From high hopes to pipe dream as Elon Musk's SpaceX Hyperloop project is shelved

Contractors are left reflecting on what could have been after learning that prototype tunnel for futuristic transport system is set to be torn down

Elon Musk checks out a Hyperloop pod concept in Hawthorne, California. Reuters
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Erik Wright was thrilled when he received the news in 2016 that his business had been selected to help with an ambitious technology project: building the prototype tunnel for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

The initiative was envisioned as a test run for a futuristic transport system involving levitating pods hurtling through tubes at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour. Earlier this year, Mr Wright received a text with an update on the tunnel: it was scheduled to be torn down.

The demise of the test tunnel — a roughly 1.6km-long white cylinder running along Jack Northrop Avenue near the Space Exploration Technologies office in Hawthorne, California — is symbolic of a larger retreat.

While Mr Musk still says he wants to build a Hyperloop, the project has been indefinitely shelved.

Mr Musk did end up founding a tunnel-based company called The Boring Company, but it falls short of levitation and jet-like speeds. Instead, at its transit system in Las Vegas, Teslas drive conference-goers through dedicated subterranean roads at a ho-hum pace.

Boring and SpaceX representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The end of the SpaceX's Hyperloop track in Hawthorne, California. AP

Still, Mr Wright said, the short-lived test project remains a highlight of his career. Back when his company, San Luis Obispo, California-based Precision Construction Services, took the work, it was a small company with only a handful of accomplishments.

Since then, it has landed several high-profile contracts, including building a 3D printing lab for the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and work on various launch pads at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

“The Hyperloop is quite a badge of honour for us,” Mr Wright said.

It even helped the company land several non-transport contracts, such as a 743-square-metre climbing gym. Customers told him, “If you built the Hyperloop, you can definitely build my project”, he said.

Before it was torn down, the Hawthorne Hyperloop test tunnel served as a proving ground for would-be Hyperloop technology. Starting in 2017, it hosted student competitions for running Hyperloop pods at high speeds.

Construction engineering company Aecom designed and built the tunnel’s foundation and steel tube. Precision was responsible for everything inside the tube, including the concrete sub-track, concrete joints, the aluminium track and the interior lighting.

Each of those components expands and contracts at different rates, making it hard to meet the 40,000th-of-an-inch measuring requirements.

After he learnt the tunnel’s fate a few months ago via group text, Mr Wright hopped on to a video call with other contractors who worked on the project. The call was a remembrance.

“We had a sentimental moment knowing this was going to be taken down,” he said. “Like a memorial service.”

Today, the Boring Company has expansive plans for its Las Vegas transport network. But there hasn’t been any sign of a return to the ambitious dream of superfast pods — despite the occasional tantalising tweet from Mr Musk.

Still, Mr Wright has not given up on a future Hyperloop system emerging one day, and credits the Boring Company with taking things in the right direction.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 11:43 AM
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