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Fast Track

Will the super-speedy hyperloop be the transportation of the future?

The trip from Houston, Texas, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, is long. Driving between the two cities takes more than 16 hours. But they could one day be linked by a new form of transportation: a high-speed electric train called a hyperloop. This futuristic system could whisk passengers from Houston to Cheyenne in about an hour and 50 minutes.

This past spring, a California company called Hyperloop One finished building a test track in the Nevada desert. There, the company plans to perfect hyperloop technology before building a system the public can use. Hyperloop One recently announced 11 possible routes in the U.S., including the one between Cheyenne and Houston (see Speedy Travel).

“People are always looking for ways to travel faster,” says Maria Yang. She’s an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Yang and her students are among hundreds of engineers around the world working to make the hyperloop a reality.

The trip from Houston, Texas, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, is long. Driving between the two cities takes more than 16 hours. But they could one day be linked by a new high-speed train. It’s called a hyperloop. This system would whisk people from Houston to Cheyenne. It would take about an hour and 50 minutes.

A California company called Hyperloop One built a test track. It was finished this past spring. It’s located in the Nevada desert. There, the company plans to perfect hyperloop technology. Then it will build a system the public can use. Hyperloop One recently announced 11 possible routes in the U.S. They include the one between Cheyenne and Houston (see Speedy Travel).

“People are always looking for ways to travel faster,” says Maria Yang. She’s an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Yang and her students are working on the hyperloop. They’re among hundreds of engineers around the world helping to make the train a reality.

Train in a Tube

Two main forces slow a train down. The first comes from the air around it. When a vehicle moves, it has to push through billions of tiny particles that make up air. This force, called drag, limits a train’s speed.

Hyperloop engineers want to solve this problem by building a train track inside a sealed tube. Machines would pump most of the air out of the tube. Vehicles would travel much faster in this vacuum than they do in open air, says Yang.

The other problem is friction. Most trains rub against the tracks as they move. This contact slows the trains down.

Two main forces slow a train down. The first comes from the air around it. Billions of tiny particles make up air. A vehicle has to push through them when it moves. This force, called drag, limits a train’s speed. 

Hyperloop engineers want to solve this problem. Their train track will sit inside a sealed tube. Machines would pump most of the air out of the tube. Vehicles would travel much faster in this vacuum than they do in open air, says Yang.

The other problem is friction. Most trains rub against the tracks as they move. This contact slows the trains down.  

To fight friction, hyperloops would use a technology called magnetic levitation, or maglev. Maglev trains and their tracks both contain strong magnets.

Magnets can either attract or repel one another depending on which way they’re facing. Maglev systems use the repelling force of the magnets to float train cars slightly above the tracks. The result is a smooth, speedy ride.

Maglev trains already operate in some countries. The fastest, in Japan, has reached 604 kilometers (375 miles) per hour. With both magnets and a vacuum tube, engineers think a hyperloop could go 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) per hour—twice as fast!

Hyperloops would use magnetic levitation, or maglev. This technology fights friction. Maglev trains and their tracks both contain strong magnets. 

Magnets can either attract or repel one another. It depends on which way the magnets face. Maglev systems use the repelling force of the magnets. That allows train cars to float slightly above the tracks. The result is a smooth, speedy ride.

Maglev trains already run in some countries. The fastest one is in Japan. It has reached 604 kilometers (375 miles) per hour. Engineers think a hyperloop could go 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) per hour.  That’s twice as fast with the added use of a vacuum tube!

Passenger Pods

Instead of linked train cars like you see today, hyperloop passengers would zip along in individual pods. The California company SpaceX is sponsoring a competition to design these pods. Dozens of teams from around the world have entered. Yang advises a team at MIT. 

A successful pod needs to be fast. But it must also keep passengers safe at high speeds. The MIT team built an electronic system that controls how quickly a pod speeds up or slows down. Emergency brakes kick in if this system fails.

Yang’s team spent two years planning and building a model of their pod. Now some team members have been hired by hyperloop companies to continue their work. 

The hyperloop wouldn’t have linked train cars like you see today. Instead, passengers would zip along in pods. The California company SpaceX is holding a contest to design these pods. Dozens of teams from around the world have entered. That includes Yang’s team at MIT. 

A successful pod needs to be fast. But it must also keep people safe at high speeds. The MIT team built an electronic system. It controls how quickly a pod speeds up or slows down. Emergency brakes kick in if this system fails.

Yang’s team spent two years planning and building a model of their pod. Now some team members have been hired by hyperloop companies to continue their work. 

Monica Almeida/Reuters

Engineering students from the Netherlands placed their model hyperloop pod on a test track during a competition earlier this year.

New Transportation

Hyperloop One wants to have a system up and running by the year 2020. But there are many challenges ahead. Construction will be expensive for such a big project. And trips must be safe and convenient to convince passengers to ride. 

T. Donna Chen is an engineer at the University of Virginia who studies new transportation systems. She thinks the hyperloop’s success will depend on how well it connects with existing transportation, like roads and public transit.

As engineers work to meet these challenges, hyperloop designs will change. “This is a hyperloop prototype,” says Yang. “It won’t be the same as the final hyperloop.”

Modern technology could make the hyperloop easier to bring about than previous forms of transportation, says Chen. In other words, it might be here sooner than you think. 

Hyperloop One wants to have a system up and running by the year 2020. But there are many challenges ahead. Construction will be expensive for such a big project. And trips must be safe and user-friendly to convince passengers to ride.

T. Donna Chen is an engineer. She works at the University of Virginia. She studies new transportation systems. Chen thinks the hyperloop needs to connect easily with current roads and public transit. That will determine the train’s success.

Hyperloop designs will change as engineers work to meet these challenges. “This is a hyperloop prototype,” says Yang. “It won’t be the same as the final hyperloop.”

Modern technology could make the hyperloop easier to bring about than previous forms of transportation, says Chen. In other words, it might be here sooner than you think.

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