Are the stars finally aligning for a hyperloop in Europe? The coronavirus outbreak may play a critical role in moving things forward, according to experts working on what's called the "fifth mode of transport."

The momentum for low-carbon policies and investment is intensifying in Europe. At the same time, the aviation sector is struggling, and there are questions about whether people will return to flying as regularly as they have in years past. Some predict a sustained shift away from living in densely populated cities; hyperloops could play a role by extending viable commuting distances. 

Hyperloops are magnetic levitation trains that operate in a vacuum tube, meaning no friction from tracks and no drag from the air. Europe's geography and high land prices lend themselves well to the concept. Hyperloops take up less space than railways. Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt all fall in the range of distances apart from one another that are well within the hyperloop’s sweet spot — a very short flight or a very long train ride.

To some in the hyperloop world, the time feels right for a big jump forward.

Europe has assigned more than $1 trillion in stimulus spending, with a particular focus on clean-energy projects. This week a European Parliament proposal for the tourism and transport sector’s coronavirus recovery stated that plans “should also be focused on innovative growth opportunities, such as hyperloop connections between the major cities of Europe as an affordable, clean and fast alternative to short-haul air traffic.”

Settling on a hyperloop technology

Six companies are looking at developing hyperloops in Europe. The furthest along is Hardt of the Netherlands, which has a full-size prototype track and pod to go along with its scaled-down test track. It hopes to have a full-sized pilot track complete in four to six years with a bullish date for a commercial route by 2028. It's still working out where this first route would be.

This month, Spanish firm Zeleros secured €7 million ($8 million) in funding that will see it build a new development center in Spain and a test track at least 3-kilometers long and at one-third scale. This scale allows the firm to combine the various individual systems — levitation, braking, propulsion — into an integrated unit. 

Zeleros CEO David Pistoni has been involved in hyperloop developments since the latest phase of interest began. While various riffs on hyperloop were first developed more than 100 years ago, day zero for hyperloop in this century started with a sketch and a call to action by Elon Musk.

Most people want to talk about hyperloop technology, but Pistoni said standardization and the development of a regulatory framework are even more important. In February this year, five European countries plus Canada agreed to establish a joint set of technical standards for hyperloops.

“The European Commission wants to support this development,” Pistoni said in an interview. “But they also say we need to collaborate to find the best solution. It makes no sense to have six different projects, each one doing something totally different.”

Zeleros’ system has a few unique characteristics, Pistoni said. By running in a weaker partial vacuum, the challenge of maintaining low pressures is easier — even if the tradeoff is lower speeds. By housing as much of the tech in the pods rather than the tracks, laying the rail and its tubes becomes a simpler infrastructure play.

Ultimately, the industry will need to consolidate around the same basic technologies and rules of the road, Pistoni said, just as trains and airplanes did.

Hyperloop opportunity in coronavirus stimulus spending

Steven Carden is a transport and innovation expert at PA Consulting, which has been working with the sector’s best-financed firm, Virgin Hyperloop One. He told GTM that the two main barriers for hyperloop networks are funding the capital-intensive technology development and creating regulations for such a novel technology.

“The individual [who] signs [off on that] and says it's safe for the public to use…well, that's a big ask," Carden said. "That person is going to want a lot of evidence to support it. That inevitably means lots of time and effort.”

Carden thinks the coronavirus pandemic could trigger a distinct and lasting shift in the way people travel. People may seek to avoid being crammed into high-density fixed infrastructure, such as airports and packed trains, instead preferring a more point-to-point, lower-density network like a hyperloop. “If transport moves in that way, the relative business cases between building another high-speed rail system versus trying a hyperloop route might shift."

Hyperloops could run straight to European airports. (Credit: Hardt Hyperloop)

A rejection of cramped city life by many is not unimaginable, Carden said, offering the potential example of someone living in England’s Lake District National Park and commuting to London by hyperloop when required. Meanwhile, governments may look to promote the knowledge economy as they focus on job development. “Creating expertise around a forward-facing technology like Hyperloop becomes a very attractive thing."

“I can only see...the opportunities for hyperloop increasing because of COVID,” Carden said. “Infrastructure and investment in infrastructure across Europe will be one of the ways of digging ourselves out of a recession. You can see more money sloshing around in the system that could be put into a hyperloop.”

Skeptics of hyperloop projects abound, especially from the rail aviation sectors that hyperloops would compete with. Amtrak’s boss has said it won’t work. Even Bill Gates has come out and poured scorn on the concept, dismissing it as unsafe.

But with the engineering challenges being addressed and the prospect of greater public funding on the near horizon, the coronavirus pandemic may help move a European hyperloop project a few steps closer to leaving the station.