Hyperloop took a leap forward in 2020 as Virgin Hyperloop carried out its first passenger test. But when can we expect it to become a practical, functioning reality? PlaceTech spoke to Przemysław Pączek, CEO and co-founder of Nevomo, formerly Hyper Poland, about his predictions for the years ahead.
Nevomo is developing magrail technology – a method for converting conventional railways into ones based on magnetic levitation that can reach speeds of 550 kph (340 mph) – rather than the Hyperloop itself, which proposes passengers travelling at over 700 miles an hour in floating pods which race along inside giant low-pressure tubes, either above or below ground.
Nevomo’s goal is for some magrail tracks to eventually be transformed into Hyperloop, becoming something of a bridge between the old and the new.
As such, Nevomo works closely with Hyperloop developers, having, for example, joined the Dutch Hyperloop Development Program at the end of last year. After the progress he saw in 2020, Pączek is a believer. “I’m completely convinced Hyperloop will happen,” he says. “If we were speaking three years ago, maybe even two years ago, I would not have been so confident.”
Here are his predictions:
2021/22 | Testing, light touch regulation, new entrants
“It’s going to be the year of many test centres popping up around Europe,” Pączek says. He expects between one and three to start construction. While longer test centres – ones that are two or more miles long – likely won’t break ground this year, there will be shorter ones of around 500 metres.
He also expects other industries, such as energy, steel and construction, to start looking for their “sweet spot” in the Hyperloop ecosystem.
But technology development isn’t the main issue – it’s standardisation and regulation. “All the core technologies are here. It’s a matter of integrating them, making them safe, reliable, cost efficient and introducing a regulatory framework to accommodate this.”
Last year, the US Department of Transportation issued guidelines establishing regulations on Hyperloop technology, while the EU formed a joint technical committee to oversee the development of common standards. Expect more of this in the next couple of years, Pączek suggests, as pressure increases for new sustainable modes of transportation.
Regulators and developers are trying to strike a balance between standardisation, “so we don’t end up in the 19th-20th century railway situation where you cannot go to another country because there’s a different gauge,” and innovation.
“What the EU tries to do is not to limit innovation at this stage. For the next few years, we will probably have a situation in which everybody tries to present their solutions in order to see what’s best for each use case,” Pączek says.
Meanwhile, Nevomo plans to start full-scale tests of magrail in Poland this year, with construction expected to start on a 500-metre test track in Q2.
2023/25 | Standardisation, first commercial magrail tracks
As the technology develops, Pączek expects the focus to shift towards standardisation to ensure interoperability. “Everybody is open to co-operation, and the standards are coined together,” Pączek predicts, pointing to how different industries and operators are already developing the technology together.
He expects 2023 to be the start of the pilot implementation period for Nevomo, working with public bodies to upgrade existing railway stock. “We are already in talks with one of the infrastructure managers who would like to do a pilot with us,” Pączek says. He declines to divulge who it is, but says they operate “somewhere in Western Europe”.
Magrail should be ready to launch commercially in 2024 or 2025.
Early 2030s | Hyperloop welcomes its first passengers
Expect to see the first commercial Hyperloop routes in about 10 years. Development will likely be slowed down by constraints ranging from land acquisition and planning to costs and regulations. “Everybody wants to use a highway but nobody wants to live next to it; having a tube in your backyard is not going to be so nice for everybody,” Pączek says.
But pressure will also have grown at this point for zero-carbon transport. The EU, for example, set targets in December for doubling high-speed rail traffic in Europe by 2030 and for “scheduled collective travel” for journeys under 500km to be carbon neutral. Meeting those goals will require new technology and new ways of increasing capacity.
2050s | A network emerges
After two decades of development, we should start to see a “network effect” for Hyperloop, where routes start to crisscross within countries and continents.
Pączek expects to see a combination of conventional rail, magrail and Hyperloop: “The beauty of our approach is that it all can be interoperable to an extent. There’s huge flexibility for infrastructure managers to try to choose which section, which route, should have which use case.”
There is a long way to go, and work over the coming decade will be focused on proving Hyperloop can work – that people will happily and safely travel in a capsule cruising at 760mph.
Critics point to the risks, the possible effects of swift acceleration and concerns over what happens if things go wrong. But Pączek likens the sceptics to those who wrote off the idea of planes, trains and automobiles.
“We fly in low pressure environments; we go to space… people ride subways. Come on, is it so different?” he says. It might be a few decades and a regulatory hurdles away from being a reality, but Pączek is convinced: “This isn’t science fiction.”