Penniless Cities Offer Land to Host Hyperloop Tests in France
(Bloomberg) -- After President Emmanuel Macron scrapped plans for a high-speed rail connection to Limoges, a city in central France, local entrepreneur Fabien Thibaut picked up his phone to call Elon Musk and talk about the Hyperloop -- Musk’s idea for superfast trains zooming in tubes.
“This kind of project is essential for a city like ours,” said Thibaut, one of many in France who wants to bring home a piece of Tesla founder Musk’s idea. “We have nothing here -- this would bring companies, jobs, tourism.”
In the country that invented high-speed TGV trains and the supersonic Concorde plane, Thibaut had no trouble drumming up support from others including the deputy mayor. But with the government keen on cutting public spending, officials in cities like Limoges, Orleans and Toulouse are seeking cheaper approaches to futuristic transport, pitching themselves as hotbeds for testing.
While they can’t put fat checks on the table, French cities are relying on handouts of real estate, tax cuts for engineering talent, and some limited subsidies to attract Hyperloop-inspired projects.
“Any Hyperloop project will need government support whatever happens,” said Serhiy Yarusevych, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “There are no breakthroughs required on the technology side. What will matter is the funding for land, infrastructure and R&D.”
Musk’s idea isn’t new -- French novelist Jules Verne imagined pneumatic pods crossing oceans in tunnels at 930 miles per hour a century and a half ago -- but since he laid out the concept of the Hyperloop in 2013, a flurry of initiatives has emerged.
Musk’s space company SpaceX has organized student competitions to build prototypes, while British tycoon Richard Branson is backing the troubled Virgin Hyperloop One, which is itself working with German automaker BMW AG in Dubai. Two other Los Angeles startups, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Arrivo, also are developing similar concepts.
So while the Tesla founder never returned Thibaut’s call, a Canadian startup called TransPod did.
TransPod’s technology is based on magnetic propulsion and electrified tracks, moving pods through a vacuum tunnel designed to reduce friction. As with most Hyperloop projects, the bulk of the estimated costs are for deploying infrastructure. Co-founder Sebastien Gendron estimates his company needs 20 million euros ($24.2 million) in financing to complete the Limoges project at the current stage, and says he’ll raise half of that from private investors.
In Limoges, discussions have zoomed in on the prospect of building a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) test track and a 15-person research center, as TransPod seeks subsidies from government-backed structures in the region as well as from the European Union. Limoges Mayor Emile Roger Lombertie said in an interview TransPod must first find venture capital investors before the city jumps in to help with financing. It’s now providing administrative support.
TransPod got a green light from another local authority to use retired rail tracks free of cost. The fate of the project is hanging on a decision by authorities about whether an environmental study is needed, CEO Gendron said.
Some 150 miles north, another city, Orleans, also took to the Hyperloop after years of unsuccessful lobbying to get a high-speed link to the French capital. The mayor’s office reached out to a French entrepreneur called Emeuric Gleizes who’s aiming to develop an air train by 2025.
While there’s little chance Orleans will offer up a chunky jackpot for his SpaceTrain, Gleizes is hoping to get free access to 18 kilometers of unused train tracks in the region to test a prototype, in a deal similar to TransPod’s in Limoges. To reduce development costs, SpaceTrain ditched the idea of a tunnel and instead will move carbon-fiber shuttles carrying as many as 40 passengers at 540 kilometers an hour using a method based on air cushions, often employed by industrial companies to move heavy objects.
Orleans also rang up a startup from California called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HTT, which has made announcements about planning a 6.2-mile Hyperloop route in Abu Dhabi and a research lab in Brazil. In southwestern France, Toulouse, the home of planemaker Airbus SE and heaps of aeronautics experts, is preparing to host an experiment by HTT.
“France is one of the best European countries when it comes to supporting startups and innovation,” HTT co-founder Dirk Ahlborn said. “Of course France isn’t the country where everything happens the fastest -- if the Emirates wants something, for example, if will happen.”
In France, Ahlborn is eyeing public funding for innovation, and said HTT will hire 15 people at a research lab in Toulouse. Local authorities have awarded HTT access to a former army base with a free lease that spans over 40 years, in exchange for refurbishment and de-pollution work, including removing bombs from World War II.
The goal is to put together by the end of the year a track that’s 320 meters long that has tubes sitting on pylons almost 6 meters high. The installation could later be extended to 1 kilometer.
HTT, which missed a deadline to open a test center in California two years ago, says the Toulouse system could be ready within three years. So far, grey tubes about 13 feet high have been hauled by truck from Spain to Toulouse.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.