Although creating a stir in North America, Europe and even the Middle East, the Hyperloop phenomenon has, at least thus far, been a fable of far off lands as far as Asia is concerned.
But this is all set to change – and probably dramatically – with an agreement recently to create China’s first Hyperloop prototype. And given China’s proclivity to push forward with a speed and determination not commonly found elsewhere, the hyperloop idea may just well have found a fertile bed to grow.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT) signed an agreement with China’s Tongren Transportation & Tourism Investment Group. This marks the first hyperloop agreement with China and the twelfth agreement for HyperloopTT as well as the third commercial agreement following announcements in Abu Dhabi and Ukraine earlier in 2018.
Hyperloop, the brainchild of electric car poster boy, Elon Musk, is a revolutionary transportation technology where train pods travel within a vacuum tube at speeds close to 1,200 kmh, although the speed that pods can travel is still debated. The highest recorded of any of the various test sites around the world is 480 kmh.
A key aspect of hyperloop is its open-source basis that has drawn interest and investment from a number of players resulting in simultaneous development projects around the world, all vying for the first fully-functional line. The concept is largely based on the ‘vactrain’ design released by a joint team from Tesla and SpaceX and based on Robert Goddard’s original concept that dates back to 1904.
A vactrain (or vacuum tube train) is a proposed design for very-high-speed rail transportation utilising a maglev (magnetic levitation) line using partly evacuated tubes or tunnels. Reduced air resistance could permit vactrains to travel at very high speeds with relatively little power, theoretically up to 6,400–8,000 kmh. This is 5–6 times the speed of sound in Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.
Elon Musk’s version of the concept, first publicly mentioned in 2012 incorporates reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurised capsules ride on air bearings driven by linear induction motors and axial compressors.
In China, HyperloopTT will be responsible for providing technology, engineering expertise, and essential equipment, while Tongren will be responsible for certification, regulatory framework, and construction of the system.
HyperloopTT will work in partnership with the government of Tongren in defining the route for the system. Financing will be done through a public private partnership with 50 per cent of the funds coming directly from Tongren.
The plan is to connect Tongren with Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, which is about 400km away. Once completed, the hyperloop system would shorten the transit time from a one-hour flight to 20 minutes, significantly improving the movement of both passengers and freight.
“We envision that Hyperloop will play into a bigger role of the Silk Road Economic Belt, connecting the region to the rest of the world,” said Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
“China spends over USD 300 billion annually on infrastructure to address their rapidly growing urban populations. Having worked alongside our government partners, Hyperloop has proven a viable solution for this immediate problem. Additionally, the unique topography of Tongren will allow us to refine our various construction methods with our partners.”
While China is a world-leader in the amount of high speed rail constructed across the country, it is now looking seriously at hyperloop as a more efficient, high-speed solution. The local authorities are aiming to develop a hyper loop line that will serve both locals, tourists and cargo needs as well.
“After the completion of the project, it will greatly accelerate the research and development of China’s hyperloop system, rapidly enhance the development of high-tech industry and equipment manufacturing industry in Guizhou Province, effectively improve the popularity of Tongren city and the development of tourism industry, and laying solid foundation for Tongren ‘one district and five places’ development,” said Chen Shaorong Mayor of Tongren.
The project will be an interesting one to watch as China has been on an aggressive path to expand its transportation networks and bring down the costs related to freight movements. China spends nearly 15 per cent of its GDP on logistics, which makes it inefficient compared to more developed countries where the average stands at around 10-12 per cent of the GDP.
Hyperloop holds out the promise of transporting goods much faster and at a fraction of the cost compared with conventional road or rail transport.
The Tongren area is mountainous, with the region given UNESCO World Heritage status as it is considered to be one of the five sacred Buddhist mountains in the country, and will prove a challenging testing ground for the new transport mode. Aside from being a tourist draw, the area is also close to Chongqing and Chengdu, where Amazon, Apple and Alibaba all have a presence along with a slate of Chinese technology companies.
Cargo in the mix
While the hyper loop concept was originally aimed at passengers, the freight potential has been acknowledged by a number of players including Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One. The Virgin hyperloop consortium teamed up with Dubai’s global port and logistics giant DP World to build a new cargo branded hyperloop, DP World Cargospeed.
DP World Cargospeed will use hyperloop technology to deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking. Traveling at top speeds of 1,000 kmh DP World Cargospeed systems will transport high-priority, time-sensitive goods including fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.
“Two elements control freight transport: Cost and speed,” notes Richard Branson, Virgin Group CEO and billionaire entrepreneur of the US-based company. “If you want something fast, be prepared to pay a high multiple. If you can wait several days, ship it via ground transportation, and it will be cheaper. We’re looking to change that equation. With DP World Cargospeed powered by Virgin Hyperloop One, a four-day truck journey can be reduced to 16 hours and costs will plummet,” he notes.
In a blog post by Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd, he calculated a four-day truck journey could be cut to 16 hours. While costs are estimated to run 50 per cent higher than truck transit, Cargospeed believes it can be over five-times cheaper than air freight.
India is cited as a perfect example of how DP World Cargospeed has the potential to change freight transportation, not only in India, but around the world. Today, 25 per cent of cargo traveling through the Mumbai port has its origin or destination in Pune. A large portion of this cargo trundles along the crowded Mumbai-Pune Expressway which carries 110,000 vehicles daily.
A Virgin Hyperloop One system in the region could reduce a two-to-three hour journey between the two cities by truck to just 25-minutes and combine the state’s two largest economic centres into a thriving, competitive megaregion, says the company.
DP World Cargospeed, powered by the Virgin Hyperloop One system, could enable the rapid movement of freight and light cargo between the two cities, enabling on-demand deliveries, supply chains, and next-generation logistics.
The network would help support the development of Pune’s growing manufacturing and IT sectors. The system could also integrate seamlessly into the region’s transport ecosystem and connect with the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) enabling the transport of goods in addition to passengers, Virgin Hyperloop One says.
While DP World, with operations in 40 countries around the world, could easily see the benefits of this system running
from its ports, the hyperloop system could also one day connect airports to metropolitan areas, speeding the movement of cargo, particularly time-sensitive cargo like e-commerce and perishables like fresh foods, flowers and pharmaceuticals.
As for the China version, HyperloopTT is looking to start construction later this year, or earlier next year, in association with the Chinese railways, who would work on the initial land survey and assist with the design because of their better understanding of the challenging terrain that must be overcome.
This is the fourth major project for HyperloopTT, after having inked agreements with Abu Dhabi and Ukraine earlier this year.