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How far away is a British hyperloop?

Daniel Kemp

The hyperloop, that science-fiction transportation solution, has raised its head again this week, as the Department for Transport published a paper examining the feasibility of the technology in Britain.

Hyperloop 1

Hyperloop 1

Hyperloop CGI

A summary of the DfT’s Science Advisory Council meetings in October 2016 and June this year, the paper is a decent exercise in stating the obvious, boldly declaring that “an operational hyperloop system is likely to be at least a couple of decades away”.

In an encouraging sign, the SAC did say that while there are challenges to be overcome, “there is nothing in the fundamental hyperloop concept that would prevent it from being able to operate safely and securely”.

Less encouraging for Britain, though, the paper acknowledges that the UK’s dense population and intensive land use “may make hyperloop construction more difficult and costly than in other locations”.

In particular, it could prove rather tricky to find a suitable alignment above ground without impacting on existing infrastructure or protected areas – not a problem that is likely to be encountered in places like Abu Dhabi, where a system is being developed, or even parts of the United States.

Going underground

The kicker is that this “may necessitate full or partial underground construction” – and once you start tunnelling, the capital costs of building a hyperloop system suddenly increase, making the business case potentially even harder to justify.

“Hyperloop still has a very long way to go and I’m yet to be convinced that it will ever happen”

And in further statements of the obvious, the report concludes that “it will be critical… to demonstrate to passengers that hyperloop systems will operate with the highest levels of safety and reliability.”

The report ends by recommending that DfT continues to monitor the development of the technology, noting the capability that already exists in the UK to support the design and development of hyperloop, which is absolutely right.

Are we ready to build it?

We have fantastic engineering expertise in this country in all sorts of different fields, which can surely play a big role in getting hyperloop to work, if it is to ever become a reality.

Hyperloop still has a very long way to go and I’m yet to be convinced that it will ever happen – but the fact that DfT is showing an interest and beginning to talk about the implications is an indication of how things are beginning to get more serious.

But our track record on getting other infrastructure projects built in a timely fashion, like Heathrow’s third runway for example, and the challenges that the British landscape will pose, suggest that even if the technology is proven, the UK is unlikely to be among the first countries to build the hyperloop.

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