Fresh out of the can

Transport by hyperloop: Tube mail on a grand scale

In early November, Virgin Hyperloop One announced that it had completed the first manned test drive with a Hyperloop in the Nevada desert. According to Virgin founder, Richard Branson, this technology has the potential to revolutionize the transportation of people and goods. The idea is commonly attributed to tech innovator Elon Musk, but where does it really come from? Join us for a tour of the last two centuries, exploring innovative concepts for transporting goods and people by means of tubes, vacuum and electromagnetism.

Pneumatic passenger transport under Broadway

The oldest ancestor of the hyperloop could be the pneumatic tube mail, which was first conceived in 1810 by Danish engineer, George Medhurst. He had the idea of transporting parcels and other small objects in iron pipes by means of compressed air and suction. According to this concept, the world’s first pneumatic tube mail system was put into operation in 1853 at the London Telegraph Office. Soon pneumatic tube mail was not only used throughout London, but also in many other cities such as Berlin, Paris and New York. Only a few years later, an underground system for pneumatic tube mail was built under Broadway in the US metropolis to transport people. The “Beach Pneumatic Transit” was in operation from 1870 to 1873 and transported up to 400,000 passengers annually. Eventually, however, this “passenger pneumatic tube system” was replaced by steam-powered and later electrically driven underground railways.

Rocket scientist with a bright idea

Rocket pioneer Robert Goddard is also often named as the inventor of the hyperloop. In 1910, the scientist designed a train called “Vactrain,” which was to shoot passenger capsules suspended on magnets through a vacuum-sealed tunnel. The Vactrain was to reach a speed of around 1,600 km/h and be able to travel the distance from Boston to New York in just 12 minutes. Even though this idea of the then unknown Goddard was not patented by his wife until after his death, it secured him a permanent place in the history of the hyperloop. Similar to the projected speed, he was simply way ahead of his time.

New momentum in the Swinging Sixties

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of passenger pneumatic tubes was revisited by some researchers and engineers with great enthusiasm. Joseph Foa of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State postulated the “Tubeflight” project in the 1960s. The idea was for trains almost 60 meters long to glide on air cushions through underground tubes. The propulsion would be provided through a propeller at the rear which would transfer air from the front to the back. In this way, they hoped to achieve speeds of 650 to 3200 kilometers per hour.

Lawrence K. Edwards from the aerospace company, Lockheed, developed a proposal in 1969 for a passenger transport system called “Gravitrain” or “Gravity-Vacuum Transit” (GVT), which used gravity and vacuum for propulsion. The tunnel would drop downwards to propel the train when leaving a station, and incline upwards to limit the speed when approaching the next stop. But neither urban planners nor investors picked up on any of these ideas at the time. Whether due to a lack of confidence in the technology or insufficient funds for implementation – the time was probably just not yet ripe.

Surfing on electromagnetic fields

In the following decade, Robert M. Salter, researcher of the think tank RAND Corporation, developed an underground concept called Planetran. According to Salter, electromagnetically supported and powered wagons running in pressure-reduced underground tubes should be able to cross the entire USA in an hour. The wagons would float on electromagnetic fields, “just as a surfboard rides across ocean waves,” Salter said in his presentation “Trans-Planetary Subway Systems – A Burgeoning Capability.”

Around the same time, engineer Rodolphe Nieth, inspired by the concept of the equally advanced “Transrapid” from Germany, designed a similar system of an underground magnetic levitation train in a vacuum tunnel: the Swissmetro. This was to run in underground tubes brought to a pressure of 100 millibars by pumps. Up to 100 passengers should be able to travel from Basel to Zurich in just 12 minutes at a speed of over 500 km/h.

But even these projects failed in the end due to the excessively high implementation costs. The cost of building a nationwide Planetran network in the USA was estimated at 1 trillion US dollars, which today would amount to 3.5 trillion euros. Swissmetro would have cost around 25 billion Swiss francs – or from today’s point of view around 42 billion euros. Even if the latter idea hadn’t been implemented, it was probably an important starting point for the design of the “Cargo sous terrain” project – an automated underground freight transport system for the most densely populated parts of Switzerland. The originators of this promising idea entered into a partnership with Hyperloop One in 2016 and are planning to implement it by 2031 – we’re keen to see what happens. Unfortunately, if this project is implemented, it will not be accelerated electromagnetically or even run in a vacuum.

Hyperloop: new era for passenger and cargo transport

Cargo and passenger capsules on a magnetic levitation train

Shortly before the dawn of the 21st century, the idea was taken up again in the form of a novel transport concept. In 1997, Daryl Oster founded the ET3 Global Alliance with the aim of creating a global transport system in which freight and passenger capsules are transported in airless tubes with a diameter of 1.5 m via magnetic levitation trains. According to Oster, the ET3 system can deliver 50 times more transport volume per kilowatt-hour than electric cars and electric trains. He claims the electrical energy required to reach 560 km/h costs only 20 cents.

The company quickly sold hundreds of licenses in various countries, and in the summer of 2013, Daryl Oster met with Elon Musk at the SpaceX headquarters for a meeting which lasted over three hours. Whether the latter acquired one of the licenses remains open. What is certain is that Musk explicitly referred to ET-3 as a precursor in his draft for the hyperloop which he published in the form of a white paper two weeks after that meeting. And Oster responded by saying he was grateful to Musk for bringing the idea to a broader audience.

Virgin Hyperloop One: weightless through the Nevada desert

In June 2014, Shervin Pishevar – who, by the way, had already discussed the subject of hyperloop with Musk back in 2012 – together with Josh Giegel and Brogan BamBrogan founded Hyperloop Technologies, now known as Virgin Hyperloop One. After the transport system had completed around 400 unmanned journeys in a 10 km long test tube in Las Vegas, it was tested for the first time in a passenger ride on 8 November 2020 – with success and a great media response.

The test track used for the first manned ride is 500 meters long, has a diameter of 3.3 meters, and is located in the desert about 30 minutes from Las Vegas. The first two passengers were Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Virgin Hyperloop, Josh Giegel, and the Director of Passenger Experience, Sara Luchian. After strapping themselves into the capsule, they were transferred to an airlock while the air in the closed vacuum tube was removed. The Pod then accelerated along the short distance to 160 km/h before coming to a halt. Following the success of this self-experiment, the company is now planning certification by 2025, and aims to start commercial operation by 2030.

Contactless handover: pizza from the tube

Besides Virgin Hyperloop One and the Swiss Cargo Sous Terrain project mentioned above, there are several other promising concepts for transporting people and goods by means of tube systems. For example, the “FoodTubes” project, which originated in Great Britain and was announced in 2010, is gaining new importance in the current era of contactless transfer. The idea: A pipeline system would link farms, manufacturers, processors, packers, wholesalers, retailers, end users, and recycling plants. Consumers would not only be able to have their food delivered directly to their homes, but would also be able to send their leftovers directly to the composting plant. According to the inventors, the FoodTubes could replace 700 vehicles a day in the London borough of Croydon alone, save 90% of the energy used for delivery, and reduce CO2 by 8% or more. Recently, interested parties are said to have inquired about a possible construction of similar pipelines in Canada’s permafrost and the Middle East desert.

Freight only in the Port of Hamburg?

Another initiative dealing with “freight only” access is a collaboration between Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and the Port of Hamburg. The aim is to develop a capsule which could hold standard containers and transport them along the Hyperloop. The two partners will be investing to the tune of seven million euros – after all, there is still a lot of basic research to be done. Specifically, they are first working on a technical solution for what the transport and transshipment system would have to look like in order to get “the square into the circle.”

Two factors seem to be of particular importance to the innovators: Firstly, the tube would save energy and thus be more cost-effective. Secondly, this transport variant would also protect the environment by reducing road transport, as well as relieving the burden on rail routes. Nice side effect: This would be one more addition to the Port of Hamburg’s excellent hinterland network that sets it apart from its biggest competitors on Europe’s northern coast.

But Hamburg is not the only port eager to implement this technology. DP World in Dubai, one of the world's largest port operators, is also increasingly involved in this area and is convinced that hyperloop is a suitable solution for freight transport. For now, it remains an open race.

Our conclusion: If you are looking for promising, innovative ideas for new transport concepts, keep your eye on the tube!