Last week saw two major announcements of great significance. First, Virgin Hyperloop has completed its first experimental ride with passengers in Las Vegas. While the pod only traveled at 100 mph (160 kph), the final-stage hyperloop should travel up to 600 mph (1000 kph). Virgin’s Hyperloop is only scheduled to start regular operation by the end of the 2020s. However, even more promising, South Korea’s test hyperloop has achieved a speed of 600 mph (1000 kph) just days after. South Korea intends to launch a regular hyperloop service already in 2024, reducing a three-hour journey to a swift 30-minute stint. In Japan, the country’s maglev (magnetic levitation) train is scheduled to start regular service by 2027, reaching service speeds above 370 mph (600 kph). China is also in the race to expand coverage of its already operating maglev service. In short, maglev trains and hyperloops will soon be able to provide mass transit across large distances, at similar speeds of commercial jet planes. However, the real game-changer is that they can do so by using 100% renewable energy (if supply is in place).
Comparatively, aviation seems somewhat behind in terms of future green alternatives. some companies are already putting on the market fully electric aircrafts like Pipistrel, but these have very limited seating capacity and range. On top of that, electric propulsion must rely on propellers, something that represents a substantial speed limitation in comparison to jet engines. Some aircraft manufacturers are also researching the use of hydrogen. This is the case of Airbus, who has recently presented concepts for propeller and jet-powered aircrafts, both using hydrogen as fuel. However, Airbus only plans to put these into service in 2035. Besides, there is no mention on the expected cruise speed.
Therefore, at the moment rail seems in a good position to deliver a future green solution for transcontinental mass transport. Added to that, the pressure to reduce CO2 emissions, driven by the Paris Agreement, could see a future redefinition of how people travel across a continent in the next decade. It’s now up to the aerospace industry to speed up time to market for clean and fast mass transportation solutions.