Pipe dreams

by August 3, 2019 0 comments

The Hyperloop promises to revolutionise travel but questions remain about its economic viability

The world is littered with expensive transportation infrastructure projects that are barely used and even abandoned after a few years. There is the famous example of a brand new airport near Madrid, Spain, which was abandoned after a few months. In 2002, China inaugurated a magnetic levitation train between the Pudong airport and the outskirts of Shanghai, the harbinger of a massive network of space age connectivity. While that train remains the world’s fastest commercially operating train, with speeds touching 500 km per hour, it is nothing more than a tourist attraction today. The 30 km rack cost an eye-watering $1.2 billion in the early-2000s and it should serve as a cautionary tale for those who want to make India a hub for the new ‘Hyperloop’ technology. In essence, Hyperloop is ‘Maglev Plus.’ Magnetic levitation lifts a ‘shuttle’, which travels through an enclosed pipe. It operates ideally, in a vacuum, but  realistically with very low air pressure, allowing the shuttles to move without any air resistance at up to 1,000 km per hour. Such a system would make immense sense then as a transportation system between urban agglomerations located close to each other. Such as Mumbai and Pune, and it is no surprise that those who back the technology feel that this will make for a great test track. Sure, reducing the three-four hour travel time by road between Maharashtra’s industrial hubs will be welcome but there are several caveats. First, there is little certainty on who will fund this extremely extravagant programme. While the Maharashtra government has given it ‘infrastructure’ status, the State government and the Centre  are not investing any money. The estimated project’s price is a truly sky-rocketing $10 billion, and that is before the inevitable cost escalations, since the technology itself is currently in its testing phase.

Would the money be better spent on developing a regular high-speed train track between the two cities that tunnels through the Western Ghats instead? Or should money be poured into a unproven technology with immense potential but possibly still years, possibly decades away from commercial application? Will the Hyperloop in India end up like the Maglev track outside Shanghai, a tourist attraction that showcases the future that might have been? It is one thing to look at the future, but practicality should also come into consideration. Massive, futuristic infrastructure projects and technologies get politicians goggly-eyed but running headlong into something without thinking it through is plain silly. Has anyone asked the question on who will use the ‘Hyperloop’ between the two cities? If the project costs a bomb, then only the very rich or tourists can use it. After all, in Shanghai, locals prefer taking the regular, slow subway train instead of the Maglev. We do not have the luxury of building infrastructure to make a point, we have to build infrastructure to be used by a billion people.

Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer

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