Henry Brown '23
It’s 2035. You’re travelling from New York City to Washington, DC in 30 minutes, over five times quicker than fifteen years ago. The pod you are travelling in whizzes underground at 760 miles an hour, allowing you to live and work nearly 200 miles apart. New technology like this has revolutionized travel around the world, adding billions to the global economy and making long-distance travel cheap and fast. This was Elon Musk’s dream in 2013, when he released the Hyperloop Alpha papers. Since then, news outlets have been head over heels for this technology. Headlines read, “Hyperloop Moves Closer to Becoming Reality,” “Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Dream May Come True -- and Soon,” and “Northeast Hyperloop Could Transform the Future of the Region.” Yet, in trials, Hyperloop is yet to overtake high-speed trains in terms of speed, comfort, and economic viability and still has not held a single rider. In comparison, Japanese bullet trains have transported over 10 billion passengers, often reaching over 300 miles per hour and have an impeccable safety record. Will the Hyperloop be to the U.S. as the bullet train is to Japan? Or is the media overhyping this fantasy of Elon Musk’s?
One of the major challenges facing Hyperloop is the ability to compete with modern modes of transportation in terms of capacity. As Francesca Street of CNN reported last April, a “Dutch Hyperloop plan eyes Paris to Amsterdam in 90 minutes,” a journey which takes almost five-and-a-half hours by car and just over three hours by high-speed rail. Should this become a reality, the Dutch company Hardt Hyperloop claims that such a “network would significantly shorten commuting times” and “[offer] ‘remarkable economic benefits.’” The start-up’s CEO also mentions that the pods hypothetically could transport over 200,000 passengers per hour each way, rivalling the capacity of some Japanese and European bullet trains. However, as the article continues, Street writes that “on paper, it sounds like a win,” but this number is undoubtedly unfeasible. Each pod would only be able to hold around 30-40 passengers, and with a pod setting off every 40 seconds, this would only carry at most 3600 passengers per hour. While the current high-speed rail system has two parallel tracks, over 90 tubes, each 300 miles long, would have to be constructed to match rail’s capacity, which would be quite the expense. Is this possible? Well, yes, technically. However, this expense would not only include the construction of such a system, but also the massive cost of operating 90 near-vacuum tubes. Despite a promising headline, Hyperloop will not be coming to the EU, at least anytime soon.
Additionally, the safety of a Hyperloop system will be a significant hurdle companies investing in the technology would have to overcome. In a segment from NBC’s TODAY show titled “LA To San Francisco In 36 Minutes?”, a representative from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), a leading Hyperloop company, explains that “[the technology] is a fairly safe way of moving around.” However, Shreyan Mitra ‘23, who has great experience in the topic, disagrees. In the event the near-vacuum tube cracks, “the [pod] would just break and [passengers] would be put under enormous pressure due to the implosive force of rushing air.” Furthermore, any survivors “would die with the following outward shockwave,” mostly because their organs would be ruptured. Pretty gruesome, right? In earthquake-prone California, most riders would not want to take this risk, even if it is incredibly rare. Across the Pacific, Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train system has seen a grand total of zero deaths over the past 50 years, even with over 10 billion passengers. California is already building a high-speed rail system connecting LA and San Francisco through the Central Valley. While this may take longer than 36 minutes, passengers will enjoy comfort in knowing their train won’t implode.
Without a detailed understanding of this technology, one might assume that the Hyperloop is the future of infrastructure on our planet. However, as with all things Elon Musk, we must look to the stars. The Hyperloop may have a home on Mars, where atmospheric pressure is less than one percent of Earth’s.
While most things about the Hyperloop are uncertain, one thing is. The media attention around the ultra speed train blocked productive conversations about the tech from happening. Instead, people looked to the headlines and could have been deceived about the purpose of the train. In the Hyperloop’s case, reading only a headline prevented a nuanced conversation. Before forming an opinion, read all of the facts, preferably from various sources. It might just save us one day.
The content of this article, as with every article posted on The Exchanged, does not represent the views of the staff of The Exchanged nor the National Cathedral School, St. Albans School, Protestant Episcopal Foundation, or any employee thereof. Opinions written are those of the writer and the writer alone.