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I Think the Hyperloop is a Maglev Tube Train

For the last couple months, Elon Musk has been dropping hints about a new form of transportation he conjured up. He calls it “the Hyperloop.” Supposedly it will be a “new form of transit”, offering incredible speeds for city-to-city trips – like 30-minutes from San Francisco to LA.

Here’s a recent interview where he gets into it:

I started thinking it was some type of high-altitude blimp network, surfing low-earth orbit and dragging capsules with commuters inside. Thankfully, Elon has dropped a few hints dispelling this vision:

  • It’ll be super fast, but not supersonic
  • It’s at ground level
  • It’s solar powered, and can store energy to run at night
  • There’s no tracks
  • Instant availability, no waiting
  • No threat of crashing, impervious to weather

Some people have have suggested its a vaccuum tube train, an idea that’s been around awhile. But Elon has said there’s no vaccuum tubes involved.

My stepdad and I have spent some time talking about pneumatic tube transport. It’s got a lot of potential, however so-called “vactrains” need too much infrastructure:

  • The tubes would probably need to be deep underground, making them expensive and time-consuming to build.
  • The vaccum mechanism would be complicated and prone to failure.
  • And the red tape involved in drilling a high-tech tunnel across the USA would seem impossible to cut through

Enter Maglev

But maybe there’s a modern version of the vactrain, a true “Jetsons tunnel”. My guess is, the Hyperloop is a fully enclosed, maglev propulsion train.

For the unitiated, maglev is a technology where a series of electric magnets pull a vehicle along a track. The magnets actually levitate the train car above the track, without touching it (thus the name). This allows for near-frictionless travel, and crazy-fast speeds. Best of all, it’s maglev trains are a proven technology.

But what if the train didn’t sit on a track, and instead was enclosed in a tube?

Here’s a sketch of how that might work:

A maglev tube allows many benefits over traditional maglev trains, vaccuum trains, and other highspeed rail technologies.

The enclosed structure would allow propuslian magnets to surround the car, allowing for speeds much faster than existing maglev trains.

Controlled by maglev, the “cars” could start and stop in a dime. Perhaps some form of regenerative braking could capture energy as the cars slow down and send it back to the commercial power grid (which could then be tapped at night).

Most importantly, the tubes would considerably safer than traditional high speed rail, since debris or other obstacles couldn’t get in and block the vehicles. A master computer would control the queueing of all the tubes, so that collisions were impossible. And the tube could sense if there was damage to it, automatically stopping all oncoming cars.

Hyperloop Infrastructure

Here’s what a cross-section of the tube might look like:

It could be constructed from individual “loops”, which could be assembled onsite from pre-fabricated, mass-produced sections. The tube could sit at ground level, and dropped into a half-pipe trench. Assembling a track would be as simple as digging a trench and dropping in the loops: a plug-and-play bullet train.

The tubes could even be engineered so that they fit inside current railroad corridors, allowing the Hyperloop to be built alongside our existing infrastructure. The tubes would be low enough that roads could easily pass over or under them. Drilling through mountains, or elevating a section, would be relatively straightforward.

Covering the top half of the tubes would be the solar panels. The solar-decked Hyperloop would stretch towards the horizon, like a shiny snake – or a really long quonset hut.

At depots, new cars could be dropped into the tube as needed, guaranteeing availability. Here’s my painful sketch of a Hyperloop depot:

A Hyperloop Future

Hyperloop is cool, because it’s fast – but also because it’s modular and safe. Not really a George Jetson move so much as a Steve Jobs one. Thankfully, Elon says he will open source the idea so that others can run with it (he’s a little busy).

The 1800′s was all about laying rail, the 1900′s was interstate highways. Let’s take America into the 21st century with maglev tubes!

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