November 10, 2022: In their combined quest to move people and goods faster, more efficiently, Indian government ministries responsible for transportation—Railways, Surface Transport, Aviation and Shipping -- have hedged their bets on futuristic systems.
From e-highways to hydrogen-fuelled trains, buses and ships to flying e-cars, official agencies have kept a pragmatic and open mind on some of tomorrow’s mobility schemes, entered into MOUs and retained early investor options.
One idea that might seem straight out of the pages of science fiction is the Hyperloop – a system of fast moving vehicles or pods that levitate inside long tubes, where the air pressure is reduced to a tenth of what we experience at sea level. By thus minimising the drag or air resistance, the pods can travel at up to 700-800 kilometres per hour (KMPH).
The tubes can connect city to city from a few kilometres to a few hundred kilometres and the pods can be moved in convoys carrying goods and passengers.
The idea was first mooted by Elon Musk’s organisation in 2014, as a rapid transit system from Los Angeles to San Francisco which would transit the 600 kms between the two cities in 30 minutes compared to 5 hours by road.
Renamed Virgin Hyperloop in 2017, after Virgin CEO Richard Branson, came on board as an investor, the company found a potential market in India and signed up bilateral agreements with multiple agencies between 2017 and 2020: with the Andhra Pradesh government in 2018, to connect the 20 kms from Amaravathi and Vijayawada in 6 minutes; with the Maharashtra government in 2018, for a hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai to cover the 150 kms in 25 minutes and in 2020 with the Bengaluru International Airport Ltd (BIAL) to reduce the travel time from the city’s downtown to the airport from 90-120 minutes to 10 minutes.|
The then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, visited the Hyperloop facility in Las Vegas, Nevada (US) where he inspected a test track simulating the exact ride configured for India, complete with pods embellished with the Indian flag.
Indian takes part in test drive
Test rides with human passengers were started in November 2020 at the somewhat modest speed of 172 kms –and there was much satisfaction that one of the first passengers in the testing was a Pune-origin power electronics engineer on the company’s team, Tanay Manjrekar. Even then, the company said commercial realization was about 10 years away. By this time the ownership of Virgin Hyperloop had undergone another change – it was now owned by the Dubai, UAE-based DP World, which had bought 76% of the original company.
Little was heard of Virgin Hyperloop until a surprise announcement in March this year that the company would no longer work on a human transportation system, but would instead tweak its system to carry cargo alone. The owners blamed global supply chain issues and Covid for the change in direction. This was the first inkling of bad news for the various Indian entities who had signed up to be global pioneers in offering Hyperloop passenger transport. More bad news came last week:
|The original 1.6 km test track and tunnel of Hyperloop at the headquarters of SpaceX (the Elon Musk-owned company which had first mooted the idea of superfast travel in a pod), was seen to have been ripped out and is reportedly being repurposed as a parking space for employees.|To add more finality to Hyperloop’s end as it was first conceived, sharp-eyed watchers of its Twitter and LinkedIn accounts noticed that Virgin had removed its name from the venture over the weekend and reverted it to the original HyperloopOne.
No further proof may be needed that Indian agencies who had signed up for launching Hyperloop passenger services should give up their plans -- for now. But is it the end of the Hyperloop dream for India?
Indian hyperloop efforts
In parallel with the development with Virgin Hyperloop, a few efforts were on to design and build an indigenous Hyperloop system. Since 2017, the Centre of Innovation of IIT Madras has housed Avishkar Hyperloop, a 70-80-strong student project that has been steadily working to construct and test a prototype hyperloop vehicle. Their design pod has already gone through 5 iterations and in 2019, when SpaceX hosted a global hyperloop pod competition, the IIT-M team was the only representative from Asia.
In 2021, the team also competed in the European Hyperloop Week contest which was held virtually due to Covid, and won the award for “Most Scalable Pod Design”.
This is good news – and also a cautionary sign against excessive hype: Scalability is important, since Avishkar is much smaller than a commercial-sized pod needs to be. But this also underlines the long development path that lies ahead of any such project…. 10 years is a conservative estimate.
There is also an implicit message in the abandoning of the Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod development that the safety issue of hurling humans at aircraft-like speeds is formidable. It might explain why the original developers have decided to concentrate on moving goods rather than people.
In September, IIT Madras Director Prof. V. Kamakoti, was reported by The Hindu saying on the side-lines of an IIT-JEE programme in Hyderabad, that the Avishkar Hyperloop was getting ready to test its prototype over a 550 metre-test track within the next 6-8 months. More importantly, the project is being supported by the Railways and the two have set up a joint mission to develop India’s own Hyperloop system. L&T Technology Services has come on board with technical guidance.
Another Indian effort in Hyperloop transportation is centred around the MIT World Peace University in Pune. Team VegaPod Hyperloop has 40 students on board. Indian Express reported that the team had achieved 75 KMPH on a 50-metre test track.
Will any of these academic initiatives make the difficult transition to a real and robust system that could send passengers in India, zooming on the ground, at near-aviation speeds?
It may be too early to say, but one thing is clear: the abandonment of passenger hyperloop travel by its largest proponent worldwide, is not necessarily the end of the road in India. Some green shoots with a desi DNA are already visible.
This article has appeared in Swarajya Magazine