In the long, repetitive history of humans dreaming of faster ways to move people between places, pneumatic tubes—the type of system used to move interoffice mail either with pressurized air or a partial vacuum effect—has been an idea whose time has come at least five different times. They come in bursts of imagination followed by some experimentation and, ultimately, disappointment, which is then forgotten during long periods of silence.
We are living through the fifth era of pneumatic tube transportation dreams, which are generally referred to these days as Hyperloops. This era kicked off in 2013 when Elon Musk published what is reverentially referred to in the Hyperloop world as The Alpha Paper. Characteristically, the Alpha Paper makes no mention of any of the previous four eras. but it did spark several startups to take up Musk’s challenge and build a Hyperloop itself, which Musk uncharacteristically declined to do.
One of those startups was called Hyperloop One, co-founded by a former SpaceX engineer named Brogan BamBrogan, who left in 2016 under bizarre circumstances involving a noose and an attempted restraining order. (BamBrogan then founded another company called Arrivo that promised to be “the end of traffic” using a sled-based system for moving cars along tracks; it shut down at the end of 2018.) The following year, Hyperloop One was rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One after receiving an investment by Richard Branson.
But after some five more years of work towards finally achieving a 200-year-old dream to move people through tubes at near-supersonic speeds, Virgin Hyperloop One has laid off half its staff to focus on moving cargo instead of people, an entirely predictable outcome if anyone involved had bothered to read up on the history of pneumatic tube transportation. It is a longer history than one might expect, but one with the steady drumbeat of failure.
The idea for improving travel speeds by reducing air resistance in a controlled tube setting was first proposed by various figures in the early 19th Century. The most prominent example was in 1812 when George Medhurst in London published his catchily-named paper, “Calculations and Remarks, Tending to Prove the Practicability, Effects and Advantages of 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.”
Thirty years later, something resembling a pneumatic tube transit boom occurred, or as they were called at the time, “atmospheric railways.” The Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in Dublin operated between 1844 and 1854 at a top speed of 40 mph—not much faster, if at all, than regular trains of the era—on a track a little less than two miles long, running small carriages every half hour. Two more ambitious projects in London and Devon, England around the same time were abandoned due to insurmountable technical difficulties and cost overruns. There were other experiments and tests around this time, most notably the Beach Pneumatic Transit line, a 300-foot tube constructed in secret under Broadway in Manhattan, which shut down amid investor skepticism and one of the many financial panics of the late 19th Century made funding an expansion a non-starter.
Still, the idea of moving people through airless tubes was just close enough that a new generation of dreamers revived the idea. In the early 20th Century, college student Robert Goddard published a short story that imagined trains moving through vacuum tubes, or VacTrains. Scientist Emile Batchelet had been thinking about something similar. So had Russian professor Boris Weinberg. None of these dreams resulted in any practical experimentation.
The fourth era began in the postwar period when people were ready to dream big things again. In 1969, a contractor named Lawrence Edwards who worked on a feasibility study conducted by Lockheed and the Department of Defense on Vactrains founded Transit Tube Corporation and pitched a plan for an “urban gravity-vacuum transit system” in the Bay Area. Robert Salter of the RAND Corporation also published a series of articles promoting a similar concept. Around the same time, a group of European inventors founded Swissmetro, a Transit Tube Corporation counterpart. It all went nowhere.
There is something different about this fifth era, something that feels more like the second one in the mid-to-late 19th Century, when railroads and other well-capitalized entrepreneurs were actually trying out this idea, two periods in modern human history with rampant wealth inequality and modern industry creating mega-corporations with more money than they know what to do with (Virgin Hyperloop One’s largest investor is DP World, a massively profitable port logistics firm based in Dubai).
It’s not so much that this fifth era has already failed, but rather the promises were so grandiose it could not have possibly succeeded: A network of tubes connecting cities hundreds of miles apart in a matter of minutes, seamlessly interweaving pods merging and diverging traveling at faster-than-airplane speeds in perfect safety, emitting virtually zero carbon.
But a feasibility study conducted by HyperloopTT, the last major Hyperloop organization trying to make passenger travel a reality, exposes some starker realities. Activating the emergency brakes would take four to five miles. Headways will not be the seconds previously advertised, but more like every six to ten minutes during peak hours, every half hour otherwise, in pods that carry a dozen or two passengers each, meaning promised passenger loads of thousands of people per hour would prove fundamentally impossible to achieve. And far from being a direct trip no matter where one is going, the pods would make intermediate stops, just like trains do.
These are not technological limitations. They are limitations that stem from basic rules about time and space, ones that do not change from century to century. Nevertheless, HyperloopTT will carry on. “We remain committed to building a sustainable adaptable system that includes both passenger and cargo,” Andres De Leon, CEO of HyperloopTT, said in a statement to Motherboard. “Interest in hyperloop around the world is stronger than ever. We expect 2022 to be a year of continued progress and growth for HyperloopTT.”
Considering the history of pneumatic tube systems, it is not surprising that interest is “stronger than ever,” according to De Leon. Not that there is ever a fantastic era in which to live, but it is perhaps no coincidence these pneumatic tube eras coincide with global societal strife, from the explosion of industrial capitalism in the 19th Century and the robber baron days to the U.S.’s 1960s and 70s turmoil to, well, this. You have to admit, there’s something abstractly appealing about climbing into a tube and being shot into the distance very quickly, to go somewhere very far away.