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Transport / Mass transit

Does this map show a future global Hyperloop network?

Way back in 2003 Mark Ovenden created a map for the Penguin book Transit Maps of the World that connected all the cities that were mentioned in his book. Based on the London Underground’s iconic schematic, the map appears to show a global metro system.

As happens, with the mysterious ebbs and flows of the internet, occasionally videos, articles or pictures that have long been submerged have a habit of resurfacing. This was exactly what has happened with Overden’s map.

Now, however, in the futuristic world of 2017 the map is not being viewed purely fantasy. For some Ovenden’s map shows the potential of a future global Hyperloop network.

This led me to ask, could this global tube map actually show a future global transport network?

In short, the answer is no.

The first major issue is that the Hyperloop is most likely not going to happen. While Elon Musk has earned the right to be taken very seriously, at the moment the Hyperloop technology is in the very early stages of its development. The concept has captured the world’s attention, grabbing numerous headlines, as it seems to show a better way of doing things. However, there a numerous reasons why it will not happen.

When I spoke to Ovenden, it was clear he was one of those caught up in the enthusiasm surrounding the project: “It would be fantastic if a Global Hyper Loop were ever possible. What a wonderful world it would be if we didn’t need to rely on planes to get around the planet quickly, and with zero emissions. Bring on the day!” he told me.

While technically the Hyper Loop seems entirely feasible – a clever combination of numerous existing technologies – the financial and political barriers may prove harder to overcome.  To create a network as seen in the map would involve convincing numerous legislators to commit money and resources to the project.

For a global system to be developed there would also need to be some pretty huge strides made within the more traditional engineering fields of bridge and tunnel building. At present the world’s longest under-sea tunnel, the Seikan Tunnel, is 33.5 miles long. As the Atlantic is 3,500 miles wide the tunnel would need to be over a hundred times longer than this. It would also have to traverse numerous extremely deep and shifting trenches.

There is also the question of demand. Do people actually want a global Hyper Loop? Traveling at 500mph a hyper loop capsule would still take seven hours to get between London and New York, putting it on a par with flying (assuming that there are no advances in flight before the network is completed). Meanwhile, adding an additional layer of overland infrastructure in developing countries is extremely difficult and expensive, as we have seen in the UK on HS2, Japan’s extension of the Shinkansen and in California’s high-speed rail system – which Musk is aiming to compete with.

Putting all these reasons aside for a moment there are also issues with where the routes on the map go (unsurprisingly as it was created to illustrate a book cover). For example if a global Hyper Loop was to be built, it seems unlike that the connection between Europe and America would be Rotterdam to Newark, or that Brazil would be connected directly to Portugal and not Africa. Also one would hope that there would be more stations in Africa than seven.

Ovenden believes that the network would have many more stations. When I asked how global Hyperloop routes would differ from his map he said: “If we could pick and chose the ideal routes for a Global Hyper Loop my guess is that there would be a lot more places that should be linked to the network. Imagine stepping on in California and getting off a few hours later in Japan? Or embarking at São Paulo and zooming to Cape Town? Or going pole to pole via Honolulu?”

Overall, however, despite the enthusiasm from all directions it looks like a global Hyper Loop may be just as much as a fantasy as Overdon intended his map to be. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t dream of a future in which the hyper loop becomes a reality. As Overdon concludes: “Surely we are wise enough to be able to invest in fast, efficient, non-polluting systems to both enjoy our stunning planet and protect it from our own destruction. Bring on the Global Hyper Loop!”

Tom Ravenscroft is an architectural historian  and the editor of BIM+. He tweets as @tomravenscroft.

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