A European ‘Hyperloop’?
Alex Norman, Foreign Correspondent in the Netherlands, explores the economic and political implications of the ‘Hyperloop’ for Europe
Dutch company Hardt Global Mobility is trail-blazing in the development of ‘Hyperloop’, a system of ground-breaking, high-speed transit which will, they say, make the transportation of people and freight across long distances cheaper, safer and more energy efficient. However, while the implications of such a system has – for the world of trade and travel – the potential to be seismic, Hardt’s distinctly continental European business model will first need to prove its worth relative to its American rivals.
When Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘Atmospheric Railway’ between Exeter and Newton Abbot closed after less than a year in 1847, all agreed that it had been as financially disastrous as it had been scientifically impressive. However, nearly 2 centuries later, the modern resurrection of the same ideas behind Brunel’s folly have been in-vogue amongst the mechanically skilled and the technologically optimistic since Elon Musk (who firmly falls within both camps) resurrected the idea with a challenge in 2012.
With the gauntlet thrown down by Musk, a global flurry of firms has been competing to operationalise the concept ever since. They are unified only in their aim to build a long-distance, high-speed trainline utilising a ‘mag-lev’ locomotive within a vacuum-sealed tunnel, ensuring both friction and air-resistance are greatly reduced. And yet, in contrast to its technological comparability to its competitors, Dutch firm Hardt Global Mobility has set itself apart in style by offering a distinctly continental European alternative in a field dominated by American firms.
Hardt has set itself apart in style by offering a distinctly continental European alternative
Since its rise from the acorn of Delft University’s ‘Best Overall Design’ victory at Musk’s first competition, Hardt has established itself as the cutting edge of Europe’s Hyperloop efforts with an ethos that refuses to hide from the project’s significance for European integration. Their vision is explicitly expressed in terms of connection between European commerce centres rather than connecting cities in the same country, with feasibility reports talking brightly of better integrating the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area with the industrial German Ruhr and Frankfurt ahead of Berlin.
Such integration is of great direct consequence for the prosperity of the European project, with just one 5-city line connecting the Ruhr to the Benelux and Isle-de-France regions adding as much as €275bn annually to the EU economy, increasing its current value by 121%. In addition, from a political standpoint, a move to halve travel times between European cities relative to short-haul flights (Amsterdam to Paris could take as little as 90 minutes) is a conscious step towards a continent with ‘no borders’ and where ‘distance doesn’t matter’.
… a conscious step towards a continent with ‘no borders’ and where ‘distance doesn’t matter’.
However, additional scrutiny will be applied to Hardt as a result of its claim to be a ‘true embodiment of European collaboration’ in an overwhelmingly American race, with the extent of their progress an excellent acid test for the continental European style of business for grand scale projects in the modern era. For example, while their main 2 American counterparts, Virgin and Hyperloop TT, work furiously to try to secure their competitive edge through patents and copyright protection, the Dutch firm has instead built a consortium amongst rival European and Canadian firms for standardisation and knowledge, even sharing at a joint innovation centre in Groningen, the Netherlands. By contrast, the CEO of Hardt Tim Houter argues, all firms stand to benefit when an “open, knowledge-sharing ecosystem” is fostered in an industry, provided the ultimate dream is a “single European system” for common usage. Additionally, while Virgin and Hyperloop TT both downplay the role their engineering partners are making in their efforts, Hardt makes a concerted effort to draw attention to its European partner firms, with Houter claiming “a project of this magnitude is not something that anyone can tackle alone.” Hardt, it seems, really do live by their motto ‘if you want to go far, go together’.
Overall, while a Hyperloop system is poised to revolutionise long-distance travel regardless of its manufacturer, Hardt Global Mobility represents an unashamedly continental European experiment in an overwhelmingly American race. Should they (and their partners) deliver a Hyperloop comparable (or even better) than firms like Virgin and Hyperloop TT, they will have demonstrated that the competitive, individualistic model of the American firm is not the only way forward for the next revolutionary project.