Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One has signed an agreement with the Maharashtra government to build a Hyperloop that will cut the travel time between Mumbai and Pune to 25 minutes from the 3 hours it now takes by road. A 10-km pilot path will be built from Pune’s Hinjewadi, but no more details are immediately available. Branson says the Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop will connect 26 million people, support 150 million passenger trips per year, and could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86,000 tonnes over 30 years. However, Hyperloop is currently only a concept — and experts warn that the global hype around it must be taken with a healthy dose of cynicism.
Hyperloop concept was proposed by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, in 2012. The idea was open-sourced, and Hyperloop One was founded in 2014 as one of the firms building the high-speed transportation system. In 2017, Hyperloop One received a big investment from Richard Branson, and was rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One.
Hyperloop envisages pods or capsules travelling at high speeds through low-pressure tubes erected on columns or tunneled underground. The system is fully autonomous and sealed, so no driver-related error is anticipated. In a sealed environment with almost no air resistance, the pods are expected to reach very high speeds.
The vehicle uses magnetic levitation, and is propelled by a proprietary electric propulsion system. First open-air propulsion test was conducted in May 2016, first systems test in May 2017. Motion will not involve contact, so the vehicle will be virtually noiseless.
Besides being fast, Hyperloop is “energy-agnostic”, drawing from whichever source is available. If that’s solar or wind, the system will be carbon-free.
Ride will be comparable to one in an elevator or plane, and acceleration and deceleration will be gradual, the company says. Mumbai-Pune is 150 km; 25-minute journey implies a pod will take about 6 minutes to accelerate to 1,000 km/h, and the same time to come to a halt. G forces will be as tolerable as in a Boeing 747 takeoff.
What will it cost?
Always the biggest question for infra in India, apart from the availability of land (which, given the Hyperloop concept, doesn’t seem to be as big an issue in this case). Hyperloop is currently offering no cost calculations beyond saying that “third parties have concluded that the capital and operational costs is two-thirds that of high-speed rail”, and that “the goal (of ticket pricing) is to make it affordable for everyone”. The projected cost of the Los Angeles-San Francisco loop is about $ 6 billion, or approximately $ 11.5 million — about Rs 75 crore — per mile.
Is there a real need?
The bullet train project found financial justification by projecting expected social and economic benefits of bridging the distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. It is also seen as a quantum leap and upgrade for Indian Railways. The practical benefits of a Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop that would justify resource requirements aren’t clear yet.
What about clearances?
Hyperloop is so far only a concept with no resemblance to any public transport system known to man. After the technology is demonstrated will come the question of a neutral, third-party safety regulator. The company has called for “a fresh approach to regulation”. Environment clearances will also be needed in India.
Top speed for passenger/light cargo vehicle: 670 m/h or 1,080 km/h, 2-3 times faster than the fastest train, 200 km/hr faster than cruising speed of a 747 jumbo.
Outside the tube as the pod goes by at more than 500 m/h: “just a big whoosh”.
Can draw power from multiple energy sources; can be even 100% carbon free if the source is wind or solar.
Goal is to have operational systems in service by 2021, says the company. But that is only a claim at the moment.