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Would You Travel by Vacuum Tube Train?

Image: Terraspan.org Image: Terraspan.org

Doug Sharpe President of Elasto Proxy

Thomas Edison discovered that electricity could travel in a vacuum. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, may yet prove that vacuum tubes can transport rail passengers, too. Although the Canadian-American billionaire ruled out the use of vacuum tunnels in his proposed Hyperloop transportation system, a company called Terraspan is now curiously quiet about building a 4,000 mph (6,437 km/h) vacuum tube train, which would double as a superconducting power line.

Back in the summer of 2012, the website Gizmag asked readers why such an ultra-efficient, high-speed train wasn’t being built. Did Terraspan determine that vacuum-tube transport was unsafe? Was the cost of using mag-lev technology too high? Pay a visit to the Terraspan website today, and you’re prompted to “stay posted for the latest on how Terraspan and Hyperloop complement each other.” So what might Terraspan have in mind, and do vacuum tubes have a place in our transportation future?

The Past as Prologue

During the 1800s, pneumatic tubes transported telegrams and inspired inventors to envision projects for moving people. New York City’s first subway system, the Beach Pneumatic Transit, could fit 22 travelers in a single car, but lasted just three years. Terrapsan’s plans are far more ambitious than a 312-ft. train tunnel and a massive fan. According to the Gizmag article, the futuristic transit company aims to build a network of underground vacuum tunnels that would link eastern Canada to points south and west.

That’s not all either. “Embedded in the train tunnel network,” the article continues, “would be a series of thick superconducting energy cables that would form the heart of the first true continental power grid.” Does that remind you of Are Solar Roads the Way of the Future?, Elasto Proxy’s controversial blog entry about the viability of solar paneled roadways and their underground conduits for power cables? As a noted non-engineer named William Shakespeare once wrote, “What’s past is prologue.”

It Will (Never) Work

Are vacuum-tube trains viable? That’s not an idle question for business travelers like me. As the co-founder and co-owner of a global company with headquarters in Quebec, I could travel from Montreal to Shanghai in just under two hours, and from Montreal to Sao Paulo in even less time than that.  Mag-lev technology isn’t new, but are Terraspan’s plans cost-effective? Building Japan’s Linimo HSST, a low-speed mag-lev line, cost approximately $100-million (USD) per 0.62 miles.

Concerns about cost are just scratching the surface, too. For example, how well would Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which has been likened to “a cross between Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table”, work in the real world? In the Terraspan system, how well would the vacuum function if part of a tube wall failed? In other words, would efficiency losses mean that the trains no longer run on-time?

What We Know

Recently, Elon Musk posted a 57-page proof-of-concept about the Hyperloop Alpha. According to the abstract, Hyperloop would feature low-pressure capsules that are “supported on a cushion of air” and “accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the low pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule.” For travelers like you and me, the cost of a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be an estimated $20 (USD).

Hyperloop Alpha won’t help with my own intercontinental travel plans, but both Musk’s capsules and Terraspan’s trains would surely need the kind of sealing and insulation solutions that Elasto Proxy can provide. Wind, rain, and sunlight aren’t part of a vacuum tube’s environment, of course, but railcar designers must still account for a variety of factors in compound selection and part design. Ultimately, both vehicle performance and passenger safety are critical in all transportation applications.

What We Wonder About

Here at Elasto Proxy, we’re following mass transit innovations with great interest. At the same time, concepts such as the Hyperloop Alpha and Terraspan raise many questions. For example, would the demand for lightweight rubber materials be more, less, or about the same with ultra-efficient trains? In terms of passenger health and safety, how would flame, smoke, and toxicity (FST) standards evolve, and what could that mean for the use of fireproof rubber materials?

Underground vacuum-tube trains would need other critical components, too. As Elon Musk’s proof-of-concept explains, “a ground based high speed rail system is susceptible to Earthquakes and needs frequent expansion joints to deal with thermal expansion/contraction and subtle, large scale land movement.” As a supplier to the building and construction industry, Elasto Proxy has met custom fabrication challenges like this, too.

Is the Hyperloop Alpha a bridge too far? Will Terraspan build a network of high-speed international trains? Will Elon Musk and others take the giant strides of Thomas Edison, or will they follow in the small footsteps of Alfred Beach, inventor of New York’s short-lived pneumatic subway?

How Can We Help You?

For 25 years, Elasto Proxy has been solving sealing challenges in a wide variety of industries, including mass transit. By listening to your needs and analyzing all of your requirements, we can recommend the right solutions for your applications. How can we help you?

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