Is Hyperloop A Better Option Than High Speed Rail For Australia?

The news that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is pushing ahead with plans for a High-Speed Rail (HSR) network on the east coast has been met with indifference by many in the country. With the enormous costs involved in such a venture might an eccentric, genius entrepreneur already have proposed a better solution than the long touted HSR route?

This article originally appeared on the Smiths Lawyers blog.

When Elon Musk is the eccentric, genius entrepreneur in question, we should probably be taking notice. His proposed Hyperloop service connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco in a 35 minute journey was nothing more than a high-concept white paper idea a few years ago. In 2016, however, science fiction seems to be quickly approaching reality as two companies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop Technologies, are locked in a race to bring his plan to fruition. Test tracks are already been built in the US, and high-level dialogue is taking place with the Slovakian government about a fully functioning line being up and running in Bratislava by 2020.

Not heard of Hyperloop? To quote Wikipedia, it is a ‘conceptual high-speed transportation system, incorporating reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors’. Here is a quick overview.

There is a still a lot of testing and many obstacles to be overcome before Hyperloop becomes reality but it does appear that a real revolution in the way we travel could be just on the horizon. If this is indeed the case, Hyperloop would almost certainly turn out to be a much faster, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly option than any HSR network.

Is Hyperloop Safe?

The idea of a train like pod ferrying passengers at speeds of 1200 km/h not surprisingly fills some people with a sense of fear. The sheer velocity is simply too fast for many to even properly comprehend and the low pressure environment needed to generate these speeds is another factor that may turn the stomach. This should not be the case according to Musk when asked to address such safety concerns. In the event of depressurisation, ”Oxygen masks would be deployed as in airplanes,” he says. “Once the capsule reached the destination safely it would be removed from service. Safety of the onboard air supply in Hyperloop would be very similar to aircraft, and can take advantage of decades of development in similar systems.” Human error and weather would also be taken out of the equation in the successful deployment of the pods, with Musk adding, “In many cases Hyperloop is intrinsically safer than airplanes, trains, or automobiles.”

Is It Viable?

In theory the Hyperloop trumps HSR in every aspect but this multi billion dollar question can’t be answered with theory alone. HSR is a proven, if costly enterprise, whereas the technology involved in the Hyperloop has still to be properly tested so at the moment there is no way to know for certain whether or not this great idea could actually be turned into something more than science fiction. Having said that great strides have been made by a number of engineers and scientists over the last few years with 22 teams having won the chance to test their designs on the SpaceX Hyperloop test track in June 2016. If these initial tests are successful, more ambitious plans will be put into place and theory could very quickly turn into reality. This is also a process in which the proposed implementation is not restricted to the US and Slovakia. There is considerable interest in the possibilities afforded by Hyperloop all across the globe, including right here in Australia where Hyperloop Australia Design is working to adapt the idea to the Australian market. “It’s a concept whose time has come,” says Dennis Levy, head of the Australian engineering consortium.

Is Hyperloop Really So Much Faster?

In a nutshell, yes. Problems could arise, however, when people are looking to make further connections from Hyperloop station points to their end destination. A little like air travel, the Hyperloop would not make stop-offs along the way. It would be point to point travel that for many would then involve further journeys once they arrive at the station.

Image source: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

A quick comparison chart below shows just how travel times would compare between the existing transport modes of air & car, against potential new options for Australia, HSR (high-speed rail) or Hyperloop. It’s clear to see that Hyperloop has the potential to be far faster than any other mode of transport. It’s important to note that these are ‘in-transit’ times only and don’t account for factors such as getting to and from airports or stopping for fuel or rest breaks while driving. See below for CBD (city centre) to CBD times.

Potential In Transit Times

Sources and assumptions: Times show approximate in-transit journey times and do not allow for factors such as breaks while driving or airport transfers & check-in which would add more time to air and road. Hyperloop assumes average speed of 970 KPH rather than potential top speed of around 760 mph / 1223 KPH, air times based on typical current flight times, HSR based on previous Rudd/Gillard 2008-2013 government feasibility study, approx 350 KPH, road times based on Google maps (CBD to CBD). Melbourne to Brisbane Hyperloop assumes the track would go via Sydney as it would for HSR, rather than direct track.

Potential CBD To CBD Travel Times

When you look at CBD to CBD travel times then HSR pulls ahead of air on a number of the most popular routes. That said, it’s still no match for the potential speeds of a Hyperloop based system. Air travel is fast once in the air but getting to & from the airport at either end and allowing for check-in times slows things down.

Would It Cost Less Than High Speed Rail?

The feasibility study carried out in 2013 for the Australian HSR network estimated the costs to come in at over $110 billion. Musk has claimed that as Hyperloop would use existing rights of way by running above existing highways the cost for the LA-SF route could come in at $6 billion. The same HSR route would cost ten times that amount. Naysayers have disputed Musk’s maths on this point however, with Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, predicting that the cost of the entire project would be closer to $100 billion. Currently, Hyperloop Technologies are currently predicting a typical cost of approximately 60% of HSR but this is still an estimate.

Could Hyperloop Improve Road Safety And The Effects Of Pollution?

Again the short answer is a resounding yes. If the Hyperloop really was able to function in the way and at the cost that Musk envisions, many people would abandon their cars and the highways for longer trips to save time and money. Not only would that in itself improve road safety by reducing the number of cars on the road, hence lessening the likelihood of accidents, but the environmental benefits would also be enormous. Hyperloop on the LA-SF is slated to run on solar power, something which could also be feasible on the East Coast of Australia. Musk has also suggested larger pods could be created to carry freight meaning that heavy gas guzzling lorries and trucks could also become a thing of the past when it comes to transporting goods along the highways to and from major cities.

The topography of the East Coast of Australia and the large distances between its major cities would seem to make it the ideal place for this kind of venture. There is no doubt that the country could benefit from a faster, more environmentally friendly transport system and the East Coast could well be the perfect locale to offer the innovative and competitive edge necessary to be at the forefront of the Hyperloop revolution.

Those interested in finding out more about the Hyperloop will find a slew of articles and videos all over the web. In this video below the Mr Musk himself can be seen making a surprise appearance at the Hyperloop Pod Award Ceremony:

This article originally appeared on the Smiths Lawyers blog.

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