No, they haven't started building the Hyperloop

Inside the pod. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

So here's the exciting subject line of an exciting email I received yesterday:

Subject: EMBARGO: Hyperloop Construction Begins

Surely... it couldn’t be. Could they finally be-

Good morning,

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is making an important announcement regarding Hyperloop construction this week. I can send you more details in our press release and accompanying video currently under embargo until 6 AM PST Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

It could! They're actually doing it! They're building the Hyperloop!

Strangely, though, the original email ends there. To find out more, you have to email back to ask them nicely to send you more details.

So I did just that, and this is what I learned.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has begun construction of the world’s first full scale Passenger HyperloopTM Capsule. This first capsule is the culmination of over three years and thousands of hours of design, research, and analysis.

Oh. So they're not building an actual Hyperloop. They're just building a... pod.

Construction is underway for delivery and an official reveal in early 2018 at HTT’s R&D center in Toulouse, France for integration and optimization.  The capsule will then be utilized in a commercial system soon to be announced from the ongoing negotiations and feasibility studies currently taking place around the world.

There may be a reason they’re not building an actual functioning Hyperloop yet. It’s this: it's not altogether clear that the Hyperloop is ever actually going to be built at all.

Actually, that's not fair. To paraphrase the Guardian technology correspondent Alex Hern on a recent episode of our podcast, some Hyperloop, somewhere, probably will be built: there are people and countries out there (*cough* UAE *cough*) with more money than sense. Nonetheless, it’s far from clear it’ll ever be competitive with something rather less sexy and futuristic like high-speed rail.

To explain why, we need to go back to the basics. The Hyperloop is, basically, a tube from which 99.9 per cent of the air has been removed, to create a near vacuum. Inside it, pods would use magnetic levitation – kind of like the pucks in air hockey – to float very slightly above the tube itself.

A concept drawing of a Hyperloop tube. Image: Edit1306/Wikimedia Commons.

The result of this would be no air pressure, no surface tension, much higher acceleration and much higher speeds: up to 760 miles per hour, with an average of around 600 mph. In the original paper in which Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop, he suggested that pods could get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco – a distance of around 350 miles – in about 35 minutes. That’s fast.

All this sounds like science fiction. It's not. This technology exists.

Nonetheless, it's not clear whether building the thing will ever actually be plausible. Musk's proposed route would use the median of Interstate 5 – that is, the big gap between lanes in the middle of a motorway – on the grounds that this would both cut the cost of the project, and reduce political opposition. But it's not clear it would do either. To quote the transport writer (and occasional CityMetric contributor) Alon Levy:

In reality, an all-elevated system [which is what Musk proposes with the Hyperloop] is a bug rather than a feature. Central Valley land is cheap; pylons are expensive, as can be readily seen by the costs of elevated highways and trains all over the world.

So: the technology to accelerate those pods to 700mph exists. The technology to build the tubes to put them in at any remotely sensible price does not.

Oh, also, it's not clear whether being shut into a windowless pod and accelerated to 700 miles per hour is the sort of thing that anyone might actually want to do.

While we’re nit-picking, central California is a bit earthquake prone, and the last thing anyone needs when travelling down a tube at 700mph is for the tube to snap open, firing your pod into the neighbouring hillside like a bullet.

At any rate – the Hyperloop is entirely possible, technically. That doesn't mean it's vaguely feasible as a means of actual transport.

So it's all very nice that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is working on the design for its pod. It's a step towards wherever it is that we're going. But until they come up with a plan for cheap pylons or concrete that doesn't expand or contract in the California heat, I'm going to remain suspicious about the phrase "Hyperloop Construction Begins", especially when the press release it’s attached to is not, in fact, about Hyperloop construction beginning.

Or, to quote the boy wonder:

Anyway, if you’re interested, here are some details about exactly what it it that Hyperloop Transport Technologies is building:

HTT’s passenger capsule is being built in collaboration with Carbures S.A, a leading expert in fuselage and advanced materials construction in both aeronautics and aerospace.  The final specs for the capsule are:

  • Length: 30 meters (98.5 feet)

  • Diameter: 2.7 meters (9 feet)

  • Weight: 20 tons

  • Passenger capacity: 28-40

  • Speed: Up to 1223 km/h (760 mph)

And if you want to know more about the Hyperloop, and why it's a bit iffy, listen to Alex on our podcast.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.