BY: PHILIIPPE DE JOCAS
It’s hard to remember that, at one point, rail travel constituted the height of mobility; the iron horse and its kingdom of rails dominated the world’s transit scene for the better part of a century. But in the wake of World War II, a new technological competitor emerged to challenge that established order. Highways cost less to build and required less maintenance. The emerging hegemony of cars and trucks didn’t require tightly timed schedules, or inflexible rails. Compared to the glossy, stylish world of automobiles, ailing fleets of trains and coaches were seen as cramped, dirty, and slow. Rail travel declined and levelled off as changing economic and social conditions encouraged personal mobility at the cost of public transit institutions.
Sixty years later, first-world countries have begun to fall out of love with the car. Clogged and crumbling highways, rising greenhouse gas levels, and prohibitively expensive fuel costs have driven some consumers away from the highway and back into the arms of public transportation. This shift away from cars coincides with key demographic shifts, as more and more people commute between increasingly dense cities for business and pleasure alike. Can trains recapture their former respect and prominence in today’s society?
South African SpaceX billionaire, mogul, and all-around eccentric Elon Musk hopes to completely revitalize the rail industry by cribbing an unusual design from the past. During the 19th century, a handful of daring companies experimented with “pneumatic railways.” This odd concept saw a specially designed coach enclosed in a vacuum-sealed tube. No engines pushed this train; air pressure propelled the car up and down the line, like a giant version of an old-fashioned mail tube. Intended as a prototype, this prohibitively expensive (and rather clunky) contraption never grew beyond a single station after its 1870 inauguration. When the time came for New York to build its subways, the city opted for a more conventional mode of transit; the Beach Pneumatic Railway shut its doors three years after opening.
Those long-gone New York inventors might be happy to hear that Musk plans to resurrect the basic concept of the pneumatic railway, fusing the core concept with modern engineering to create what he calls the “Hyperloop.” Just like its predecessor, Musk’s theoretical Hyperloop is a single, airtight pod ensconced in a vacuum tube. Unlike its pneumatically-driven forefather, the Hyperloop floats on magnetic rails and pulls itself along a single rail via an on-board electric motor. Thus freed from the tyranny of air resistance, the Hyperloop will travel at an eye-watering 760 miles per hour – in other words, twice as fast as an average commercial jetliner. Travelling from Toronto to Montreal would take an hour, and going to California from Vancouver would take a little less than three.
How soon until you too can hop aboard a pneumatic pod? In short, don’t get your hopes up anytime soon. The earliest prototype tests have only just broken ground; thus far, getting a single sled to shoot down the rails has taken copious amounts of time, sweat, and money. While the Hyperloop technology began in the United States, scientists and economists predict that early adopters will be overseas.
Beyond the sheer economic costs involved in launching an entirely new method of transportation, there are psychological and physiological ramifications to overcome. At present, the Hyperloop isn’t a user-friendly method of transportation as much as it is a terrifying amusement park ride. Getting a “track” network up and running might cost anywhere from six to a hundred billion dollars, and any kind of mechanical breakdown or failure while hurtling along the rails might spell doom for passengers. We probably won’t see a new age of Hyperloop transit within our lifetimes, but the real power of the Hyperloop is in its symbolic status – a symbol of the passion and mystique that rail travel once invoked, combined with our continuing efforts to improve our future.