The hyperloop train would reduce the travel time between Mumbai and Pune to about 23 minutes, from near 3 and a half hours

NEW DELHI: India's hyperloop dream moved one step closer to reality with the Maharashtra government on Thursday approving the Virgin Hyperloop-DP World (VHO-DPW) consortium as the "original project proponent" of the proposed hyperloop track between Mumbai and Pune. "Maharashtra will create the first hyperloop transportation system in the world and a global hyperloop supply chain starting from Pune," chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said.

The essence of this futuristic technology is quite simple: Create a low-pressure channel or tunnel, and thus with very little air friction, and let a specially designed pod zoom around in it — not on wheels but on air. The hyperloop train (pod, to be specific) would reduce the travel time between Mumbai and Pune to about 23 minutes, from near 3 and a half hours. The project is expected to take seven years to complete but a pilot project will run before that in Pune, on an 11.8 km stretch. Virgin will begin the construction of the first phase by the year-end and the work is expected to be completed by 2023. DP World, whose economic interests in India is on the rise — including funding the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund — will invest $500 million for the first phase.


In the desert outside Las Vegas in the United States, the transportation ambitions appear limitless. Here, engineers working for Virgin Hyperloop One are testing this radically different type of mass transit: one that aims to move people and cargo in small wheel-less pods in a vacuum tube at speeds that could exceed 600 miles per hour (mph), or close to 1,000 kilometres per hour. Today’s swiftest rail travel, at top speeds less than half as fast, would become a quaint anachronism.

The company, which counts Richard Branson’s Virgin Group as a minority investor, is one of several in the United States, Canada and other countries developing hyperloop technology. The concept was promoted by Elon Musk, of electric-car and private-rocket renown, and then offered by one of his companies as open-source technology available to all. It works by propelling pods using magnetic levitation through a low-pressure, near-vacuum tube.

The low pressure minimises friction and air resistance, greatly reducing the power needed. And because the pods travel in a tube, they’re not subject to shutdowns because of harsh weather like snow and polar vortexes.

How The Hyperloop Works

Passengers or cargo are loaded on to the hyperloop vehicle that accelerates gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube

Its vehicles are propelled using a linear electric motor, which is a straightened-out version of a conventional rotary motor

A conventional electric motor has two primary parts --a stator (the part that stays still) and a rotor (the part that moves or rotates)

When voltage is applied to the stator it makes the rotor spin and do the work of, say, spinning a power drill

A linear electric motor has the same two main parts. But in this case, the rotor does not rotate. Instead, it moves in a straight line along the length of the stator

In the Virgin Hyperloop One system, the stators are mounted to the tube, the rotor is mounted to the pod, and the pod straddles the stators as it accelerates down the tube

The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag

The fully autonomous hyperloop systems will be built on columns or tunnelled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings and wildlife

The impact of this system is likely to be less severe on the environment with no direct emissions or noise

Because the pods travel in a tube, they are not subjected to weather-related shutdowns

We’ve seen this concept before. Libraries used to send book requests to the stacks in pneumatic tubes. Until 1984, a similar network whisked messages around Paris. And a series of underground tubes once dispatched mail between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The concept was even tried with people for three years in New York’s subway. Beginning in 1870, Beach Pneumatic Transit, named for its developer, ran a passenger capsule moved by pneumatic power under Broadway in Manhattan, from Warren Street to Murray Street.

Virgin Hyperloop One, based in Los Angeles, began testing here in 2017 and is now doing so with a full-scale test track; its main competitors, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, also in Los Angeles, and TransPod, with headquarters in Toronto, expect to build their own test tracks this year. So far both are working with computer simulations.

In the desert 35 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip, Virgin’s 1,640-foot-long, 11-foot-high tube has been used for hundreds of runs, with an empty pod that in one test accelerated to 240 mph. Plans call for the commercialised system to reach a continuous 510 mph, with 670 mph possible. 

To avoid making anyone sick, the system would take three minutes to accelerate to that speed, and the train would need to travel 6 miles to turn 90 degrees, said Ismaeel Babur, one of the company’s senior civil engineers.

Because of its slow takeoff rate, “you’ll feel 30 to 40 percent of the acceleration compared to an airplane,” Babur said. The trip will be so smooth, he added, that “coffee won’t slide even at 600 mph.”

Each of the three companies has raised tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and developed its own patented approach to long-distance mass transit. TransPod, with $52 million in capital, has preliminary agreements to build a 6-mile test track for a route that would eventually span the 180 miles between Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta, as well as a shorter track near Limoges, France, for one of several French routes under consideration.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which has raised $42 million, is in the design phase for a 1,100-yard test track in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and is preparing to build a 350-yard test track in Toulouse, France.

Virgin, which has raised $295 million, is in the developmental stage with projects in India and Ohio. Last month, Maharashtra declared the company’s proposed hyperloop system between Pune and Mumbai as an official infrastructure project. Construction on a 7-mile test track could start this year, said Jay Walder, the company’s chief executive. Passenger operations could begin by the middle of the next decade, cutting travel time between the cities to 30 minutes, one-fifth the current duration.

All three companies contend that because of energy cost advantages over other forms of transportation, a system will be able to break even in a decade after full-scale operations begin. Not only will commuters be able to get from place to place faster, but doing so will allow people to comfortably live far from their work, giving access to educational, cultural and health services normally out of reach.

Coffee won’t slide even at 600 mph - Ismaeel Babur, Senior civil engineer, Virgin Hyperloop One

Hyperloop developers expect pods to carry not only people but also high-value, low-weight cargo, offering an alternative to carriers using high-cost air transport, like FedEx and Amazon. In addition, they say, automobile manufacturers and others relying on just-in-time delivery of parts to keep inventory costs down would be able to get parts from distant locations.

Another difference from other transit systems will be the passenger experience. To keep the structural integrity of the near-vacuum tube, there will be no windows.

“People would get sick looking at trees passing by at 600 mph,” said S├ębastien Gendron, TransPod’s chief executive. 

Instead, developers are looking at various exterior simulations that could be projected on large screens throughout the pod. “We could create a depth effect through video projection,” Gendron said. Even movies could be shown.

From the point of view of physics, hyperloop is doable - Garrett Reisman, Former astronaut on International Space Station

Ahlborn believes that showing advertisements and providing other services to travellers could provide additional income that would hold down fares. 

“My vision is that the ticket model is not the best model,” he said. “We can enable a marketplace of services and generate a lot of money.”

The experience of travelling in a pod will be no different from riding in an airplane with the shades drawn. But before such musings turn into reality, hyperloop proponents must prove that their systems work, that they’re safe for people and cargo and that they’re affordable.

“From the point of view of physics, hyperloop is doable,” said Garrett Reisman, professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and a former astronaut on the International Space Station.

The experience will be no different from riding in an airplane with the shades drawn, and technical issues around maintaining the vacuum within the tube will be solved, he believes.

To keep the structural integrity of the near-vacuum tube, there will be no windows

Instead, hyperloop projects will face more mundane challenges.

“Getting innovative things through the regulatory and certification environments is very difficult,” Reisman said. “This could face an uphill battle in the US.”