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How your commute time could be cut by 90%

Commute

You walk into a metal carriage called a “pod”. It looks something like a bullet, and for good reason.

After you sit down, the doors close silently and the pod slides into a large, round metal tube. Suddenly, you become aware of a sensation of movement, as if you’re in an elevator travelling forward or an aircraft that’s just taking off. It’s not unpleasant.

After checking your emails, the next thing you know you are arriving at your destination 550 kilometres away. You were travelling at over 1,000 kph and the journey took just 45 minutes.

This is the world of Hyperloop, and if things go to plan is what the journey from Mexico City to Guadalajara will be like in just a few years.

High-speed connections

The idea of trains travelling in a vacuum, levitating thanks to powerful magnets that eliminate speed-reducing friction, is said to have been first mooted in 1909 by rocket pioneer Robert Goddard.

Since then, the concept has become familiar in science-fiction, but it wasn’t until a conversation between entrepreneurs Shervin Pishevar and Elon Musk in 2013 that it took a big step towards becoming a reality.

Pishevar’s company, Hyperloop One, has recently announced the winners of a global competition to find partner cities and countries to develop the first Hyperloop transport systems.

The winning routes included Dallas-Houston in the US, Edinburgh-London in the UK and Mumbai-Chennai in India as well as Mexico City to Guadalajara in Mexico.

Hyperloop One will now work with the teams behind the winning bids to scope out the feasibility and viability of the networks and plan the next stages.

While the concept may still seem like something from an H G Wells novel, plans to develop it are well advanced. Hyperloop One has a test site in the Nevada desert and in the United Arab Emirates a test loop is being built between Dubai and Abu Dhabi that will cut the current one-and-a-half-hour, 140 km drive to 12 minutes.

How much the scheme is likely to cost is still a matter of some conjecture. Musk initially suggested a 310-mile (500 km) route from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $6 billion, or $11.5 million a mile.

However, leaked documents suggested a shorter 107 mile loop in California could reach £13 billion, or $121 million a mile.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai loop is $4.8 billion, or $52 million a mile.

Supporters of Hyperloops say that saved time, reduced traffic pollution and increased productivity would justify the costs.

No one has yet given a firm date as to when the first loop will be operational, but some estimates have given the inauguration of the Dubai-Abu Dhabi link as 2020.

Who wins – and who loses?

A video explaining the Mexico link clearly sets out what the economic benefits of the Mexico City-Guadalajara loop are likely to be.

Stations would be built close to existing transport connections, such as railways, airports and major roads. They would also link up already successful industrial hubs across the country, such as aerospace and technology, and improve transport for 42 million people.

As well as boosting the economy, the loop’s supporters say it would ease congestion and reduce pollution, which would have long-term beneficial effects for citizens and reduce health expenditure.

If such plans were replicated in other countries, then the benefit to global health, efficiency and economy growth could be large indeed.

However, there are likely to be losers. To start with, the Hyperloop initially envisaged by Musk seems to have been more like a bobsled with a few passengers, while the current proposals look more like a traditional train. The initial costs are likely to be high and – as with large-scale infrastructure work – they may balloon, which could have political and fiscal ramifications for the governments building them.

Cities and communities that are bypassed by the new systems could also lose out if property prices, jobs and local services such as schools and hospitals are adversely affected.

And, as with the construction of a high-speed rail link in the UK, some residents near schemes may have their properties demolished to make way for the new loops.

Future investment in bypassed locations could also be hit as businesses move away from their existing locations nearer to loop stations or the connecting hubs.

Finally, Hyperloop One is not the only player in this game. Other companies are competing to be the first to develop a cost-effective, working system, including Musk, who is not involved formally with Hyperloop One.

The future of transport may be high speed but we remain some way from the destination yet. Getting there will take more bold investment decisions by governments willing to invest heavily in innovative infrastructure.