HS2 vs. Hyperloop: Good luck to the crazies!

HS2 vs. The Hyperloop: Good luck to the crazies!

There is nothing like the lure of visionary, comic-like ideas of how we might travel, but it is government that is providing us with immediate workable solutions in the world of transport. It’s questionable whether ‘immediacy’ is the right measure here, but nonetheless it’s worth confronting the differences between these two projects.

Transport solutions are highly contentious. They affect people in all manner of ways, from jobs created to disruptions to residential areas. But, beyond the direct impact of new transport infrastructure there is the simple fact that we haven’t yet discovered a clean and safe way to transport large groups of people.

Our dominant commuting method, the car, (as well as other road transport) represents over 10% of our carbon footprint and kills over a million people per year. Against this backdrop, a networked system of driverless electric or solar powered vehicles begins to become an idea worth taking seriously. Jaime Lerner, President of Latin American Integrated Transport Systems, working on developing an integrated system of transport to the exclusion of road vehicles, labels the car as the cigarette of the future, “you can use it but people will be annoyed by you”. Likewise, air traffic and pollution via short-haul travel is of increasing concern.

Add to this, a growing and highly mobile population with increasing transportation needs and we get into a situation, as we have in our major cities today, of a dated train service carrying 4,000 people into Euston standing and a further 5,000 people arriving standing into Birmingham each day.

If ever, there was an industry in need of innovation, transport would be the first in line. Enter HS2 and Hyperloop.

On 23 October 2015, I went to a Construct/Disrupt event, on the theme of ‘Transport to the Future’ and listened to various speakers, (including teams from HS2 and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)).

One such speaker, Bibop Gresta, looked like he had come to us directly from the future, wearing an apple watch on each wrist as he introduced the Hyperloop. It was a slick presentation, full of artist renderings, neat videos and awe-inspiring moments of what could-be.

It started with a vision, inter-city transport needs to be re-thought. We need to replace air travel between major cities, relieve the congestion plaguing our current transportation routes and we need to achieve this at a fraction of the price and at great convenience for consumers.

The grand idea is to transport 28-people per capsule, in a tube-like system at over 700mph, and in total, transporting over 24 million people between San Francisco and LA over five years, once up-and-running. The capacity of the system will allow 3400 people to be transported daily. Bibop, suggested that in the UK connecting London and Glasgow would be there aim.

Whilst he didn’t go to far into the technical details of how the system would function, he quickly laid out his case for the Hyperloop over other solutions. The Hyperloop is set to cost $10billion and will begin building a test track of 8km in Quay Valley in California. A location in of itself which the company says will become a city of the future, trailing new greener and healthier methods of transport and urban living. ‘We’re not hippies, just badass environmentalists’ he says, as he declares quay valley a world-first.

The track itself will be fashioning the world’s longest advertising board, which will enable the company to consider low or no fare travel. Part of the gearing-up (in financial terms) of this private sector project has been the enrollment of 500 engineers volunteering a minimum of 10 hours of their time in exchange for stock options.

Elon Musk introduced the world to the Hyperloop, following which a number of new organisations have been born. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), represented by Gresta on the night, seems to have come most further along working closely with a number of organisations such as NASA, UCLA and SpaceX.

HS2, a little less sexy, having not been conjured up by the guy that is going to get us to Mars, promises us less innovation and is a juggernaut of a project in comparison. Needless to say after the presentations, many in the room commented that ‘HS2 hasn’t even started and yet, it already feels out-of-date’.

HS2, is going to cost near £50billion, with an updated expected in the Chancellor’s budget announcement later this year. It will take until 2026 (having been approved in 2012) to be completed; however there have already been announcement updates to plans extending onto 2033 to develop Euston as the connecting London station. This already sounds typical of a government project – excruciatingly high costs and changing parameters.

But even this government-led project, started with an ambitious vision – It was to connect 8 out of 10 major UK cities, serving 1 in 5 of the UK population, taking 9.8million journeys off the roads and 5.4million journeys out of the skies.

HS2’s version of Quay Valley is to work with local planning authorities up and down country, which have commitments and responsibilities to their local constituents (unlike the quay valley) in developing a multi-stakeholder approach in how best to benefit from and work with the HS2 initiative. Whilst this has been contentious, there are small hints of some communities using this as an opportunity to be genuinely innovative in local planning. And this seems to be the big divider between government-run projects and Hyperloop-like ideas. Such projects require complex stakeholder management, engagement with existing systems and infrastructure and real specifics, at which point, such projects begin to engage a more critical public. As one such attendee at the event put it, ‘you can do all the colorful drawings you want, everything changes when you start buying the concrete’.

HTT presented a technology which although untested represents an idea that is trying to make an improvement that is a 100* better than what currently exists in the industry. This 100* vs. 10* better idea is a frequent measure when looking at technologies and new technology investments, particularly as a point of analysis by venture capitalists of new tech start-ups. But, for the non-techies in the room, the reason the Hyperloop was so interesting was because it was completely unimaginable as a form of travel, sitting on the periphery of our ideas of transport and instead representing a new experiential opportunity – with details such as giant windows that operate as web-enabled interfaces that we’re not able to contextualise. (Though, we have had a go at supersonic air travel via the Concorde and it turned out we didn’t need it, or at least, it wasn’t economical enough to be a feasible long-term solution.)

The HS2 on the other hand, does not boast the launch of a whole new city or that it will run on a blended system of solar and kinetic energy, which HTT are developing through its volunteer team of 500 engineers worldwide (who each have to deliver a minimum of 10hours of work a week in exchange for stock options).

HS2, isn’t actually an innovation project, it’s a catch-up project. Many other countries are well ahead in the use of high-speed rail, not least in continental Europe, where many of our G8 counter-parts are well-ahead of the UK.

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