Hyperloop vs bullet trains: How do they differ?

Hyperloop vs bullet trains: How do they differ?
kazokuda / Pixabay

Bullet trains have been around for decades. The high-speed trains have been running successfully in more than a dozen countries. On the other hand, the concept of hyperloop is decades old, but it started gaining attention and investments only a few years ago. In 2013, billion Elon Musk proposed a Hyperloop to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in his famous paper Hyperloop Alpha. Hyperloop has been touted as the future of transportation. In this Hyperloop vs bullet trains comparison, let’s check out how they differ.

What are bullet trains?

Bullet trains are railway systems that run at speeds of 150 miles per hour or more. Of course, some sections of the routes could have lower speed limits due to safety reasons. Countries like China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, and many others have built bullet train tracks. China alone has more than 27,000 kilometers of high-speed rail tracks.

Most bullet trains run on conventional tracks built with stronger materials. They get power from overhead supply lines or roof-mounted pantographs. However, Maglev trains are based on the magnetic levitation technology. Thanks to electromagnets, the Maglev trains levitate slightly above the tracks. The magnets also produce the thrust to propel the train forward.

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The Maglev bullet trains have little friction of the track, which helps them achieve faster speeds. Their acceleration and braking also doesn’t rely on friction of tracks. However, Maglev train systems are expensive to construct and operate.

Japan started operating its famed Shinkanshen bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. Currently, the fastest Maglev train system is China’s Shanghai Maglev Train, which connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport with the Shanghai metro system. It has recorded a peak speed of 311 mph, though it operates regularly at 268 mph.

Last year, China unveiled a Maglev bullet train prototype capable of running at 600 km/h (372 mph). The train will enter commercial production in 2021 after extensive tests. Developer China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation believes the new bullet train will fill the gap between high-speed rail and air transportation.

What is Hyperloop?

While bullet trains have been operating successfully for decades, Hyperloop is still in its infancy. Several companies such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One, Arrivo, and TransPod are developing the hyperloop systems. These companies have been conducting trials for the last few years. But the first commercial hyperloop operation is still some time away.

According to Elon Musk, hyperloop can transport people and freight at up to 750 miles per hour, which would make it 2-3x faster than bullet trains. It will have passengers or cargo placed into a floating pod, which would run along inside low-pressure tubes. The hyperloop tubes could be built either above or below ground.

The tubes will be fully autonomous and enclosed to eliminate weather hazards and pilot error. Most of the air is removed from the tubes to minimize friction, which allows the hyperloop pods to achieve a speed of up to 750 mph. The pods won’t have wheels like cars or conventional trains. They will float in the low-pressure tube using magnetic levitation.

A number of hyperloop routes have been proposed including New York to Washington DC, Kansas City to St Louis, Mumbai to Pune, Vijaywada to Amaravati, and more. Elon Musk said in his Hyperloop Alpha paper that hyperloop is more effective and cost-efficient than high-speed trains and air travel between cities less than 900 miles apart.

Elon Musk and other supporters have argued that hyperloop would be much faster and cheaper than bullet trains or car travel. It will also be cheaper and less polluting than air travel. The hyperloop pods Musk proposed for San Francisco to Los Angeles could depart every 30 seconds. Each pod would carry 28 passengers.

Hyperloop vs bullet trains: Cost

According to Elon Musk, the proposed San Francisco to Los Angeles hyperloop would cost $6 billion to build. It will reduce the travel time between the two cities to just 30 minutes. After taking into account the construction and operational costs, Musk said a one-way ticket would cost $20-$30 if the capital cost is spread over 20 years. It means a round trip would cost up to $60. In contrast, a bullet train round-trip costs around $90.

Hyperloop vs bullet trains: Major differences

The biggest difference between the two is that the hyperloop is 2-3x faster than bullet trains. It would also be relatively cheaper. In Maglev bullet trains, the track continuously provides power to propel the train forward. But the hyperloop pods don’t need power from the track, which improves its energy efficiency and reduces the cost of travel.

The hyperloop is more like an on-demand service, leaving every 30 seconds. There are no stops between the starting point and the destination. In contrast, bullet trains have multiple stops and they have to follow a schedule. Also, hyperloop is said to be more environmentally-friendly with no direct emissions or noise.

Hyperloop has the potential to minimize the cost of travel and time of travel between cities. But it has still not been proven in the real world. And we won’t know its real impact until the commercial operations commence between a few cities. The bullet trains may be a little costly and slower than hyperloop, but they have been running successfully for decades. We know that bullet trains are safe and reliable.

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