Elon Musk's Hyperloop might actually get built

Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

Elon Musk, billionaire and entrepreneur, is a man of many enterprises. Some, like online payment site PayPal or the solar panel giant SolarCity, sound like sensible, practical responses to modernity. Others, like his idea for a pan-American network of magnetically levitating trains, seem, at first glance, less so.

Musk first laid out proposals for his Hyperloop transport system in 2013, calling it a "cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table". Passenger capsules would whizz back and forth between LA and San Francisco along two parallel tubes (the "loop" of the train's name):

Unfortunately, his original cost estimate of $6bn for a line between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area was deemed a massive underestimate by infrastructure experts and economists

So far, so unfeasible, and after the initial proposals were first released in 2013, everything went quiet for a bit. As it turns out, Musk was rounding up a group of 100 part-time engineers to conduct further research in exchange for stock options, and in December, they finally released a document outlining their progress. Then this happened: 

Musk later told the Texas Tribune that the test track would be privately funded. And, since he is a very rich man, it looks quite possible that the track will actually be built sometime in the not-too-distant future.


In summary, it might be time to start taking the Hyperloop seriously. In that spirit, here are some takeaways from the engineers' 76-page briefing document .  

It would be the fastest train in the world. 

The current fastest train is the Japan's maglev, which also operates using magnetic levitation technology but runs at a maximum speed of 602 kmh. The Hyperloop would double this speed by using the same magnet technology (which propels the train along as it floats above a magnetic rail) inside a vacuum, so friction would be reduced to a minimum.

As a result, the engineers' calculations are based on the idea that passengers will move at 470mph. 

The grand plan is very grand.

Musk originally proposed a line between LA and the Bay area as an alternative to a planned high-speed train on the route. Now, the proposed Hyperloop routes look like this:

Click for a larger image. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Gulp.

To show the scale of their ambitions, the group have produced mock-ups of the trains grandly passing in front of various US city landmarks. Here's Washington DC:

And New York:

They're hoping to keep prices down (but they might not be able to). 

If the project sticks to the original $6bn budget, ticket prices between LA and San Francisco would be around $20-$30, with higher prices on longer routes. This would be dramatically cheaper than US air or rail travel – a flight from LA to San Francisco, for example, is $100 minimum. But, the report admits, if the budget for each line rises higher, ticket prices would need to rise too to cover costs. 

The capsules won't have any windows, and you won't be able to go to the toilet (probably). 

In order to reach that enormous speed, the capsules will whizz along inside a thick, vacuumised tube, which means there won't be any pleasant views of the American countryside.

You'll also need to keep your seatbelt on at all times – so no loo trips. 

The document suggests several solutions to this problem, including a toilet in business class for "emergencies", or this somewhat horrifying suggestion: 

One solution could be to allow each seat to be separated and isolated from the others and use a system integrated in the seat for emergency issues.

So you'd essentially be sitting on a toilet for the entire trip

A capsule leak could be catastrophic.

One issue with whizzing capsules along an airless tube is that the tube will be, well, airless. If the capsule's walls sprung a leak, or if passengers needed to make an emergency exits, pressure conditions would be a bit like being in space. From the report:  

None of the emergency measures commonly used even by military pilots... are enough to avoid severe hypoxia and traumas related to the decompression.

It continues, somewhat more cheerfully:

Luckily we are not in space but on earth and believe we can find systems to compensate the pressure fast enough.

We've watched enough sci-fi films to know that this should be very, very high on the priority list. 

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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