Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

virginhyperlooptitle 1 - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

Hyperloop, the futuristic new transport system we’re all waiting for has just taken a hugely interesting turn. A paradigm shift in fact! Virgin Hyperloop released a video that depicts how the system could look once its up and running and by jove there’s a lot of improvements! The B1M first grabbed my attention when it announced Virgin’s new video showing the next generation of hyperloop. Virgin itself has launched an interactive webpage depicting the various features of what a ultra modern transport system should look like. In fact the new renders of the latest Hyperloop designs are nothing short of totally amazing. Its jaw dropping in fact and everyone’s been totally enthused by it! As one observer concluded, its undoubtedly ‘Mass transportation that people will actually prefer to use.’

As Richard Branson says, ‘Yes, it’s really, really fast – but what will travelling on Virgin Hyperloop feel like?‘ And that is what we all want to know! For the first time we have seen some really cool graphics showing how the concept could look. There’s been stuff before, such as the renders for a possible system based in the U.A.E. (and those graphics were great too) but not so in depth or detail as this latest attempt, which clearly shows that the concept has moved on quite a bit – in fact this is the next generation of Hyperloop and it too means we’ll skip construction of what was to be the first generation production system completely.

Virgin Hyperloop Pod Interior 07 - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

I love the fact disability is being highlighted in the Hyperloop concept for the first time! Source: Richard Branson Blog

First, and most definitely the biggest game changer, is the use of an overhead guidance system rather than that below the hyperloop pod. There’s nothing amazing about it really. Its just a next generation step in what can be considered so far to be a fairly successful system. When I say fairly, I mean fairly, because so far Hyperloop has struggled to properly get beyond the many limitations the concept had presented. Previously the arguments for a suitable hyperloop traction system has ranged from maglev to guided wheels, both of which are systems that have been around a very long time – more than a century in fact. Some argued that a hyperloop on wheels would be as good as one travelling on magnetic levitation tracks and would be even cheaper and that was a good point. In fact Virgin’s experimental hyperloop used wheels – the very system used to transport Hyperloop’s first passengers just three months ago!

virginhlterminus - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

The opening scenes in Virgin’s graphical render of its advanced Hyperloop system is fantastic! This is the latest vision of what a Hyperloop terminal will look. Their video is at the bottom of this page if one wants to see these amazing graphics!

The means of propulsion (or glide) was to be below, above, or at the sides of a pod. The latter is a problem however because it precludes a proper means of boarding and alighting the pods. The beneath the pod system (maglev or wheels) has been the most popular however in the long term there are problems with it – and one of these would be a difficulty of evacuation or using rescue vehicles if the propulsion system was down.

With an overhead track the space beneath the pod, the bottom of the tunnels in fact is left clear and can in fact be made a sort of roadway with power cables and utilities beneath that and it could also double as a rescue access system. It of course depends on how big the tunnels diameter is but I would think for a suspended system a tunnel could in fact be somewhat larger and would for example enable maintenance work to be done much easier than if it was a below the pod propulsion system.

Clearly Virgin – because it is a widely recognised international brand – has practically introduced a major paradigm shift within the Hyperloop concept. Its a big surprise because the notion of an overhead track system is in fact one of the oldest and most enduring concepts to have been created in the quest for an alternative transportation system and everyone had thought the choice of system would be one of the others!

hyperloopterminal - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

Virgin’s concept of an overhead propulsion system is clearly evident in the renders of the pod about to leave its terminal.

Its clear from the renders there’s a main running track (a side contact system in fact) and then an overhead track (a top contact system) and the system switches the pod from one to the other where it is necessary. There wouldn’t need to be any moving parts in the track switches because of the dual use of the maglev system. Not only that the topmost system too would levitate the pods into position at the terminals.

There’s a simple reason for using an overhead system – and that is because its better – its in large due to how gravity works. With traditional below the pod (or train or car or bus whatever) the reliance is upon gravity to keep the vehicle in place so that it doesn’t fly off at a tangent from its intended course. The tried and tested system whether its tyres or steel wheels has been the choice for nearly every application to date including high speed railways. Despite that great advantage, its the fact the vehicle sits on top of a system which means ultra speed maglev systems are exceedingly expensive and that is in part because of the huge width of the track that’s needed below the vehicle – plus the complex switching gear necessary to move it between different tracks.

hyperlooppod2 - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

Highly modern and extremely functional pod interiors with information displays and other hi tech stuff such as wireless mobile charging. The designs are by Teague.

Its actually less complex to keep a vehicle suspended on an overhead system, and that in a nutshell is why one can easily have extremely long chairlifts or gondola systems, because the junctions that are neccessary between the different stages of a system are quite simple and these can turn the passenger carrying vehicles through ninety degrees or more in fact. Also in terms of transport history Germany’s Schwebebahn has been successful as a single rail system because it utilises gravity to its advantage – much the same as chairlifts, gondolas and telepheriques too.

Conversely every attempt to procure a viable transport system that relies merely upon one single rail beneath a vehicle has failed, and its because of the dangers of the vehicle toppling over. In essence every attempt to produce a single below the rail system has invariably resulted in the need to have a stabilising rail above (or to the side of) the vehicle in order to keep it upright – Scotland’s Bennie Railplane or New York’s City Island Railroad for example. One exception has been that of Brennan’s whose system required large gyroscope motors to keep his monorail train upright – but ultimately it wasn’t feasible.

hyperlooppod1 - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

Very minimalist design yet highly modern and extremely functional pod interiors. Design by Teague.

Let it be said that having an overheard track wouldn’t reduce a need for what would generally be quite straight alignments required in the Hyperloop systems but I had envisaged it could allow somewhat sharper curvature to be used. And my reasoning is right. On checking Virgin’s literature its said their system will enable a 4.5x tighter curve and permits high speeds with a radius capability of 1.36km at 100m/s. So there’s a lot more flexibility in this new system than there is in the traditional types of Hyperloop system touted so far.

However despite this new advantage there’s evidently still a lot of complexity ahead. Just because Virgin have produced a wow factor video it doesn’t mean the concept’s numerous issues have been resolved. In my view there’s still lots more work before the entire design can be 100% viable. I think the safety factor especially needs a lot of work as well as the critical complexity of using a near vacuum tunnel to transport the pods – for example to avoid matters such as sudden depressurisation.

Anyway as I said earlier the switch to an overhead system is a huge step forward because its extremely advantageous compared to that which uses beneath the pod levitation. Virgin’s system clearly uses the principles derived from Hardt’s Hyperloop Lane Switch (HLS) – developed just over a year ago as a means of answering the numerous concerns Hyperloop could never be an effective mass transportation system. Hardt’s response was to develop a switching system which would be 100% feasible – and that one single paradigm shift has in my view given Hyperloop a quantum leap towards becoming a viable mass transit system.

hyperloopswitch - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

I illustrated this screencap from the Hyperloop video with text to show how the switches work.

In terms of the above illustration, the hyperloop pods will use the side maglev system during their entire journey except at terminals and where there are switches between different routes. What happens then is the pod activates the upper maglev system and suspends it through complex junctions or terminals and the side maglev system becomes instead a sort of electronic frog which pulls the pod to whichever route it needs to take. The means by which this will operate is autonomous – meaning the pod will do the work of switching routes itself although there will too be a centrally controlled system to oversee the entire operations.

No doubt the advent of computers has accelerated how things can be designed very quickly and every single aspect of that design looked at and evaluated to work out any problems or glitches as has been done with this application of the HLS, but I still do think we would be considerably lucky to see any Hyperloop systems up and active by 2030. It all depends on what other radical shifts and eureka moments in terms of design actually occurs.

In terms of the pod renders those that Virgin have shown that is a fantastic one! The simple design is just wow! There’s no grand armchairs rather like those in an airline where people lap it up in style. Rather Virgin’s approach is simple and functional – and cool. The advantage of that is it makes the interior of the pod very light and airy, and in fact it doesn’t even feel like a pod at all! The very short journeys in Hyperloop do not warrant a decadence of any sort, and the design changes reflect this. Yet every personal need for the journey itself is catered for, and there’s a highly modern and functional toilet on board too!

hyperlooplobby - Virgin Hyperloop gets serious!

The large and airy Hyperloop terminals are very simple in design with trees and bright airy spaces to give the overall impression. Love the person taking a selfie!

There’s been lots of negativity about the actual passenger carrying capacity of hyperloop, however an idea that has been brewing for a while has been the use of multiple pod entry points, a terminal with a number of different platforms if one likes. Again its thanks to HLS. Everyone gets on their allocated pods and these all depart in synchronised unison – and a service can be provided every few minutes, as opposed to a railway that provides a long distance service say every half an hour. The use of multi stage boarding points at least answers a big question about the actual capacity of Hyperloop and it has now been shown, in theory at least, that it can emulate the passenger carrying capabilities of a sizeable train.

The other innovation is the use of a large skylight in the pod’s ceiling. This actually serves as a screen that depicts the sky rolling past and its meant as a way of giving a sense of connectedness with the outside world. Some might think this is some sort of cheat VR technology You’re right it is. But its no different from the VR shows that are increasingly seen in lifts that serve the world’s skyscrapers. The Burj, the Shard, the Empire State Building and other structures now all use lifts with VR displays to both inform and put passengers at ease as they travel high into the sky and its becoming even more widespread, hence its too clearly a natural to desire the use of this facility on the next generation of transport systems.

I think its still fairly early days before we actually get to see a proper real world application for a new hyperloop system. The first systems were to have been up and running by 2022 but at this rate its definitely a no-no! Other questions such as the vacuum and the integrity of the hyperloop tubes of course still need to be addressed, as well as tunnelling – because a lot of Hyperloop vision is of systems built below ground as well as suspended in the air – and I don’t think there is in fact a cohesive approach to construction yet. Of course existing construction techniques will largely be used – but again there are lots of hidden variables – for example the applications used in a test system will be vastly different to those being used in a system that extends over hundreds of miles and is built to carry passengers.

Many of the screencaps used on this page are sourced from Virgin’s video on how its new Hyperloop system could look and this is shown below. There’s also Virgin’s interactive page which too is recommended.

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