Logistics

India on fast track to make Virgin Hyperloop One a reality

Chitra Narayanan Las Vegas | Updated on April 14, 2019 Published on April 12, 2019

The Virgin Hyperloop One

The Virgin Loop in Mojave desert in Nevada

From the Nevada desert to the Maharashtra ghats, a look at Virgin Hyperloop One’s progress

From a distance it looks like a gigantic white caterpillar snaking its way across the desolate desert. We are about 50 km from Las Vegas in an isolated stretch of the Mojave desert in Nevada.

Approach closer, and the Virgin Hyperloop One branding is evident on the white tubes, near which are a few sheds in a fenced off area. With a mountainous backdrop and full of cacti shrubs, the place looks like a scientific set up straight out of a James Bond movie.

This is DevLoop, the full-scale test track of the fastest transportation system on land, set up by Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO). A pod can potentially fly across this vacuum tube at nearly 1000 km/hr — though the half km test track is too small to test these speeds. While 400 test runs have been successfully done, the pod has not carried a human passenger so far.

 

Yet, VHO talks confidently of transporting thousands between Mumbai and Pune by the middle of next decade. If all goes to plan, the first VHO commercial project in the world will be in India, and you could travel between the two cities in just 25 minutes.

Why India?

There have been reports about a hyperloop link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi taking off first. But VHO, which together with Roads and Transport Authority and port operator DP World, is in discussions with the UAE administration, clarifies the India project is on a faster track. The Maharashtra government has already declared it an official infrastructure project. “It has taken three years to get to the stage we are in India,” says Harj Dhaliwal, Managing Director, India and Middle East, Virgin Hyperloop One.

According to VHO, the project is more viable in India. An estimated 80 to 199 million passengers travel between the two Indian cities annually. “VHO can meet this demand by sending pods several times per minute, supporting up to 16,000 passengers per hour per direction at peak capacity,” says Dhaliwal. Incidentally in May 2016, when VHO kicked off a global challenge to find out the most promising hyperloop route, most entries came from India, and the Mumbai-Pune city pair was among the four shortlisted from 2,600 entries. Currently VHO is exploring a couple of routes in the US in addition to Mumbai-Pune and one in UAE. Dubai-AbuDhabi.

Rival firm Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has proposed two routes in India — one linking new Andhra Pradesh capital Amaravati to Vijayawada and another further afield.

But there is more movement on VHO’s Mumbai-Pune corridor with the PMRDA (Pune Metropolitan Regional Development Authority) inviting stakeholder consultation meetings asking for suggestions and objections earlier this year. While VHO has been named the project proponent, others can put in bids too and a Swiss challenge method will be adopted to decide. Apart from VHO and HTT, Canadian company Transpod is working on ultra high speed hyperloop technology.

VHO is confident that Phase One of the Mumbai-Pune project which involves building 11.8 km of a demonstration track with private investment of $500 million by 2023, can move ahead on the timelines promised as there should not be any complications with land acquisition. Phase 2 will see the rest of the stretch built with the track bifurcating into two in Mumbai — one headed to BKC, the other to Navi Mumbai to facilitate cargo movement. The hyperloop corridor will be built either under the Mumbai-Pune Expressway or run parallel.

It’s all about air dynamics

While an elevated track is easier to build, there are higher maintenance issues compared to underground. At Nevada, the elevated test track sits on concrete pillars that have been built to withstand extreme temperature changes.

The black-coloured pod is garaged in a Big Top fabric structure in the 40 acre test site. In the current design it can seat 16 to 23 people but different designs are being looked at. Two test pods were built to factor in the eventuality that one could get damaged in testing, says Leslie Horwitz, strategic communication lead for VHO, but the second did not have to be used.

She reveals how around 200 engineers, from aerospace, automation, materials, power electronics, civil engineers, software and systems collaborated on the project that uses Elon Musk’s revolutionary technology with a few adaptations.

To explain it simply, air inside the tube is eliminated so there is no friction when the pod travels, and an environment that is akin to flying 200,000 ft above sea level is created. Inside the tube are tracks above which the pod floats through Magnetic Levitation . Thus the energy consumption is low. There are vents in the tunnel from where the atmospheric pressure is vaccumed out to eliminate air dynamic drag. A big tent nearby houses the air pressure management system.

Further away near the security gate is the control room in which around 20 computers and huge display screens monitor the test track.

Challenges remain

While the success achieved at DevLoop is impressive, questions on safety remain as humans have not travelled on the pod yet.

But Dhaliwal responds that VHO is working with a wide set of global and Indian agencies to ensure a regulatory framework and safety systems. “The burden is on us to prove to regulators that our system is leagues beyond rail in terms of our capabilities and safety,” he says.

VHO also talks of how the project can tap engineering talent from India and create an economic bonanza by boosting local manufacturing.

It’s heady talk but until the first humans travel on the pod at speeds promised, we won’t know whether the hyperloop is more hype than a realistic vision.

 

Published on April 12, 2019
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