Revolutionary transportation technologies have never evolved with the pace of digital technologies. There can be years of stagnation between breakthroughs. In was only six years that the Hyperloop was pitched by Elon Musk as the next transformative technology, but its success is not guaranteed. The astonishing high cost of constructing vacuum tubes might forever disqualify the invention from achieving mainstream success, but new technologies are seldom built alone. Some of the greatests inventions in history are blended, like the light bulb by Thomas Edison. The electric arc-lamp proceeded it by 78 years.
In the original presentation by Musk, people would be shuttled about within individual pods at transonic airliner speeds (1236 kilometers per hour). Since this motion would generate immense drag in the dense atmosphere, Elon suggested that the pods should run inside a vacuum atmosphere like Robert Goddard’s original vactrain a century ago.
In the years since the Hyperloop release, eight startups have risen as competitors to build the machine. Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, TransPod, Arrivo, DGWHyperloop, Hardt Global Mobility, Hyper Chariot, and Zeleros. Hyperloop One might be the most successful contender with a recent speed test hitting 387 kilometers per hour.
Nevertheless the release of a fully operational system remains bleak at best. No official announcement has been made for the opening of a loop anywhere in the world. Even when the technology is perfected, it can take years to clear the legal obstacles for permission to build a track.
Even when the permissions are resolved, the costs could still be ruinous. Experts have estimated that the cost could be as high as 100 million dollars per mile to build. Despite all these obstacles, the Boring company has announced that it intends to open the first loop connecting O’Hare airport to Downtown in three years.
Don’t get me wrong. I would be very awestruck to ride an operation loop. I do reckon that the main reason that the loop is still in development is because of the serious challenge of engineering reliable vacuum tubes and doors. In the original pitch by Musk the air pressure is reduced to 100 Pascals; which is equal to an altitude of about 50 kilometers. At this height you are practically in space.
Until these problems are resolved, there are competing plans for reinventing the train. They could revolutionize the rail by themselves or in conjunction with the loop.
In 1977 Anatoly Unitsky of Russia began research on the String Rail, climaxing in the construction of the first test platform around 2001 in Russia. The device is still in development, but it could reimagine the business of track construction.
In its current embodiment, track construction is painfully expensive. It can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase land and install track. Experts have placed the value as high as 345 million dollars per kilometer. Anatoly is seeking to transform this by replacing the track with a high-tension cable. Instead of rail 5 meter tall towers would be built every 30 meters, and possibly for as low as 2 million dollars per kilometer. Since the cables are under very high tension, only small deflections of a few centimeters are possible between supports. The cables can also support high-speed transit trains with speeds up to 500 kilometers per hour.
There are still limitations to String Rail. The high-tension cables can’t support sharp turns and steep climbs are also an unresolved problem. The startup Skyway Technologies is presently supervising its development.
But there might be another way. Those pesky locomotives engines are notoriously heavy and expensive.
Tubular Rails is seeking to transform that by offloading the propulsion to stations, much like an amusement park roller coaster. Robert Pulliam wants to take it one step further by making the train its own track. The theory is that you could reduce the cost of track construction by sixty percent by removing the track from the equation, and placing it on the train. Elevated tracks could be constructed much more cheaply without overpasses, and because all propulsion is local no train could ever runaway. In theory speeds as high as 240 kilometers per hour are achievable.
Tubular Rails is still untested, and at publication no evidence of a functional prototype could be found.
However maybe we can still achieve high-speed cruise without those annoying vacuum tubes or experimental rails. The Japanese have operated the Shinkansen network for fifty-four years, with electric trains routinely achieving speeds of up to 320 kilometers per hour. This was all realized with careful aerodynamic engineering.