When considering how to efficiently transport New York City’s burgeoning legion of commuters, inventor Alfred Ely Beach commented in 1870: “A tube, a car, a revolving fan! Little more is required!” He was talking about his design for New York’s first subway, the Beach Pneumatic Transit.

More recently, this concept has been taken up by Elon Musk (and the media) and rebranded Hyperloop.

Since its (re)launch by Mr Musk in August 2013, the concept is both exciting the public imagination and disrupting the high-speed rail industry in a similar way, perhaps, to that of Beach’s original idea over 140 years ago. But this time round, it may well become a reality…

Alan James has been championing maglev (magnetic levitation) technology for years. He was the man behind the failed UK Ultraspeed proposal for a high-speed maglev train, an alternative to the controversial High Speed Two (HS2) project that is still very much in the running. In Berlin, Mr James was back in business as the vice president of worldwide business development, passenger systems, at Hyperloop One, the private US company that, with 180 full-time staff, is taking the concept very seriously indeed.

The Hyperloop system is made up of pods – for carrying heavy freight, such as a 40-foot maritime container, or passengers – moving inside in a pressure-sealed container that can be built either over- or underground.

“Since these pods in a tube represent a controlled environment, we can do clever stuff with the automated control system,” Dr James told Rail Engineer. “The almost-vacuum nature of the tube means air pressure is hugely reduced, so aerodynamic drag is reduced, which enables a design speed of 300 metres a second, or 1,080km an hour.”

So much for the way it works, but what about the benefits? “This system abolishes distances so people can live and work anywhere,” says Dr James. “It provides an on-demand service. It is an intelligent network for smart locations.”

How does it perform in terms of emissions? Zero emissions locally/en-route, with the possibility of solar energy being brought into the picture. But Dr James points out that the system itself consumes relatively little electricity, not really due to the power of regenerative braking but more because of the very rapid acceleration to over 1,000km/h which enables the pods quite-literally to glide as a passive maglev (no levitation power involved) in a very near vacuum. “We estimate that only around 10 per cent of a route will consume energy,” he adds.

It may sound too good to be true (for example, there are still unanswered questions over safety), and far too futuristic for today’s resolutely wheels-on-steel-based railway system, yet Hyperloop One is not alone hoping to take Beach’s vision, now Musk’s, into the next dimension. There were also exhibits from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and TransPod Inc (Hyperloop)…

Report by Lesley Brown.