Hyperloop: Elon Musk’s 1,220km/h bullet train is taking shape

SpaceX is building a mile-long test track to host a pod design competition in 2016.

Peter Iantorno June 16, 2015

Update, February 11, 2016: at the World Government Summit in Dubai this week, Brogan Bambrogan, the co-founder of Hyperloop Technologies, said Hyperloop transportation could be introduced in the UAE within the next 10 to 15 years. The technology would enable a 15-minute journey between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Imagine not having to do that tediously boring drive anymore... 

Elon Musk is not a man who settles for second best. When he heard about the proposed “high-speed rail” development set to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2029, much like your dad or that one cool teacher you had who actually understood you, he was not angry, “just disappointed”.

Why was he disappointed? Well, according to Musk, the proposed train would not only be the most expensive public work project in the history of the United States, but it would also be slower than trains that already exist in China, Japan and Italy, with a top speed of around 350km/h. 

While most people would probably vent their frustration at the US government’s ineptitude on Twitter and then leave it at that, Musk is most definitely not most people. So after taking fire at the project, he decided to do something about it and offer an alternative: not a cheaper and faster train, but an entirely new mode of transport altogether – Hyperloop. 

Taking the LA to San Francisco route as an example, Musk proposed a system that would cost just $6 billion (instead of the projected $68.4 billion cost of the current project) and would work using a steel tube between the two cities, raised around six metres off the ground and supported by concrete pylons about 30 metres apart.

Passengers would travel in 28-person-capacity capsules, which would be fired along the tube using a clever solar-powered magnetic propulsion system that relies on near vacuum-like conditions with only a tiny cushion of air inside for the pods to ride on. Think of it as a 600km-long air hockey table. 

All this smart tech would mean that the pods could achieve a top speed of 1,220km/h, meaning that they could do the LA to SF trip in just 35 minutes, instead of the comparatively snail-paced two-and-a-half-hour trip time of the proposed high-speed railway. By our calculations, if a Hyperloop was put in between Dubai and Riyadh, the journey would be under an hour.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? But there is a catch. As we all know, Mr Musk is a little busy at the moment what with the whole SpaceX thing and Tesla’s new revolutionary alternative to fossil fuel, so he decided to step back from this one and give someone else a chance to design it.

He has made his design open-source, and invited start-up companies and individual inventors to build on the idea by entering the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition (teaser advert above). For this purpose, SpaceX has announced that it is building a mile-long test track at its Los Angeles headquarters, which it will open in June 2016, allowing entering teams to test their prototypes at the facility. 

In the announcement, SpaceX said that more details would be available on August 15 and that interested parties have until September 15 to submit their application.

Will Hyperloop be the future of high-speed over-ground travel? Who knows, but if it has taught us one thing already, it is to never settle for second best.