Is it a car? Is it a plane? Is it a train? In road to hyperloop, a leap

A new form of transport currently being developed by a number of companies, hyperloop envisages passengers traveling at high speeds in floating pods located inside giant low-pressure tubes, either above or below ground.

“We are not all about speed… We don’t sell speed, we sell time.”

This may seem surprising coming from the co-founder of American firm Virgin Hyperloop. However, Josh Giegel, now one of the first people in the world to take the transport system involving levitating test pods traveling at high speeds, knows what he is talking about.

“If hyperloop went at a million kilometers an hour but had to stop at every place, or you had to wait two hours to get on, that’s not actually that effective, right?” explains Giegel, who was part of the test run held by the company last month. “So, it is the whole experience: how long is the wait, going directly to the destination and the like. We bring all the benefits of speed of an aircraft with the comfort of rail experience, without having to wait, and at the same time reduce energy usage.”

Another passenger on the first set of test rides held by Virgin Hyperloop, which Giegel first envisaged six years ago, was Tanay Manjrekar. Originally from Pune, Manjrekar is a power electronics specialist who has been with the company since 2016. “I was going to try to get into the pod any way I could,” Manjrekar says. “I have always dreamt about creating a hyperloop, but riding on it was beyond dreams. When that opportunity kind of presents itself, it would have been stupid not to take it.”

A new form of transport currently being developed by a number of companies, hyperloop envisages passengers traveling at high speeds in floating pods located inside giant low-pressure tubes, either above or below ground. The system is not in commercial use anywhere in the world, and Virgin Hyperloop itself is still running tests in the US.

Last month, NITI Aayog formed a panel to study hyperloop in-depth, including Member V K Saraswat, the Chairman, Railway Board, and the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Affairs, Road Transport and Highways. The panel will draw on the expertise of Delhi Metro and IIT among others. On Saturday, Chairman, Railway Board, V K Yadav said: “Hyperloop is a technology that is still evolving across the world. The government is studying it as a transport technology, that’s all I can say right now.”

As part of the first leg in India, Virgin Hyperloop plans to connect Pune and Mumbai, covering the 150-km distance at 1,200 kmph speeds in about 35 minutes, a tenth of the time taken by road currently. Giegel says it is just the start, and at least 7,000 km of hyperloop is possible in India.

Is it a car? Is it a plane? Is it a train? In road to hyperloop, a leap

Virgin Hyperloop has also signed an MoU to conduct a feasibility test regarding a link between the Bengaluru city center and Kempegowda International Airport and is working with the Punjab government for a corridor between Amritsar and Chandigarh.

While the technology hurdle has been more or less overcome, an uphill task is convincing regulators about something that is this new. “We all try to relate something new to what we already know. And so people kind of look at hyperloop and think, it’s obviously not a car, and it’s definitely not a plane, and it’s really not a boat, so it must be a train,” Giegel spells out his frustrations.

But the conversations have been making progress. “In July, the US Department of Transportation gave us regulatory guidance. They actually said that we are an official mode of transportation, which is a big deal. India, as part of the Mumbai to Pune project, also declared us an infrastructure project.” In Europe, hyperloop has been listed as part of the Smart Mobility strategy.

Giegel thinks it is important to have these conversations in parallel. “If we wait until everything is perfect, it will just take too long for certification,” he says, adding how the recent tests were a lot about “the incremental development of technology and the incremental development of safety”. The regulators, he says, were very excited with the way tests were done and the rigor of the process.

The lack of sleep over the past many months is finally paying off. “We didn’t think that would happen this quickly.”

The tests could only achieve 172 kmph, but Giegel says it’s because the Nevada test track just was 500 meters long. “The goal wasn’t to speed, it was safety,” he says, adding that a new certification track being built in West Virginia will give a glimpse of higher speeds.

Manjrekar does not see many challenges in hyperloop getting where it should and, if at all there are bumps, thinks the company has robust design practices and technology to get over them. “In terms of challenges, it’s really a race for governments right now to get the first one up,” he adds.

Giegel weighs in, “We have shown safe travel is possible on this, by not astronauts but normal people. I think the biggest thing for me is how fast we can scale up.”

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