Almost exactly a decade since Elon Musk first outlined his hyperloop concept to much fanfare, trumpeting it as a solution to shuttle passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in half an hour, this ultra-fast, vacuum tube mobility system is nowhere near to seeing the light of day. Yet ambitions for future-fit mobility remain very much alive, particularly across the Atlantic.
In early September, European deeptech startup Nevomo made public tests of its MagRail technology establishing, for the first time, the feasibility of frictionless magnetic levitation on conventional railways. Conducted on a company-made track in Nowa Sarzyna, Poland, Nevomo CEO and co-founder Przemek ‘Ben’ Paczek has cited these tests as proof that MagRail could “revolutionise rail transport” in a matter of “years, not decades.”
Separately, Germany’s TUM Hyperloop – a project associated with the Technical University of Munich – unveiled a test version of its hyperloop pod at the IAA Mobility Show. According to TUM Hyperloop’s project lead, Gabriele Semino, Europe is “the region that is making the most progress” in hyperloop development, claiming that hyperloop will achieve a limited roll-out by 2030 before continent-wide deployment by the end of the following decade.
Contrary to the approach espoused by Musk – who reportedly intended his hyperloop idea as a spoiler to California’s proposed high-speed rail system – European initiatives rightly view high-speed rail and hyperloop as complementary solutions to help the continent’s well-developed yet stagnating network rival high-emitting cars and planes.
By capitalising on a range of emerging technologies and strong regulatory support, the EU rail industry can help fuel the future of mobility at pace and scale, bolstering the bloc’s economic competitiveness while accelerating its green transition.
European rail slowly rising from decades-old ashes
While the EU is emerging as a transport innovation hub, the continent must make up for years of lost time. In recent decades, European investment in road infrastructure has outstripped rail investment by roughly 63%, while tax policies have heavily favoured road and aviation, leaving legacies of an under-performing rail network and unnecessarily high transport emissions.
Indeed, the transport sector now accounts for roughly 25% of the EU’s GHG emissions – the majority stemming from road vehicles – while the bloc’s aviation emissions have doubled since 1990. Meanwhile, rail is the only mode whose emissions have decreased over the same period – standing at roughly 1% of EU transport emissions – ideally positioning trains to mitigate road and air travel challenges.
Crucially, rail has the backing of EU citizens and institutions. A 2020 poll found that two-thirds of Europeans support a ban on short-haul flights where suitable rail alternatives are available, while recent Brussels policy places trains at the heart of its Green Deal.
Barriers still holding back potential
Yet capitalising on high political will require overcoming a various barriers impeding the European rail sector’s progress. National fragmentation and uneven, insufficient network investment has resulted in poor cost and time efficiency, as well as multiple bottlenecks compromising the convenience, performance and flexibility of international rail.
These fundamental flaws are reflected in train travel’s weak share of both cargo and passenger markets. Between 2007 and 2018, passenger rail increased from 7% to 7.8% of EU land transport while freight dipped to 16.65% in 2017 from a peak of 19% in 2011; cross-border rail still accounts for only 7% of total train journeys.
These chokepoints will make achieving ambitious EU targets to boost freight’s modal share to 30% and double passenger rail traffic by 2030 extremely difficult without a profound transformation. Indeed, the existing rail system has essentially hit a ceiling, with legacy propulsion and railway interfaces hindering further progress in boosting speeds and reducing braking distances, exacerbating capacity problems that prevent rail from competing with short and medium-haul road and aviation.
Emerging solutions for future mobility
While the EU’s rail congestion and capacity issues could be resolved with new High-speed (HSR) or magnetic levitation (Maglev) railways, UNIFE, Europe’s rail industry association, has rightly noted that much of the solution can come from “the deployment of innovative technologies” that optimise existing lines.
Speaking to a panel of MEPs and industry players in early September, Nevomo’s Paczek posited that the EU needs to add a “new digital layer” to conventional rail infrastructure – a market gap that his company aims to fill. Nevomo envisions its recently-tested MagRail solution as a ‘digital bridge’ linking legacy railways to ultra-high speed hyperloop. Initially, the progressive roll-out of its linear motor-enabled MagRail Booster devices would retrofit existing freight lines, significantly enhancing the EU cargo network’s capacity, efficiency and flexibility before branching out to passenger rail. The technology is the world’s first retrofit solution for existing railcars enabling independent operation without the locomotive both in full trainsets and as individual units.
Furthermore, new MagRail trains running on existing, levitation-adapted railways could boost passenger train speeds from the current maximum of 205 to 341 miles per hour in the coming years. With Paris-Brussels in under 30 minutes, MagRail would make rail competitive with air travel at the for ranges under 1,900 miles, helping to attract high passenger numbers while laying the foundation for hyperloop, whose pods could use MagRail lines in the future to hit speeds of 745 mph– linking Paris and Berlin in under an hour.
By 2030, Nevomo’s team projects that their technology could significantly contribute to doubling the bloc’s rail capacity and cutting out 78 million tons of CO2 emissions at less than half the cost of building new maglev or HSR lines, while completely avoiding the associated land usage and biodiversity impacts, helping to progress Green Deal and UN SDG commitments.
From vision to reality
Following the initial tests, Nevomo publicly unveiled its MagRail Booster for freight on 19 September at TRAKO International Railway Fair in Poland, setting up the commercial cargo pilot from as early as next year. In a bid to begin scaling the technology across the continent, Nevomo has already inked a cooperation agreement with SNCF to explore the roll-out of freight and passenger MagRail in France, building on its 2021 collaboration with Italian rail infrastructure manager RFI.
EU policymakers should provide the necessary policy support for projects engineering the much-hoped for “shift to rail”, notably by integrating their solutions in the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) while supporting the European Commission’s promising efforts to create a regulatory framework for hyperloop, as Gabriele Semino highlighted.
Furthermore, the European Investment Bank – increasingly viewed in Brussels as a ‘climate bank’ – should provide strong funding for R&D, innovation and commercialisation for innovative rail projects, thus helping Brussels match green goals with the necessary resources while encouraging crucial private sector investment.
With successful tests from Nevomo and TUM Hyperloop making waves in September, the prospects of a hyperloop future seem more realistic than ever. Having already emerged as the global frontrunner, Europe must now push forward to realise this next generation of sustainable mobility.