Hyperloop for cargo transportation in Sultanate?

Muscat, NOv 10 – While Oman currently lacks the passenger volumes necessary to support the introduction of a hyperloop-transportation technology that enables airplane speeds to be achieved on the ground — the business case for transporting freight — instead needs to be investigated, according to a prominent global expert on this breakthrough travel system. Nick Earle (pictured), an IT and mobility specialist who until recently headed the Global Field Operations of Virgin Hyperloop One — a leader provider of hyperloop technologies — said a hyperloop for freight transportation would a game-changer for countries with ambitions to be hubs for freight distribution and logistics in the region.

Oman has aspirations to secure a ranking among the world’s Top 10 logistics destinations by 2040 — a strategic objective that is also integral to its goal of diversifying the economy and establishing a full-fledged economic sector centring on logistics. Earle was in Muscat as part of a distinguished panel of speakers who were invited to address the three-day IRU World Congress that concluded in the city last week. The high-profile event was organised by the International Road Transport Union (IRU) in collaboration with Oman’s Ministry of Transport and Communications and ASYAD Group — the nation’s logistics flagship.

Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the forum, the transportation expert recalled a previous visit to Oman aimed at exploring prospects for a hyperloop type transportation system in the Sultanate. “Any transportation system needs (passenger) traffic and there isn’t enough traffic in Oman,” he said. “So we had to find an economic case; we believe the economic case was the ports,” he noted. But a key disadvantage was the unsuitability of bulk mineral cargo and aggregate — which account for a sizeable part of cargo volumes handled at Omani ports — for hyperloop transportation, he pointed out.

“The issue is: What’s the strategy for Omani ports? Are the ports in Oman going to become a hub for freight distribution across the region? Right now they aren’t, but of course, they are aspiring to!” he said. Hyperloop-based passenger and freight transportation is being explored in a number of countries, including India, United States, and the United Arab Emirates. Capsules (or pods) carrying passengers and cargo capsules are sent zooming through airless tubes using a combination of electric, maglev and other technologies. Typical speeds are in excess of 1,000 km/hour — equivalent to speeds achieved by airplanes flying at 30,000 feet. Consequently, travel between cities will be reduced from hours to minutes.
While the first hyperloop projects are currently in an advanced stage of design in places like India (Mumbai-Pune) and the UAE (Dubai-Abu Dhabi), Earle believes that regulatory approval will come through first for freight transportation and not passenger travel per se.
“Regulatory approval is a key issue once the project or even a test track is built,” said the expert. “It is potentially easier to get regulatory approval for freight than it is for people, for obvious reasons. So the question becomes: Will the first stretch of track be used for freight only or with people; it will probably be for freight only. So you need a track which has a business case for freight, and I believe that the first hyperloops that get constructed will piggyback off freight connections because the economic model has to be there for investors to come in to make money on freight.”
It is envisaged that a hyperloop integrated with ports will allow for palletised freight (as opposed to containerised freight as present) to be discharged directed onto the high-speed system at a ‘dry port’, for example, and then shipped to distribution points outside the city. The use of trucks for freight transportation will be dramatically reduced as a result.
In a presentation at the IRU World Congress, Earle also challenged countries in the Gulf and Middle East region to consider a region-wide transportation system based on hyperloop technologies. “Is there a possibility of creating a Middle East transportation network where all the cities are no more than an hour apart? What we were trying to do with Hyperloop One is for Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, Saudi, Qatar and everybody else (to be interconnected); the vision was for a transportation network all over the Middle East — not just for one country,” he said.
Additionally, the wider knock-on effect for any country that develops a hyperloop can be immense, according to the expert. “Job creation will be enormous. Wherever the first hyperloops are built, there could be up to 10,000 new high tech jobs,” he said. “So the business case for the hyperloop is more around job creation than it is around transport for the first phase. This is especially relevant to the Middle East given the very high numbers of young, very well-educated people here. So it’s a huge opportunity!”

Conrad Prabhu