India’s super-fast Hyperloop passenger ambitions appear crushed – but some ‘Desi’ alternatives are emerging

In their combined quest to move people and goods faster and more efficiently, Indian government departments responsible for transport – railways, surface transport, aviation and shipping – have hedged their bets on futuristic systems.

From electric highways to hydrogen-powered trains, buses and ships, to flying electric cars, official agencies have kept a pragmatic and open mind on some of tomorrow’s mobility programs, concluded memorandums of understanding and retained the first investor options.

An idea that might seem straight out of the pages of science fiction is the Hyperloop – a system of fast-moving vehicles or pods that levitate inside long tubes, where atmospheric pressure is reduced to a tenth of what we feel at sea level. By minimizing drag or air resistance in this way, the pods can travel up to 700-800 kilometers per hour (KMPH).

Tubes can connect city to city from a few kilometers to a few hundred kilometers and the pods can be moved in convoys carrying goods and passengers.

The idea was first mooted by Elon Musk’s organization in 2014, as a rapid transit system from Los Angeles to San Francisco that would transit the 600 km between the two cities in 30 minutes compared to 5 hours on the road.

Tanay Manjrekar from Pune was among the first humans to test the Hyperloop pod seen in the background.

Renamed Virgin Hyperloop in 2017, after Virgin CEO Richard Branson came on board as an investor, the company found a potential market in India and signed bilateral agreements with several agencies between 2017 and 2020: with the government from Andhra Pradesh in 2018, to connect the 20 kms of Amaravathi and Vijayawada in 6 minutes; with the government of Maharashtra in 2018, for a hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai to cover the 150 km in 25 minutes and in 2020 with the Bengaluru International Airport Limited (BIAL) to reduce the travel time from the city center to the airport of 90-120 mins to 10 mins.

Then-Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis visited the Hyperloop facility in Las Vegas, Nevada (USA) where he inspected a test track simulating the exact route set up for India, with pods adorned with the Indian flag.

Indian takes part in a test drive

Trials with human passengers began in November 2020 at the somewhat modest speed of 172 km – and there was great satisfaction that one of the first trial passengers was a power electronics engineer from Pune from the company team, Tanay Manjrekar.

Even then, the company said commercial realization was about 10 years away. Around this time, the ownership of Virgin Hyperloop had undergone another change – it was now owned by DP World, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which had bought 76% of the original company.

Concept diagram of hyperloop transportation.  Photo credit: Camilo Sanchez/ Wikipedia.

Concept diagram of hyperloop transportation. Photo credit: Camilo Sanchez/ Wikipedia.

Little was heard of Virgin Hyperloop until the surprise announcement in March this year that the company would no longer be working on a human transport system, but would instead modify its system to transport freight on its own.

The owners blamed global supply chain and Covid issues for the management change. This was the first hint of bad news for the various Indian entities that had pledged to be global pioneers in offering Hyperloop passenger transport. More bad news came last week.

The original 1.6km Hyperloop test track and tunnel at the headquarters of SpaceX (the Elon Musk-owned company that first mooted the idea of ​​superfast travel in a pod), is said to have been ripped out and would be reused as a parking space for employees.

To add more finality to Hyperloop’s ending as it was first conceived, keen observers of its Twitter and LinkedIn accounts noticed that Virgin had dropped its name from the company over the weekend. and brought it back to the original HyperloopOne.

Perhaps no further proof is needed that the Indian agencies that had signed up to launch Hyperloop passenger services should drop their plans – just yet. But is this the end of the Hyperloop dream for India?

Maybe not.

Indian Hyperloop Efforts

Along with development with Virgin Hyperloop, some effort has been made to design and build an indigenous Hyperloop system.

Since 2017, the Innovation Center of IIT Madras houses Avishkar Hyperloop, a 70-80 person student project that regularly works to build and test a prototype hyperloop vehicle.

Part of the IIT Madras Avishkar Hyperloop team, with their scaled-down prototype.

Part of the IIT Madras Avishkar Hyperloop team, with their scaled-down prototype.

Their design pod has already gone through five iterations and in 2019, when SpaceX held a global hyperloop pod competition, the IIT-M team was the only representative from Asia.

In 2021, the team also participated in the European Hyperloop Week competition held virtually due to Covid, and won the award for “Most Scalable Pod Design”.

That’s good news — and also a warning sign against hype: scalability matters, because Avishkar is much smaller than a commercial size pod needs to be. But it also highlights the long road of development that awaits such a project…. 10 years is a conservative estimate.

There is also an implicit message in abandoning development of the Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod that the safety concern of launching humans at airplane-like speeds is formidable. This could explain why the original developers decided to focus on moving goods rather than people.

In September, the director of IIT Madras, Prof. V Kamakoti, was reported by The Hindu saying on the sidelines of an IIT-JEE program in Hyderabad, that the Avishkar Hyperloop was preparing to test its prototype on a 550-meter test track in the next 6 to 8 months.

More importantly, the project is supported by the railways and the two have set up a joint mission to develop India’s own Hyperloop system. L&T Technology Services came on board with technical advice.

Another Indian effort in Hyperloop transport is centered around the MIT World Peace University in Pune. Crew Hyperloop VegaPod has 40 students on board. Indian Express reported that the team reached 75 km/h on a 50-meter test track.

Will any of these academic initiatives make the difficult transition to a real, robust system that could send passengers to India, zooming to the ground, at near-aviation speeds?

It may be too early to tell, but one thing is clear: the abandonment of passenger hyperloop travel by its biggest proponent in the world, is not necessarily the end of the road in India. A few green shoots with a desi The DNA is already visible.

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