europe's first hyperloop test track at Delft University in coordination with Hyperloop One, the Dutch ministry is creating a uniform Mobility Act to make it easier to introduce new policy measures in the future.

"There needs to be an interconnect between entrepreneurs and policy makers," says Gillian Harrison, a research fellow at the University of Leeds' Institute for Transport Studies; but adds that it is essential that these kind of public-private partnerships are carried out correctly. "At the end of the day policy makers are civil servants and they are working on behalf of the public."

Build a better model

While there is always a risk that new technologies won't pan out, according to Harrison, what helps policy makers "bet on the right horse" are good planning models.

"Models are only as good as the data and knowledge that the modelers have," she said. But the latest modelers are working on innovations in autonomous driving, not necessarily hyperloop.

During Hyperloop One's system test in May which was done without reporters present, the prototype levitated for just 5.3 seconds and reached a speed of 113 kilometer per hour (70 miles per hour).

Josh Giegel, president of engineering at Hyperloop One, said in a statement about the demonstration: "We've tested our hyperloop system; we know it works, and we're ready to deploy it to the rest of the world."

The company is beginning its next phase of testing which is meant to get its systems up to a target speed of 400 kilometer per hour. In the meantime, as Hyperloop One and other companies invest time in planning routes and building strategic partnerships to prepare for regulatory hurdles, hopefully the technology can get up to speed.

Moving mountains

After 17 years of construction, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is finally ready for operation. Some 28 million tons of rock were carved out of the Swiss Alps by massive boring machines, and the leftover debris was then used to make concrete and form the smooth tunnel walls. Inaugural train rides are planned for June 1, but normal operations won't commence until another 3,000 test drives are completed.

A plane for trains

A key advantage of the new Gotthard tunnel is the flat surface of its tracks, making it easier for heavier trains to travel between Erstfeld and Bodio with fewer engines - and do so at higher speeds. This will make it possible for 260 freight trains to pass through the tunnel in a day, compared to the 180 that made their way through the old Gotthard tunnel.

A job machine

In all, 2,600 people came together to work on the Gotthard Base Tunnel project, including engineers, geologists and contractors. Together, they chalked up 4 million man-hours. The Swiss, true to their reputation for precision and punctuality, finished the project a year ahead of schedule and only marginally overbudget.

Move over, Japan!

With the Gotthard tunnel's completion, Switzerland dethrones Japan as having the world's longest underground railroad passage. Opened in 1988, the Seikan tunnel was commissioned after a devastating typhoon sank five ferry boats. Eager for a safer way to cross the Tsugaru Strait, the Japanese carved a 53.9-kilometer tunnel through a major earthquake zone.

The Channel Tunnel

An engineering marvel in its own right, the Gotthard tunnel is seven kilometers longer than the Channel Tunnel, which has been recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Also known as the Eurotunnel, this 50.5 kilometer-long link between Great Britain and France also has one of the longest undersea sections in the world (37.9 kilometers).

Road to rails

Gotthard's tenure as the longest rail tunnel in the world may be over by 2026. That's when construction of the Brenner Base Tunnel is slated for completion. The Brenner tunnel will stretch 64 kilometers and is aimed at relieving congestion on the popular - and highly trafficked - Brenner Pass (pictured).

Tunnel trouble

Many German engineers worked on the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which finished sooner than expected and with only minor cost overruns. That feat is in stark contrast with some major construction projects in Germany, notably Berlin's new airport, whose opening is already four and a half years behind schedule, due to sloppy project management and a series of major engineering mistakes by contractors.