The Hyperloop One Global Challenge unleashed a remarkable variety of uses for fast, clean and direct Hyperloop technology. This is European innovation on a regional scale.
Transportation engineers have always dreamed of spanning the nine-mile wide Strait of Gibraltar with a fixed link. Some have proposed floating bridges, like the kind Xerxes lashed together with boats in 480 B.C. to cross the Hellespont to invade Greece. Others have suggested more conventional approaches such as tunneling under the sea bed. A third option is the most daring, as it has never been tried before, which is to suspend a floating Hyperloop tube 25-50 meters underwater!! The tube would be anchored by cables to the sea floor or to sturdy buoys on the surface. Within a few minutes, passengers or cargo could leap this ancient trade gap between Africa and Europe.
A floating Gibraltar tunnel may sound like a radical idea, but it’s part of an otherwise pragmatic Hyperloop One Global Challenge proposal from the Hyperloop Spain-Morocco team. Their idea, showcased in early June at our Vision for Europe event in Amsterdam, earned its way into the semifinalist round in the Global Challenge with a high-speed route from Madrid to Morocco, crossing under the Strait of Gibraltar. A truck-plus-ferry takes 6.5 hours. A flight takes five hours. With a Hyperloop, the journey would be only 50 minutes.
Building a 21st century link across El Estrecho would leave a lasting impact on global commerce. “We are not talking about two cities, we are talking about two continents — that’s global,” says Carmen Palomino Pérez, Team Advisor and Director of Talent at the Fundación Universidad-Empresa. One-third of the 100,000 ships that pass through the Strait run north-south between Spain and Morocco, and the cargo terminals on either side are booming. Good for the economy, at the expense of congestion, emissions and road accidents.
The Spanish port of Algeciras has been one of Europe’s fastest-growing ports for decades, and is now a member of Europe’s 100-million metric-ton club. The Moroccan port of Tangier-Med, Africa’s second largest by volume, is expanding to accommodate another 5-million twenty foot equivalent units (TEU) a year, doubling its capacity by 2019. Renault’s automobile factory in northern Morocco is a major exporter from Tangier-Med, producing 229,000 cars a year with capacity to produce 50% more vehicles if needed.
A Hyperloop could offer clean and continuous capacity for all that growth. Spain has experience building big transit and infrastructure. It’s a competitive advantage among EU countries. Twenty-five years ago people in Spain embarked on an ambitious high-speed rail investment program. This could be one of the sectors where they can continue to lead over the next 25 years.
Hyperloop Spain would link three of Southern Europe’s most strategic cargo nodes into a multimodal super-corridor. The five to six million passengers crossing on ferries every year (and roughly two million air travelers) would cut their journey times by up to 80%. There will be heavy demand to shift from ferries to Hyperloop if it gets built. The Eurostar within 3 years had captured 70% of the passenger traffic between Paris and London.
The bigger picture is in freight. A container offloaded in Morocco’s sprawling port of Tangier-Med could be at an air cargo center outside Madrid In less than one hour. Today, it takes four to six days to move a container by train and ferry from Tangier to Madrid.
The biggest question mark in the proposal is the tunnel under the Strait. A conventional subsea tunnel excavated by giant boring machines is a known quantity, but could take a decade to complete. A submerged floating tube, also called an Archimedes Bridge, could be deployed far more quickly if approved, and it would be straighter and faster for Hyperloop transport. We’ve written about them before. They’re slightly flexible, well-sealed tubes stabilized with surface pontoons or cable stays to the sea floor. Their depth takes advantage of the hydrostatic effect between 25 and 60 meters with the least turbulence, and it’s down far enough to allow shipping and wildlife to pass. On land, acquisition of the rights-of-way can get complex but Spain and Morocco have similar policies regarding expropriation and the negotiation process is nearly automatic once it’s decided that the state will buy the land from the existing owners.
Even without the Gibraltar crossing, the domestic portion of the Hyperloop Spain-Morocco route would yield serious economic and environmental benefits. The Mediterranean port of Algeciras, Spain’s largest by volume, lacks a robust and reliable domestic freight link north to Madrid and greater Europe beyond. Everything goes north by truck, adding to congestion, pollution, and accidents. A Hyperloop link could transform Algeciras from a port focused almost entirely on transshipment today. More than 90% of arriving containers go right back onto another ship. A high-speed, emission-free and continuously operating Hyperloop running north to Madrid could convert Algeciras into an import hub, increasing productivity in Spain’s economy and adding a deep-water import hub to the smaller ports of Barcelona and Valencia.
The European Commission has identified the Europe-Africa corridor as one of strategic interest. Trade through the Strait of Gibraltar impacts the lives of 2 billion people. This proposal, which received the endorsement of both governments and private sector players such as Acciona and Fundación Universidad-Empresa, deserves watching.