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Hyperloop supersonic passenger travel is feasible: Elon Musk

Toronto’s new mayor has shown impatience with the slow pace of the city’s bureaucracy. John Tory says he wants things to happen more quickly, especially the development of new transit. He should read about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

Hyperloop is one of Musk’s latest big ideas. The entrepreneur responsible for Paypal and the Tesla electric car dreams of sending commuters on inter-city, near-supersonic capsule trains that speed through elevated tunnels, or vacuum tubes, possibly using magnetic levitation. The trains would travel at a speed of more than 700 kilometres per hour (600 mph) making the trip between cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles in just thirty minutes, almost three times faster than flying. There could even be different classes of passenger: luxury, economy, and freight. Because the modules are enclosed in a tube, there is no danger of derailment.

This is not science fiction. Musk has set up a company to work out the technical details. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) consists of engineers and other techie types and designers who now work for NASA or Boeing or Musk’s other company, SpaceX, and contribute their efforts to the project on a work-now, get-paid-later basis, later meaning if and when the Hyperloop ever gets built and becomes profitable. They form a mesh network, a type of network in which every member or “node” communicates directly with every other member without going through a centralized service provider. And the company has released a preliminary report on their activities so far. The most interesting point from the public’s point of view will be that Hyperloop is in fact feasible. It will cost about $16 billion to get a commercially viable system operating, but the team doesn’t see any insurmountable problems with the physics or construction.

Technically feasible, economically sensible

The report states, “We believe that there are no technical challenges that can’t be solved, and by using this unique approach we hope to resolve challenges faster and more efficiently than would otherwise be possible. Besides the technology aspect of the Hyperloop, we see enormous advantages on how the lives of millions of people would be positively influenced with the Hyperloop becoming reality.”

What could be one of its strongest selling points is the cost. The report states that it is “absolutely feasible” to build a Hyperloop line at a cost of $20–$45 million per mile. By comparison, other mass transit options being considered for the San Francisco–Los Angeles corridor are costing out at $200 million per mile.

HTT believes all of this could happen within a decade. However, a look at the HTT report shows that there are still many fundamental questions to answer, such as what materials to use to construct the tubes, and how to deal with an emergency, like the sudden depressurization of the tube, or a leak. “Do we need emergency exits and structures?” and “Will the tube need interior coating?” the report asks in a section Questions and Next Steps.

One thing is sure: Hyperloop would dramatically change the transportation landscape. Not only would it make it possible to commute long distances, which could help relieve overcrowding and traffic congestion in cities, but it would also help reduce the global carbon footprint.

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