Ports scramble aboard hyperloop train

COMMENT: It’s the stuff of science fiction, but more than one global port is putting its faith and money behind magnetic levitation to move freight at frighteningly-fast speeds, writes Carly Fields.

As an avid fantasy and sci-fi fan, this is right up my street. I’m watching with interest two hyperloop firms go head-to-head to vie for port business, no doubt recognising that movement of freight might be a much more sensible way to soft test the technology before subjecting real people to travel speeds of up to 1,200 km an hour in a glorified vacuum tube.

In carriage one we have California’s Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which has Abu Dhabi and Hamburg in its sights. It has signed a letter of intent with Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG for a service from the port, and construction could, they say, begin within two to three years. Hamburg predicts that up to 4,100 containers per day could reach Hamburg’s hinterland within seconds.

In Abu Dhabi, the spec is broader, with plans to start building a hyperloop track for Abu Dhabi’s transport system in the third quarter of 2019.

Travelling in carriage two, Virgin Hyperloop One is the system favoured in the United Arab Emirates, with DP World the company’s largest investor. Construction for the UAE version of hyperloop is set to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

Another Virgin Hyperloop One system, linking Pune and Mumbai in India, is expected to become operational between 2024 and 2025, although it still needs that all-important financing. The system will ultimately link Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai with Pune's industrial economic zones. Construction will begin on a test track next year.

Both projects fall under DP World’s Cargospeed project, a global Hyperloop network connecting various ports operated by DP World. This project dwarfs DP World’s initial scheme which planned to ‘simply’ move cargo from docked ships to an inland terminal at Jebel Ali Port.

The benefits of hyperloop do not need labouring: vastly quicker movements of containers, a massive reduction in the number of truck services needed and associated social and environmental gains.

It’s not a quick fix, however. There are numerous technical, legal and financial issues to be addressed. How are containers going to be speedily and automatically loaded in and out of transfer points? Cabins that were initially designed for passenger transport need a complete redesign. And then there is the planning approval process, guaranteed to be a tough sell wherever you are in the world.

Tesla guru Elon Musk was behind the creation of hyperloop and although his founding goal was to revolutionise passenger transport, it looks as if ports will be the first beneficiaries of his visionary hyper-fast travel. While we may not see hyperloop-moved freight in the short term, give it five years and ports will have seen real progress on hyperloop systems — tomorrow’s world is fast becoming today’s.

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