A lot of buzz has been generated recently by the news that by the news that Virgin Hyperloop One has signed MoU’s with the govt of Karnataka and Maharashtra to explore the possibility of building Hyperloop routes in these two states. This closely follows after rival company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies or HTT signed a pact with the govt of Andhra Pradesh to build Hyperloop between Amravati and Vijaywada in September this year.
The benefits of Hyperloop are obvious– it would enable India to solve many issues like efficient rapid transport solution between cities, reduce overcrowding in major cities and increase productivity. However major challenges remain, such as unknown safety issues, capital costs, land acquisition, operational costs which could well put the tickets beyond the reach of the common man.
But first, let us understand the technology better.
What is Hyperloop?
Hyperloop involves the movement of pod-like vehicles, magnetically levitated through a low-pressure or vacuum tube. The vacuum allows the pods to greatly reduce friction and hence, achieve high speeds up to1200kmph. Elon Musk popularised the idea in a white paper in 2013 as an alternative to the proposed California Highspeed Rail (HSR) project although the idea of using air pressure to move transport has been around since the 18th century.
Since then, much water has flown under the bridge. The hyperloop space has seen the emergence of two prominent rivals, Virgin Hyperloop One and HTT. Both these companies are headquartered in Los Angeles, California. They haveby conducting tests in the Nevada desert and are looking to expand globally. Both these companies have India as one of their priority areas.
Is Hyperloop relevant for India?
India has a unique set of challenges that make futuristic technologies like Hyperloop so appealing. The public transport system is in shambles and barely able to cope with the increasing passenger load. Where it exists, it slow, inefficient and prone to accidents.
With rapid urbanization, increase in demand for mass transportation, a rise in the middle-class demanding better standards and services is increasingly pushing the Indian Govt to turn to futuristic transport solutions in an attempt to ‘leapfrog’ generations of transport technologies.
This is exactly where proponents of Hyperloop have sensed an opportunity as both HTT and Hyperloop One have made several presentations to the govt suggesting large economic benefits in adopting the system.
In the words of a senior business analyst working with Virgin Hyperloop One, “India is home to one of every six humans on the planet. The average Indian commuter spends 91 minutes idling in crowded streets. Traffic delays cost the economy Rs 43,000 crore ($6.6 billion) per year, and a staggering Rs 96,000 crore ($14.7 billion) including fuel costs. Overcrowding is also a big issue for India’s giant rail network, which moves more than 23 million passengers daily—nearly the entire population of Australia,”
While various numbers for the cost of hyperloop systems has been floated, a final cost for the system cannot be predicted given the newness of the system. HTT in its proposal to the Transport Ministry in December 2016 regarding connecting Mumbai and Pune with a Hyperloop system stated that it would cost about $40 Million per KM to construct. Many transportation analysts believe that Hyperloop projects could run into huge cost overruns taking into account construction, development, and operational costs.
Full Steam Ahead
Notwithstanding doubts being raised about the efficacy, safety, and cost of the system, both companies are moving ahead with their projects. Virgin Hyperloop One has completed a global competition to find viable routes in which two routes in India were identified to be developed. This includes AECOM India for the 334km Bengaluru-Chennai route and Hyperloop India for the 1,102km Mumbai-Chennai route.
According to AECOM India Pvt. Ltd, the fare for a 334km Bengaluru-Chennai trip in a Hyperloop high-speed transport system to be around Rs2,000 and it will take just 3-5 years for India to set up its first project once the technology is accepted.
The way forward
Hyperloop is a disruptive technology that holds immense promise, however much of this promise in untested in real-world. Hyperloop, despite its promise, cannot be the only answer to India’s transport woes. A holistic approach needs to be taken which includes increasing the average speed of trains, introducing trainsets for semi-high speed trains, bullet trains, building new highways, promoting cheap air travel and inland water transport.
India cannot let the Hyperloop opportunity pass by because of its immense potential to increase productivity and catapult India into the forefront of transportation technologies. However, it cannot be treated as a silver bullet and other means must always be explored in tandem to develop the right mix for India.