Hyperloop Breaks 1955 Rail Record

Congratulations! Students have used a model Hyperloop to beat the record set by this French locomotive in 1955. Wikimedia Commons
Congratulations! Students have used a model Hyperloop to beat the record set by this French locomotive in 1955. Wikimedia Commons

The further things progress with Hyperloop, the more surreal it all becomes.

Take, for instance, today’s feature in Wired entitled “How Students Built the World’s Fastest Hyperloop.” Basically, it’s about a student competition to launch a cart down a tube, with some of the air sucked out to reduce resistance. The cart hit just over 200 mph.

KQED, in it’s latest story on Hyperloop, describes things this way:

Hyperloop is Musk’s answer to what he called “outdated technology” in plans for high-speed rail in California. Musk proposed a completely new form of transportation — a fifth mode of transportation, along with cars, trains, boats and planes — and then challenged academics to make it.

Comparing it to California high-speed rail is noteworthy, since the French and Japanese spent decades perfecting the technology. The French, in fact, first achieved 200 mph in an experiment with a conventional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail train back in 1955. And, unlike the latest Hyperloop breakthrough, it was with a full-sized train.

The students did surpass Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One’s run of a larger test vehicle in the Nevada desert. “That design, which the company is hoping to commercialize one day, uses magnetic levitation, like a bullet train,” wrote Jack Stewart, in his his story for Wired. Except bullet trains, referring to the iconic high-speed rail network in Japan, don’t use magnetic levitation at all–they use true-and-tried conventional steel-wheels-on-steel rails and have hit 275 mph.

In other words, Hyperloop remains much slower than those pesky “dinosaur” trains that use good-old fashioned tracks and wheels.

A close up of the Japanese bullet train's levitation technology which allows them to hit speeds over 200 mph (aka "wheels"). Photo: Wikimedia commons
A close up of the Japanese bullet train’s levitation technology which allows them to hit speeds over 200 mph (aka “wheels”). Photo: Wikimedia commons

Magnetic Levitation technology, which floats the train a few inches above a guideway (no wheels required), also isn’t original to Hyperloop. That’s used commercially in China on the Shanghai Maglev train that runs to that city’s airport. That train, which started carrying passengers in 2004, uses German Maglev technology that was in development for decades. It tops out at 268 mph. The Japanese, meanwhile are building a Maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, which should be operational by 2027. The Japanese MagLev currently holds the train speed record, at 375 mph.

The current conventional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail speed record, by the way, was achieved by the French in 2007, at 357 mph.

Again, the Hyperloop miniature test train achieved a “record” speed of just over 200 mph.

This MageLev in China uses the same technology that Hyperloop boosters are claiming as "new" Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This MageLev in China uses the same technology that Hyperloop boosters are claiming as “new” Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But the Hyperloop videos sure look cool.

As Streetsblog has pointed out before, the Hyperloop is confusing local government officials–and apparently mainstream journalists. Elon Musk, despite his clear technical and business acumen, is partially responsible for that confusion. The contest and companies developing this “new technology” are also re-gifting bad ideas, such as curing traffic by building new freeways.

A TGV in France. These trains run at nearly 200 mph, and have hit over 350 mph, no hype required. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A TGV in France. These trains run at about 200 mph, and have hit over 350 mph, no hype required. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Musk wants to sponsor an engineering contest, that’s great. And congratulations to the winners. But nobody really questions that this can be done on a small scale, in a test; the physics are sound and they’re not really doing anything new. The real engineering challenge is going much, much faster than conventional trains and then scaling it up into a system that is big enough and safe enough to carry cargo and people over hundreds of miles.

In other words, until they actually achieve jet-airliner-like speeds, and show some ability to scale things up into a usable system, perhaps they should stop with the science fiction videos and claims of records broken.

In the meantime, if you like videos, here’s some more perspective of how fast today’s “dinosaur technology” trains go in France:

  • I’m all for exploring new technologies, but it does bug me every time this kind of thing is used to justify not building needed solutions with technology we have today. Of course, I suspect those obstructionists would just find a new justification to obstruct, if Hyperloop wasn’t a thing.

  • Michael MacLauchlan

    HL (and its predecessor, also in development, ET3 http://www.et3.com/) is nascent tech. There are many items to solve. Examples: how humans will respond to turns, hills, valleys, how to build very straight tubes (overground, or underground?) over long distances, safety related to tube hull breach and rapid depressurization, cargo only transport or human and cargo and more. It’s too early to dismiss this tech whilst limited testing is underway. I think the next 10 to 30 years will result in a decision to build or not build. Let’s not forget Star Trek’s Roddenberry’s vision from 1973 of that future of 1979! https://youtu.be/Ew0eEl6N-30

  • thielges

    While I oppose the idea of considering hyperloop as a viable alternative to California HSR, I cannot get on board for arbitrary bashing of hyperloop. It is a new technology and takes time to develop. It’s success is a concern limited to its employees and their financial backers.

    California has built a reputation of being experimental and open minded to new ideas. That leads to both wild successes and failures. Let this endeavor play out on its own just as thousands of other ideas before it have.

    It is important to not let hyperloop “Osborne” CAHSR away though that can be done without ridiculing it. Simply continue to point out that:

    1. hyperloop technology is immature and may require decades to develop. We can’t wait that long. It is too risky to place all our chips on.
    2. traditional HSR technology is both low risk and plenty good enough to support California SF-LA transportation growth during this current century.

  • Richard

    All indications are that a hyperloop will cost more than a conventional HSR corridor. All indication are that a hyperloop will cost more than a maglev HSR corridor.

    That isn’t to say that there isnt a market for the technology. Hyperloops have the potential to be faster than air travel, faster than super sonic air travel, and at a lower cost and more sustainable footprint.

  • Joe R.

    Replacing air travel is really what Hyperloop or similar concepts will be best it. Air travel is highly polluting, dangerous, uses large amounts of land for airports, and affects millions under the glide paths with noise pollution. If Hyperloop does nothing else but relegate air travel to the dustbin of history it will have been worthwhile.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Hyperloop doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity to replace air travel between any cities you’d care to visit. Musk’s original pitch for SF-LA Hyperloop claims capacity of only 2500 people per hour. Peak-hour passenger traffic between the Bay Area airports and the L.A.-area airports is 10x that many people. HSR capacity will be about 10x higher than the airport capacity. So while HSR can, theoretically, completely replace air travel, Hyperloop can at best replace only 10% of it. Meanwhile Hyperloop claims to cost about half what HSR costs, while providing 100x less capacity.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The fake libertarians over at Hyperloop One are already sucking at the federal tit, building their test track on BLM land west of Vegas. I don’t care what these losers want to do on their own property but it does bother me that they’re already getting federal assistance.

  • A video of the 1955 record by SNCF here:

    https://youtu.be/2cRDeFKR2Q8

  • Joe R.

    No it doesn’t but the concepts which are the size of conventional trains do. I think it’s weird Musk is focusing on such small vehicles. Tunneling costs aren’t linear. It doesn’t cost twice as much to make a tunnel twice as wide, and yet that tunnel can accommodate a vehicle with four times the space per foot. Make it a train, which makes sense, and your capacity numbers can easily match air travel.

    There’s also the human factor. I wouldn’t want to have to slouch to get into a vehicle. Part of the beauty of trains is you can walk upright, and can move around while the train is moving.

  • Joe R.

    The good old 1970s, when much of the general public was actually upbeat about the potential on new technology. Fast forward to today when many people can’t imagine anything beyond highways and automobiles.

  • Joe R.

    Worth mentioning is they tore the crap out of the track hitting those speeds. It took 2 more decades before service speeds in that range were viable.

  • Vooch

    hilarious headline and sooo true

  • Roger R.

    Great video find. Thanks Erik!

  • RedMercury

    Exactly. I’m all for Hyperloop. I’m excited by the possibilities. But, y’know, no matter how it works, we’re still going to need right-of-ways and things like that. So we build HSR and that’ll probably be good until 2040 or so and then we can discuss getting rid of it and tunneling-under/building-over the HSR track for Hyperloop.

  • Vinstar

    Musk sees public transit as a threat to his car business. No one should take him seriously when he bashes HSR. The hyperloop will never be viable in terms of cost and technology. The only purpose of the hyperloop is to undermine HSR and public transit in general. In that sense Musk is an evil genius. The hyperloop is literally nothing but hype. They are constantly hyping it in the media even though the results are underwhelming at best. Some smells really fishy about that.

  • Vinstar

    The problem with the hyperloop is the constant hype around it. Why would they want to call a big press conference just for a sled that goes 70 mph? Every little thing they do they have to call a big press conference and hype the hell out of the smallest thing. Its absurd and something smells really fishy about it. The hyperloop is literally all hype with nothing substantial to show for it. Everything about it smells like a scam to me.

  • artnouveau

    It seems the Hyperloop of today nowhere near resembles what Musk originally proposed. I’m seeing words like “maglev,” “cart” and “train.” What happened to the idea of “vac sled?” Sounds like that idea has fallen by the wayside.

    I think a new land-transport technology is coming. And, I think maglev could one day be the propulsion type of choice. But, I do not believe it will be the active version, but, instead, the passive version, which consumes far less power than its counterpart.

  • neroden

    It turned out it was the track which needed design improvements, mostly. tht was done.

  • neroden

    Musk has a grotesque and ridiculous blind spot about trains. I want to sit him down for an hour for lunch and explain why trains are high-capacity and all the crap he’s designing is not.

    Musk could do very well if he abandoned all this *BS* and figured out how to mass-produce train cars using robotics. Currently train cars are produced in an unreasonably slow fashion.

  • Brad Swartzwelter

    The “hyperloop” test tracks are too short for great speed – less than 1 mile of straight track. So the tests accelerate, then rapidly have to reverse polarity of the linear motor and stop before bursting out the other end, or melting into the sidewalls of the curves at Hawthorn. Got build a perfectly straight tunnel underground for 10 miles and every land speed record ever dreamed of will be easily eclipsed.

  • David Budka

    The trouble is with maglevs and tube trains is that they are specialized technologies. They don’t have the flexibilty of traditional wheels on rails systems. The same is true of monorails.

  • Vooch

    agreed;

    Airplanes 3,000 mile trips

    Hyperloop 500 – 3,000 miles

    HSR 750 – 100 miles

    Conventional Rail 5 -150 miles

    Velomobile 3 – 20 miles

    bicycle 0 – 5 miles

    walking 0 – 2 miles

  • Well, remember that part of Musk’s claim to “lower costs” is to build smaller tunnels. It’s like he thinks engineers just build big tunnels for fun without studying and making them as small as feasible for the intended use.

  • Vooch

    musk seems to have spent his childhood thumbing through old issues of 1940s ‘Popular Mechanics’

    his thinking is pure suburban circa 1949

  • murplemadness

    Presumably you’d have criticised the first Boeing 747 for being smaller than the Spruce Goose.

  • artnouveau

    I would be inclined to agree were it not for one fact: Trains were at one time the dominant player on the automated land-transportation scene. Then the car came along, and before it really caught on, it, too, was “specialized technology.” Agreed? Today, maglev may, in fact, be “specialized technology.” If these autonomous automobiity and Hyperloop things don’t pass muster, who knows?! Maglev might just have its day.

  • Miles Bader

    Of course the problem with current hyperloop designs is that even when/if they manage to get actual service-capable devices workign (some decades hence) they’ll still be awful methods of transportation: fast, but low-capacity, and the point-to-point limitation of airplanes but with expensive infrastructure required for every pair of points!

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