Indian news outlets have taken on the recent showcase event in New Delhi hosted by HyperloopOnand created a lot of buzz around it. Proud citizens wanting hyper-speed transport between their favorite cities are now being asked to vote on Facebook to show support for one of the five proposed Hyperloop routes that are under consideration in India.
While the buzz is good, I was appalled at the lack of any investigative or thoughtful journalism on the topic: every media house over the past week has been parroting soundbites from the executives present at the event, albeit failed to help us understand the project, or what is at stake.
The Indian Transport Ministry and Indian Railways have their hands full with mass-transit challenges for the next decade, and moonshot projects like Hyperloop are mere distractions.
Hyperloop is a mere distraction.
By no means am I a pessimist or a nay-sayer, I worked in high-tech for several years and I am a fan of disruptive technologies. What I fail to see here is a clear articulation of an economically sustainable transport system that works for India.
In order to understand what is missing, we'll look at this in parts:
The 101: What is Hyperloop
The India context
Race to the first project
The missing economics
What the Railway should focus on
The 101: What is Hyperloop?
The concept of high-speed transport in vacuum tubes has been around for decades. But in the summer of 2013, Elon Musk published a whitepaper that was viewed as a response to the proposed California Highspeed Rail (HSR) project. He outlined a plan for a near-supersonic, on-demand, public transport system that would levitate inside vacuum tubes in order to travel at such high speeds as 1200kmph; he called it Hyperloop.
In addition to transporting people in high speeds, Musk suggested that this mode of transport will be safer, cheaper, and more energy efficient. For instance, Musk outlined that the LA - SFO Hyperloop link will cost about 6.5 Billion USD as opposed to the tens of billions sanctioned for the HSR bullet train link.
Rather magnanimously, Musk invited scientists, engineers, and transportation professionals continue development in other commercial projects based on his framework. In other words, he made it open source.
Since Musk's draft, two companies based in the United States have taken the lead namely: HyperloopOne, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). Both, although different in implementation, use a volunteering model to encourage scientists and engineers around the world to participate in building out the technology required to implement Musk's original vision. And of course, some very smart people around the world have come together and contributed to the original proposal and move it forward. Elon Musk, at the time of writing this, has no official position in any of the Hyperloop companies, but this gets misreported all the time.
Elon Musk has no official position in any of the Hyperloop companies.
Both HyperloopOne and HTT headquartered in Los Angeles, California have demonstrated the technology by conducting tests in the Nevada desert to prove that travel at near-supersonic speeds is possible in the Hyperloop system.
What is interesting is that the two companies don't intend to take part in the construction of Hyperloop transport anywhere, but be the technology provider. With this view, they've both been taking in rather modest funding from various sources. HyperloopOne has taken in about $160MM funding, and HTT is claiming to have about $200MM in funding including equity and land rights.
Besides developing and demonstrating Hyperloop transportation, the two companies have been signing Letters of Intent (LoI) or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with various countries around the world. The goal is to "scout" for and garner Government and Public cooperation to build a first Hyperloop transport project, which would then enable them to showcase the technology in the real world.
Keep in mind that one of the biggest roadblocks that these companies have faced is the CapEx required for the buildout. Initial average numbers of $10Million/mile have been later revised to ~$30Million/mile and the Governments around the world are treading with caution with those numbers being thrown around (these figures include land acquisition cost, construction/tunneling, laying tubes, solar power setups, coaches, boarding docks/stations etc). Hence, the LoI and MoU being signed, but no first project sign-off yet.
LoIs and MoUs are being signed around the world, no real project sign-off. Not yet.
With rapid urbanization, increase in demand for mass transportation, a rise in the middle-class resulting in the need for moving goods across the breadth of the country, the Ministry of Transport and Indian Railways have had a challenging few years.
Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu appears to be a huge proponent of progress and change and has introduced multiple programs for improving the largest people-moving-system in India. There's a total CapEx of 8.5 Lakh Crore Rupees planned in the next few years: and that is $130 Billion!
Rightly so, HyperloopOne and HTT have sniffed an opportunity in India, starting with HTT submitting a proposal to the Transport Ministry in December 2016 to connect Mumbai and Pune with a Hyperloop system that would cost about $40 Million per KM to construct.
HyperloopOne and HTT have sniffed an opportunity in India.
First man on the moon
HyperloopOne took a different approach: in May 2016, they announced a competition "HyperloopOne Global Challenge" inviting teams of engineers and planners around the world to submit proposals for what would become hyperloop systems in their countries. They announced to pick three winning entries and collaborate for technology transfer in helping build out the chosen routes. Keep in mind, that the teams are still responsible for getting their respective Governments to put in the CapEx required for the buildout, albeit technology will be provided by HyperloopOne.
Interestingly, of the 2600 people that participated from around the world, five teams from India made the semi-finalists. In their own words, HyperloopOne described the competition as "...not an engineering competition: we bring the technology, you tell us how it should be used in your location".
[It] is not an engineering competition: we bring the technology, you tell us how it should be used in your location.
The five teams from India, from the looks of it, largely comprise of engineering students, barring some who have consulted with NITI-Aayog, or the Ministry of Transport. In my view, the composition of the teams from their website appears like a science project that engineering grads jumped on to because projects like this don't come by very often. One of the teams that proposed a Mumbai - Chennai Hyperloop link goes on to state their primary goal as winning the SpaceX competition weekend in Summer 2017.
To indigenously develop & manufacture a scaled-down Hyperloop pod prototype to race on SpaceX’s test track in California and win the SpaceX Competition Weekend in Summer 2017.
Given the number proposals from local teams and the obvious opportunities in India, HyperloopOne organized a "Vision for India" showcase event on February 28th where all the five teams presented their plans. Also present were Ministers and dignitaries from Ministry of Transport, Railways, and NITI-Aayog. Clearly, a dog and pony show at their expense to potentially garner support from various parts of the country to get one of the proposed routes implemented in India.
The missing economics
After reading (and mostly still looking) for almost three days, I've come to the realization that not one publication, research, or project team has published the economics of Hyperloop travel in India. I was surprised that a global competition would have a project move to the semi-finals stage without any economic analysis. This is clear from the paltry explanations provided by the teams, such as this one.
Not one publication, research, or project team has published the economics of Hyperloop travel in India
It may be wise for the teams to understand that a large majority of the revenue generated by Indian Railways comes from freight (cargo), and only a substantially small portion from passenger fare. In addition, Indian Railways operates one of the cheapest railways in the world with fares as low as 13.80 paise per passenger kilometer (one passenger transported for one kilometer, given the 8.4 Billion passengers carried across 1 Trillion kilometers every year). With this, one can conclude that the freight (cargo) carriers in India subsidize the passenger fare heavily. This, is also why the Railways take a lot of caution before increasing passenger fare, as opposed to deliberation before increasing freight fare.
Indian Railways is one of the cheapest railways in the world. They take a lot of caution before increasing passenger fare, as opposed to increasing freight fare.
It is also common sense to understand the various implementation issues around a project such as this: land acquisition, center/state decision making, public-private partnerships, construction delays; these issues have plagued our large projects over and over. Now, that doesn't mean we should never invest in a large project, but the alternative is to look for ways to improve transportation using existing means like track upgradations, switching to Talgo coaches to improve average running speeds, or improving station facilities without having the need to go into land acquisition complexities. I'll go into a few in the next section, but this topic, in itself, warrants one or more independent posts.
Although there are claims of safety and cost, I am yet to see compelling arguments for why Hyperloop is safer in India compared to train travel (given a large majority of Indian terrain is earthquake prone), or why it would be cheaper. So the single biggest selling point now is speed.
The single biggest selling point is speed.
Instead of boiling the ocean with projects like Hyperloop, I believe that Indian Railways should accelerate projects that allow us to improve our average speeds from the current 50~60kmph to a reasonable 100~150kmph. The Talgo coach project is an example, using coaches from the Spanish manufacturer will allow us to improve average running speeds in all major routes and express trains like the Shatabdi.
There are 6000+ unmanned crossings in India. Railways plan to do away with them all over the next three years, and that is going to cost them a whopping 7500 crores, of which 3600 crores is not funded! In comparison, HTT is demanding an investment of 6500 crores to move passengers from Mumbai to Pune in 25 minutes. I'd any day use the 6500 crores and save lives of the multiple people and livestock that die every year in unmanned crossings than get into another multi-year construction project that moves people in 25 minutes between Mumbai and Pune, or any other city pair.
Doing away with 6000 unmanned level crossings is going to cost 7500 crores, of which 3600 crores is not funded.
The United States transported 900 Million passengers in their domestic flights in 2015, that is almost a tenth the size in comparison to the 8.6 Billion passengers traveling by Indian Railways each year. Yet, the USA has had a National Transportation Safety Board in existence since 1938. Indian Railways in spite of the number of accidents and lost lives hasn't had a separate board that investigate accidents, identify root causes, or draft prevention plans. Only in the 2017-20 plan do the Railways get serious about allocating funds for an independent Rail Safety Board.
Unlike the NTSB in USA, Indian Railways don't have a dedicated Safety and Investigation unit.
In the 2017-20 plan, Railways have outlined that over 5100Kms of tracks are overdue for maintenance/change and there exists a backlog. Note that these overdue tracks are the cause of accidents and derailments most often. If only we had funds to accelerate the removal/perform maintenance of overdue tracks, we can avoid the accidents that happen every few months.
5100kms of tracks are overdue for maintenance or change.
These are only a few points as examples to outline what the Railways should accelerate execution on, as opposed to moonshot projects like Hyperloop. There is plenty more that I have to pick with the Railways, and I'll save that for another post lest I distract the audience away from the main point.
What is your point? You ask.
Hyperloop is a disruptive technology, it is a product of some very smart brains that have figured a way to transport people, and potentially cargo between long distances at near-supersonic speeds. There's a lot of momentum around this concept and some very smart Indian engineers haven latched on to this fast moving train, to try and bring this technology home.
What is to be seen is the articulation of a sustainable economic model for how this mode of transport could prove not only faster, but everything else it claims to be: safer, energy efficient, and scalable. All that without causing the Government additional headache of managing yet another multi-year land acquiring construction project, and a tiff with the states on decision making.
In the absence of such, viable alternatives like improving safety, and average speeds of Indian trains is common sense in the long term.
And the Indian press needs to stop parroting, grow up, and learn to write real news.
Indian Railways related figures and statistics were obtained from their 2017-20 report, published on IndianRailways.gov.in. All information quoted in this article about HTT and HyperloopOne are publicly available, in their press releases, or corporate blogs.