June 07, 2016

Forget Hyperloop, we need the Hyper Railway

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THE notion of transporting people and goods at high speeds through pressurised tubes has existed as long as rail technology itself. From the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in the 1840s to Vactrain in the late 20th century, all have received significant attention but ultimately failed to deliver, the costs and risks proving prohibitive.

However, since billionaire entrepreneur Mr Elon Musk outlined his vision for "Hyperloop" in a 2012 White Paper, new life was breathed into what he referred to as the "fifth mode of transport." His companies SpaceX and Tesla subsequently began working on Hyperloop projects and encouraged others to do the same by using an open-source concept. It has since generated a media buzz as various projects have emerged, and was a major talking point at the World Congress on Railway Research (WCRR), held in Milan on May 29-June 2.

In presentations during a special plenary session, Hyperloop One and Transpod, two start-up companies now actively developing the concept, professed that it will radicalise transport as we know it. They say by operating at up to 1000km/h it will slash journey times between major cities, enabling people to live in Milan but work in Rome. It will cross borders and travel beneath oceans. And by offering on-demand point-to-point journeys, they believe it will transform society by bringing the world even closer together.

For many railway industry professionals it is a story they have heard before. The proponents of maglev made similarly bold promises of high speeds and low journey times. But with airport links in Shanghai, Changsha, Incheon, and the Linimo Line in Nagoya, the only operational installations, and Japan not set to deliver the first phase of its pioneering project between Tokyo and Nagoya until 2027, it is technology that is yet to truly take off.

Many of the technical question marks surrounding maglev are also relevant to Hyperloop: How do you introduce turnouts? What headways can it run at when operating at such high-speeds? What is the capacity of the system? How much will it realistically cost?

Yet this potentially disruptive technology has generated sufficient excitement to attract significant financial support. Hyperloop One raised $US 80m in a second round funding exercise which concluded last month, with French National Railways (SNCF) reported to have contributed $US 91m, to take its total to more than $US 100m. And it is making progress. On May 16 the first test of the Hyperloop One propulsion system was performed in Nevada where a sled accelerated to 187km/h in 1.1 seconds. Hyperloop One says its goal now is to develop a full-scale prototype by the end of 2016, which the developers hope will prove the concept and enable them to introduce a freight service by 2020, and a passenger link by 2021.

Whether it becomes a reality remains to be seen. Conventional wisdom would think not. But then this is not a conventional concept. And as the companies insist, and the test shows, the technology to do this is available and accessible so why not shoot for the moon?

For the rail industry, wedded to the Victorian steel wheel on steel rail concept, and a long way from operating at such high speeds, Hyperloop is obviously a threat. But it is also an opportunity. It shows what is possible to achieve in a short space of time, and the importance of positive PR to build enthusiasm and in turn financial support for a project that makes people think why not, and not why bother.

It is this understanding which European Railway Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) chairman Mr Andy Doherty attempted to tap into in his address to delegates during the third plenary session of WCRR.

He said that the rail industry must up its game by embracing digital technologies in order to compete with driverless cars and Hyperloop. He showed a single slide of a future railway system, with labels of potential technologies and service concepts including mechatronics, convoying of trains, and innovative track components, which Doherty says could transform the rail experience as we know it today, and form the "Hyper Railway."

"Research and technological development must be the engine to deliver the future railway," Doherty said. "The technology is available and it's now up to us to work out how best to use it so, in three years' time, we are ready to celebrate what we have achieved. We must then develop a compelling business case which will help us to push government and the funding process so we can put in place a plan that is ready for implementation. We need to move at Hyperloop speeds."

Shift2Rail is the initiative on which Doherty, and much of the European rail industry, believes will drive the blue-sky thinking required to deliver this new generation of innovations. The initial lighthouse projects in the €920m joint undertaking which will run until 2020 are set to commence in September. And Doherty was hopeful that at the next WCRR in Japan in 2019, the first results would be available.

Doherty's call to push the boundaries of what is perceived as possible has been a consistent rallying cry at conferences in the last 12 months. The notion of the Hyper Railway is new and could be an effective label to focus and excite the industry. It could also help to change the common public perception of the railway as an outdated technology. Like the Bullet Train prompts a positive response to rail technology in Japan, the Hyper Railway could do the same in Europe.

Yet to achieve the vision, cultural changes are essential. Europe's national approvals and homologation process, which has stifled attempts to deliver new rail technology and innovation quickly, must be overhauled. The passage of the Fourth Railway Package and the expansion of the European Railway Agency (ERA) to become a one-stop-shop for certification should alleviate this problem. ERA's involvement in Shift2Rail is also critical for establishing the standards on which any radical new technologies are based. It is then essential that ERA receives adequate budgetary support from the European Union so it can manage its expanded role effectively.

Delivering cultural changes in an overtly conservative industry, where the heavy focus on safety has at times stifled progress, is another massive hurdle. The difficulty of getting people to think in new ways contrary to how they have worked throughout their careers and how they were taught while at university should not be underestimated. The point made to WCRR delegates by Mr Giovanni Azzone, rector of Politechnico Milano, that students and faculty should think in terms of problems and solutions rather than disciplines was a critical observation, which the industry needs to embrace.

As the world's premier railway research event, WCRR should be the forum to showcase new research which is pushing the boundaries of technology. But while this edition's host, Italian State Railways (FS) approached the conference with the best intentions, in many ways it fell short. There were very few research presentations which are specifically looking at using digital and other groundbreaking technologies in innovative ways.

This is not to say there are not great things going on, some of which are not yet in the public eye. Transportation Technology Center Inc (TTCI) president Ms Lisa Stabler hinted at the exciting work taking place using fibre optics, with a 2.5km installation now in place at its Colorado facility. Japan's RTRI also made significant contributions to the conference, with many of the more eye-opening presentations coming from the Japanese participants. There were also notable presentations from young researchers from a range of European universities.

The use of a voting facility for the best paper during a particular session was a positive addition. Yet the lack of a formal review of how the most exciting research fits in with a future vision for the industry, and how these studies might be expanded, furthered, and ultimately implemented in good time, made it feel like a lost opportunity. One had the feeling that once the event was over the attendees would go back to their respective institutions and continue to work in the same way, largely in isolation from the wider industry.

There is therefore a case for the next WCRR, which will be held in Japan in October 2019, to add meat to the bones shown in Doherty's slide. The conversation could then shift to attracting financial support to commercialise the very best new concepts from Shift2Rail and others so that delivery by 2022 is realistic.

This may appear fanciful, but Hyperloop has shown that this is the pace that other industries are working at. And they are attracting support, even from railway companies. To remain relevant, and ultimately to keep up with demand, the rail industry needs to adopt a similar attitude. It needs the Hyper Railway.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith joined IRJ in 2009 as features editor and since then has travelled the world reporting on developments in the world's railways. Before joining IRJ, Kevin worked for several local newspapers in the United States and as a freelance technical writer for a university engineering magazine. Kevin graduated with a first class honours degree in American Studies from Lancaster University, Britain, in 2006, and with a Master's degree in American Studies from Purdue University, United States, in 2008.