FUTURE TRANSPORT: HYPERLOOP OR HIGH-SPEED RAIL?
Grand transport schemes have historically been a favourite of ministers keen to capture both headlines and the commuting public’s imagination. But should we be thinking differently?
In recent years, HS2 has been the government’s shiny new £56bn plaything. It’s controversial but proponents argue it will cut journey times between London and Birmingham to 49 minutes, creating 40,000 jobs in the West Midlands alone, with planned extensions to Leeds and Manchester helping to rebalance the UK economy.
HS2 has, in turn, sparked plans for high-speed rail across northern England. If funded, Northern Powerhouse Rail could cut Manchester-Liverpool journey times from 50 to 28 minutes by connecting Liverpool with the HS2 line between Warrington and Manchester, and then on to Leeds.
But will the technology be obsolete before the train has even arrived?
Institute of Directors infrastructure policy adviser Dan Lewis wonders: “[Northern Powerhouse Rail] offers a marginal improvement which is not expected to be finished till 2049. What kind of world will we be living in then?”
Transport for the North (TfN) says the high-speed line across the north would increase from 10,000 to 1.3 million the number of people within an hour’s commute of the region’s largest cities. It predicts a £100bn economic boost and 850,000 new jobs by 2050.
Lewis agrees that “effectively merging” northern cities would widen access to cheaper housing and enlarge the labour market five-fold. But he fears that, with costs estimated at up to £2.3bn a year until 2050, high-speed rail is the wrong solution.
He points to the potential of Hyperloop technology, which uses magnetic levitation and electric propulsion. It could send autonomous on-demand passenger or freight pods – rather than scheduled trains - through low-pressure tubes at up to 670mph.
The concept hit the headlines when Elon Musk proposed a California route in 2013 and the Tesla entrepreneur has since “open-sourced” the idea to encourage development of the technology, with companies experimenting with both tunnels and tubes raised on stilts.
“Hyperloop’s basic principle has been proven for a long time,” says Lewis. “There is less friction than on the ground… so you can reach very high speeds with very low drag using very little energy.
“Why not skip two generations and spend once?”
HS2 was branded the “most expensive railway in the world” after one rail consultant suggested the bill for the first phase between London and Birmingham would total more than £400m per mile.
Test track developed
While the government disputes the figures, Lewis says the need to buy up land does inflate costs. But he adds: “Once you tunnel below 12 metres, there are no land acquisitions to consider.”
Anglo-American collaboration Direct City Networks plans to do just that, having proposed a line under the Pennines linking Liverpool to Hull in under half an hour. It claims the world’s fastest underground system could see passengers travelling between Manchester and Liverpool in nine minutes.
Transport for the North has said the proposal needs “substantive additional development work” before it warrants further consideration.
But it’s not the only plan. Newcastle-based Ryder Architecture has worked with Arup engineers and KPMG on a route linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It says the Northern Arc would “connect the major economic corridors of the M62 and the Scottish central belt to create a super region with the capability to compete on the world economic stage”.
The plan was named among 10 winners of a competition organised by Virgin Hyperloop One, one of the main players in the field, to find the strongest international route proposals. And Ryder partner Paul Bell suggested that making the vision a reality could turn those involved into world-leading companies.
“The north gave the world railway technology and we are passionate about making sure the north is at the forefront of the next generation of transport innovation, developing skills, expertise and system components that will be exported around the world,” he said.
A London-Edinburgh plan led by University of Edinburgh student team HypED also made the shortlist drawn up by Virgin Hyperloop One, which has already developed a full-scale test track in Nevada. The company aims to have its first system operational by 2021, with Dubai the most likely location.
It says its global developments will bring opportunities for engineering and construction companies, transport and logistics operators, insurers and legal companies, as well as systems and retails partners.
* Is Hyperloop for real? Futures Stage, June 19. The HypED team introduce the audience to Hyperloop concept, its challenges and relevance to the UK.