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Hyperloop: Can we adopt it in Bangladesh?

WASIK BILLAH IBN RASHID | Monday, 11 January 2021


Hyperloop is a proposed mode of transportation that uses some special properties of vacuum for a very fast mass transit. American entrepreneur Elon Musk first propounded this concept and claimed it to be the fifth generation of the transportation system. The proposed speed of a hyperloop freight is up to 1200 kilometres per hour, although because of conforming with many safety precautions the average speed is slightly lower than that but still it is many times faster than any land vehicle on the planet. Here in Bangladesh, a transportation system like hyperloop will radically solve the traffic problems in highways.

Traffic congestion is a major problem in Bangladesh, especially in its cities and on highways. During special times like Eid, highways get clogged with excessive traffic as there is not enough space for so many vehicles to pass through at a time.

However, a solution like a hyperloop may not require extensions of highways.  Besides, extensions of highways are not always like a boon. Sometimes it requires roadside canals to be filled up and in a small country like Bangladesh, there is not always enough space for the needed extension too. The railway system itself is very old and slow; most of the tracks are single lanes and this causes a lot of signal jams. Yes, the existing problems can be addressed and taken care of. But it needs much time and money. As the country is already bleeding money for such problems, the solution is urgent too. In that case, hyperloop may serve as a first aid solution to it. If it is implemented, traffic problems and others involved may be solved very quickly too. After that, the roads and railway networks can slowly be given a world-class level upgrade.

According to a 2018 World Bank study, the average speed of traffic inside Dhaka city from 2010 to 2018 hovered around 7kmph. This is a very sorrowful figure for a capital city. According to a study by the BRAC Institute of Government and Development, traffic jams in Dhaka devour around 5.0 million working hours of residents and cost around 11.4 billion USD every year. Of course, the construction of a metro rail will abate the sufferings of the common people. But for a city like Dhaka hosting around 20 million people, it is an almost impossible task to completely solve this problem with the metro rail alone. Some other unique solutions like hyperloop may be an interesting choice.

Hyperloop is a long-sealed tube with a very low air pressure inside. It thus facilitates freight journeys with almost zero air resistance. Also, hyperloop uses the system of maglev (Magnetically levitated train) to reduce physical friction with the rail tracks significantly. Maglev uses a set of magnets to repel the train up from the track and another to propel it forward. Thus, a very low air and track friction allow the train to travel very close to hypersonic speed (speed of sound, i.e. 1234.8kmph).

Hyperloop tubes can be installed both above and below the ground, so it offers more flexibility while constructing the vacuum tubes considering different types of topography throughout the route like the Dhaka-Chattagram corridor. Elon Musk proposed using solar panels over the roof of the hyperloop tubes as the chief source of energy. Thus, running this vactrain would be environmentally friendly and cost-effective once the initial setups are completed. These long tubes can facilitate fast transportation of up to around 1500 kilometres long.

Initially, there were several concerns about some safety issues. And the first of them results from a very low pressure inside the tube. If a tube suffers any leakage or if it sustains any seismic damage, then there will be a huge air pressure from outside to get inside the vacuum tube and this can cause catastrophic damage. Also travelling safely at nearly Mach 1 (i.e. speed of sound) is a big challenge because it causes a lot of vibration, noise, and other things. At this high speed, if anything goes wrong, then its consequences would be very harsh. Apart from this, there were other technological hindrances to implement this concept.

Due to so many obstacles, Elon Musk decided to distribute these problems to various teams so that each of them can come up with solutions of their own. Many companies have come forward to make this dream a reality. Some mentionable ones are Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, TransPod, DGWHyperloop, Arrivo, Hardt Global mobility, Zeleros, and Hyper Poland. Elon Musk’s other company SpaceX organised a hyperloop pod competition in 2016. Many teams have successfully displayed their working of pods in a vacuum. With technology improving rapidly and many bright teams working behind this concept, this super mode of transportation is likely to become a reality within the next two to three years.

A major obstacle in Bangladesh to adopting such technologies is corruption. And the government's ‘red tape’ just adds a bit more of extra salt to the woe. Policymakers have to adopt future technologies like this swiftly, following clear policies.

The benefits of hyperloop, if implemented in Bangladesh, may outweigh its demerits by far.  The distance between Dhaka and Chittagong is 248 km. Averaging at 900kmph, it will take maximum 17 minutes for a one-way journey to carry up to 840 passengers at a time. Even domestic flights take more than 30 minutes to travel over such distances and their tickets cost much more. Hyperloop will reduce the number of road accidents on highways, which killed around 4138 people and injured more than 4411 people in 2019 alone (Police report).

In India, Virgin Hyperloop has already started making preparations for connecting Pune to Mumbai (approximately 150km distance). Virgin Hyperloop’s Middle East and India’s Managing Director Harj Dhaliwal has said that this project will create approximately 1.8 million jobs. Also, it will socio-economically contribute as much as $36 billion. Its implementation cost will be around $10.5 billion. Harj Dhaliwal further adds that it will be a great success if it passes the regulatory safety tests. And last but not least it will have to be cheap so that the public can afford it. India is a large country with many legal and topographical complexities. Compared to India, Bangladesh is much smaller a country with far less complexities. So the implementation of hyperloop here should be much easier.

Bangladesh witnessed the launch of Bangabandhu Satellite-1 (cost around $248m) on 12 May 2018; as of November 2020, 89.25 per cent of Padma bridge construction (cost around $3.6 billion) had already been completed; the construction work of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (cost around $12.65 billion) has already started; 58 per cent construction work of the Bangabandhu Tunnel ($1.56 billion) was finished up until 03.11.2020. The list can be a lot more than this.

Hence, it is obvious that Bangladesh truly has the financial and technological potential to implement top-notch technologies like hyperloop.

 

Wasik Billah Ibn Rashid is a student of electrical and electronic engineering at the Islamic University of Technology, Gazipur.

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