WHAT IS THE HYPERLOOP?
Imagine stepping inside a capsule, making yourself comfortable in the seat - just as you would on a train - and then being whisked to your destination at close to the speed of sound. Distances in the UK would become almost meaningless - you could live in London and work in Edinburgh, the commute taking considerably less than an hour.
Sounds like the stuff of utopian fantasies, yet right now there are intrepid teams of cunning scientists, ingenious engineers and starry-eyed billionaires competing to make the so-called "Hyperloop" system a real, viable way of getting from A to B. Speaking of billionaires, it was tech mogul Elon Musk who fired the starting gun back in 2013, when he published his idea for a "fifth form of transportation" (after rail, road, water and air) consisting of pods hurtling through tubes from which almost all the air has been vacuumed out. The lack of air resistance would be akin to flying at a high altitude in a plane, allowing the Hyperloop pods - levitating over the track by way of magnetic forces to further reduce friction - to achieve incredible speeds.
BEFORE ELON MUSK
He may have a reputation as an eccentric visionary, but Elon Musk can't take all the credit for dreaming up the Hyperloop system. In fact, the concept of transportation in tubes has been around for centuries. Back in 1812, an English engineer called George Medhurst wrote a "plan for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers upon an iron road through a tube of 30 feet in area by the power and velocity of air".
An American inventor, Alfred Ely Beach, took things beyond the page with his "Beach Pneumatic Transit" system in 1870. "A tube, a car, a revolving fan! Little more is required!" were his famous words describing his concept. Beach actually built his transit tunnel in the middle of New York City, getting around his lack of official backing by claiming he was just cobbling together pneumatic tubes to transport the mail. His tunnel was less than 100 metres in length, but the sheer novelty value of a carriage being propelled by a giant fan, dubbed the "Western Tornado", made it a major tourist attraction.
Hyperloop-like concepts were also featured in early works of science fiction. One notable example is a tale by Michel Verne - son of Jules Verne - called "An Express of the Future", which depicts tubes filled with carriages whooshing along on "powerful currants of air".
MAKING IT A REALITY
Following Elon Musk's lead, a number of companies are now at work on the Hyperloop. One of the most prominent is Virgin Hyperloop One - yes, Richard Branson is getting in on the action too - which has been conducting successful experiments on its test track, and is rather ambitiously aiming to have a commercial Hyperloop system operational by 2021.
Elon Musk himself has been a major player. His aerospace company SpaceX has a test track - hailed by Musk as the "second-biggest vacuum chamber in the world after the Large Hadron Collider" - which has been used as a venue for competitions, allowing teams of rival designers to show off their very own Hyperloop pods. In July 2018, a group of engineering students from Germany hit the headlines for their super-speedy pod, which hit 290 mph on the test track.
Yet, despite the hype, many critics have scoffed at the idea of the Hyperloop ever becoming a viable mode of transportation. There's concern about all the political and regulatory hoops which companies will have to jump through, not to mention safety concerns about the effects of g-force on passengers during acceleration and deceleration, and when going around bends. Mathematician and transit blogger Alon Levy has warned it could be a "a barf ride".
But then, it's worth considering that when the London Underground was opened, many feared the roof would cave in, or that passengers would choke to death. So the naysayers may be wrong, and the Hyperloop may just be more than a mere pipe dream.