Aussie transport experts sceptical of Elon Musk's Hyperloop
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It's the futuristic transport system which its backers claim could connect Australia's biggest cities and make high-speed rail look more like a slow coach to nowhere.
On Monday, backers of Hyperloop - the brain wave of Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk that could see elevated tubes hurtle passengers around at more than 1000km/h - were spruiking their ambitious plan in Queensland.
Ahead of a major infrastructure conference in the Brisbane later this week, Ultraspeed Australia said Hyperloop wasn't just about connecting Australia's metropolises, it could also speed commuters from Brisbane to the Gold Coast in just 10 minutes.
"It can be designed as a commuter solution as well as a long-distance route," Steve Artis of Ultraspeed told the Courier Mail.
But transport experts continue to be sceptical of the bold predictions of the Hyperloop system.
Associate Professor Garry Glazebrook, a transport and urban planner at the University of Technology Sydney, told news.com.au some of the system's claims seemed "implausible" and its success would face a major problem: curves.
"Musk is applying space-based technology to land-based transport which is brave but people are going from Tamworth to Toowoomba not the moon and back," he said.
Some possible destinations and the projected time it would take to reach them via Hyperloop and air. Photo / Supplied
The promise of Hyperloop lies in passenger and freight carrying tubular capsules that travel along a magnetic track contained within vacuum sealed tubes.
It's this lack of friction which helps the Hyperloop system achieve its eye watering speed.
In May, a test vehicle reached a more pedestrian 112km/h. But Hyperloop One, the company developing the technology, said it's a step on the way to higher speeds.
Mr Artis, the director of Ultraspeed - the Australian representative of Hyperloop One - will present the company's plans for a route originating in Brisbane to the Infrastructure Association of Queensland on Thursday.
Heading inland from the state capital it would streak past Toowoomba and New England towards Sydney with a branch to the Gold Coast.
A figure of A$40 billion has been floated for the Melbourne to Brisbane core of the route while the business model suggests ticket prices comparable with the coach.
At 1000km/h a journey from Brisbane to Sydney could be possible in just under an hour.
Dr Glazebrook said the Hyperloop promise of fast, safe and fuel efficient travel was certainly beguiling. But he doubted the technology could overcome the east coast's challenging geography.
"To get those speeds you have to go pretty close to a straight line and while that's possible across the Nullarbor Plain that's not the reality on the coast."
"My biggest worry is how does it go round corners or change gradient? What sort of G forces can the human body sustain? A fighter pilot has to put on a special pressure suit to withstand 5Gs."
Dr Glazebrook said the fastest current high speed trains, travelling at 350km/h, needed a curve radius of more than seven kilometres to stop passengers feeling nauseous.
A vehicle travelling at 1000km/h will need a far wider arc.
Others have been even more succinct. Engineer and blogger Alon Levy has said taking a corner on the Hyperloop would be like spending an hour on a rollercoaster.
"It's not transportation; it's a barf ride," he wrote.
Hyperloop's backers admit there is some way to go to iron out the system's wrinkles. Last year the group's US-based levitation engineer, Casey Handmer, told news.com.au they were working out how to minimise the jerk factor.
"If you want to go around a corner pretty quickly, you'll have to take some Gs, but I don't think it would be different to what you might experience in an elevator that is starting or stopping in a tall building, plus you'll be seated at the same time."
Dr Glazebrook said the obvious solution was to keep the line as straight as possible down the coast by tunnelling through the inconvenient hills and mountains in the way. But tunnelling is massively expensive and could blow out the cost.
"I don't where they get their (budgeted) figure of $40bn from," he said pointing out the Sydney Metro North West, nearing completion, is just 36km long and cost almost $8 billion.
The inland route would be flatter - and therefore cheaper - but you'd still have to get the Hyperloop tubes under or over the Great Dividing Range first.
"It seems implausible to me. Even assuming you had no topographical difficulties how do you go from Penrith (in Sydney's west) to the city through the suburbs - even the M4 (the motorway that covers the same ground) isn't straight."
And that's a big problem. "Let's say you can get from Toowoomba to the Blue Mountains in 50 minutes, that's terrific, but you still have to do the rest of the journey from Brisbane to Sydney
"That's hard because getting into and out of our cities is tricky and expensive and that brings down the speed."
Elon Musk. Photo / Getty Images
If CBD to CBD, via Hyperloop, is longer than via plane, why would anyone use it, Dr Glazebrook asked?
Nevertheless, the technology could be commandeered for other purposes. A less ambitious and slower Hyperloop, with gaps around those pesky mountains and suburbs, could still dramatically speed up the time it currently takes for freight to lumber around the country.
The focus should also be taken off connecting up just the major cities in super speedy times, said Dr Galzebrook.
"A more realistic option would be to provide access to all the other towns on the route so we don't have everyone in three large cities."
But Ultraspeed's Mr Artis told the Courier Mail Australia needs to get on-board.
"Unless Australia joins the discussion today, by the end of this year we are likely to miss out for 10 years or more."
Hyperloop One's Australian representatives were contacted for comment.