DfT report: 700mph hyperloop pods still 20 years away

Written by Sam Trendall on 13 November 2017 in News

New technology is still a long way off, despite inherent skills base and potential for economic benefits, according to department report

Hyperloop technology is designed to allow pods to travel at 700mph as little as 10 seconds apart  Credit: Mrdeluna CC BY-SA 4.0

The introduction of 700mph hyperloop technology is “at least a couple of decades away”, a report from the Department for Transport has concluded.

The department’s Science Advisory Council (SAC) has met twice in the last year to discuss whether and how hyperloop – “a tube-based system where pods transport passengers or freight at very high speeds in a low-friction environment” – could be introduced into the UK’s transport infrastructure. 

In a newly published report, SAC found that “there is nothing in the fundamental hyperloop concept that would prevent it from being able to operate safely and securely”. The concept is based on existing technology include autonomous vehicle control systems, linear induction motors, vacuum pumps, and maglev propulsion, the council said.

The design of hyperloop systems, in which pods travel as little as 10 seconds apart at speeds of up to 700mph, brings with it a number of inherent risks and challenges, SAC said, including emergency braking procedures, potential power failure, protection from physical and cyberattacks, and how best to evacuate passengers if a pod loses pressure.

The council added: “The topology of the UK, its dense population and intensive land use may make hyperloop construction more difficult and costly than in other locations. As an example, it may prove challenging to find a suitable alignment above ground for a hyperloop system to enable it to operate at high speeds – requiring shallow gradients and curvature to limit G-forces on passengers – without impacting on existing infrastructure or protected areas.”

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In addition to these technical concerns, SAC also said “that the radical nature of hyperloop may raise some issues around passenger acceptance”.

The technology is also so radical as to require new regulatory frameworks and industry safety standards, the council said.

But if these obstacles can be overcome, “a UK hyperloop network has the potential to stimulate economic development across the country by substantially reducing journey times”, SAC added. 

The organisation’s report added that the UK already has a lot of the relevant expertise that will likely be needed to develop and deliver hyperloop technology. This includes an existing skills base in areas such as autonomous vehicles, tunnelling, and aerodynamics, as well as a track record in “the design and delivery of major civil-engineering projects”.

The council added: “However, because of the scale of the technical challenges involved – assuming that these are ultimately resolved and that the technology proves acceptable to passengers – an operational hyperloop system is likely to be at least a couple of decades away.”

In the meantime, “SAC will continue to review the progress of hyperloop”, and has encouraged the DfT to do the same. The department is also urged to work with other organisations including Innovate UK and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy “to explore the potential applications of hyperloop as a transport mode within the UK”.

Hyperloop was first conceived of in a 2013 paper by US technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.


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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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