In this day and age, it can be hard to tell what technological innovations may change the face of the world as we know it. The closest one to our current time could be the internet, but it still might prove too soon to say. But the world has revolved on such innovations for decades. The printing press, the telephone, and many more have shaped the development of human society, for better or worse.
One of these important inventions, especially in America, was the development of the steam engine–specifically, the development of the train. Trains allowed vast distances of land to be crossed with ease for the first time, and allowed the United States to expand its territory from coast to coast.
Train travel has fallen to the wayside as of late. Between cars, coupled with the nation’s highway system and the rise of jet travel, train travel is mostly used today to carry goods instead of people. The reasoning is simple; trains aren’t as personable as cars or as efficient as airplanes. But could there be a new type of train travel that can revitalize the industry?
The answer? Possibly. Elon Musk, America’s favorite innovator, is working on making a faster and better mode of transportation. Called the Hyperloop, Musk’s new project is a rail line that will transport people faster than current commercial flights. Musk revealed the project in 2013 and has crowdsourced many of the designs and the technology behind the train.
The Hyperloop has gathered inspiration from bullet trains popular in places like Japan. These super fast trains can reach speeds up to 200 miles-per-hour tanks to “maglev” technology. Maglev, shorthand for magnetic levitation, means that these trains “float” on top of the track rather than rolling on it. This allows the train to reach faster speeds because it cuts down on the friction between the train and tracks.
Friction is the bane of speed, as objects moving in the real world are constantly losing energy due to its incessant resistance. In addition to losing energy due to friction from the tracks, trains (and other modes of transportation) lose friction simply by traveling through air. To that end, the Hyperloop is designed to run in a vacuum tube. The current design for the passenger pod is about 100 feet long by nine feet wide–about twice the length of a New York subway car. The pod is designed to hold up to 40 people. When in place, the Hyperloop pod will be able to reach speeds up to 760 miles-per-hour, faster than the speed of sound. That’s even faster than the modern commercial flight by 200 miles per hour. The Hyperloop, once built, could travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour.
The Hyperloop is in the early stages of development right now, and the prototype is being assembled. Two confusingly named startups, Hyperloop Technologies and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, are competing to complete the first functional Hyperloop track. Hyperloop Technologies finished their first public test late last year, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies have built the first pod for the train.
If the Hyperloop can deliver on all that it promises, namely faster than sound travel, it’s quite possible that we will see an upturn in railway patronage. Even if it doesn’t, the train is built into the American mythology, and the Hyperloop will stand as the latest step in a very regal lineage.