Meet the ‘flying train’ concept – 30 years before Elon Musk made it a reality

Back in 2012, tech billionaire Elon Musk lifted the lid on his “hyperloop” concept – a new mode of transportation aimed at drastically cutting travel times.

Musk, who said he was far too busy with space travel and the electric vehicle revolution, released an 57-page open-source design document on the hyperloop in 2013.

And while the hyperloop is steadily moving from science fiction into reality in 2017, Musk was not the first brilliant mind to envision such a future.

In 1982, Random House New York published the Kids’ Whole Future Catalog by Paula Taylor – a book looking “far” into the future (2000 and beyond).

One of the many ‘futuristic’ modes of transport mentioned in the book is the so-called ‘flying train’ – the Planetran – a train that floats above its rails, as it glides through underground tunnels or tubes.

This frictionless train system was one of the ideas Musk mentioned while discussing his concept of the hyperloop, and one of many similar ideas that have been batted around from as early as the 1800s.

The dream

As per the Future Catalog:

“In the future, trains may not run on rails. Instead, they’ll float slightly above their guideways or shoot through the middle of underground tunnels or tubes.

“A train called the Planetran, will travel in an airless tunnel deep underground. It will ride on magnetic waves generated by the train cars and by tracks running through the tunnel. With no air pressure to overcome, Planetran will be able to shoot through the vacuum tube at speeds fast enough to whisk passengers from New York to LA in just 21 minutes!”

The Planetran was first brought up in 1978, when the Rand Corporation published a paper by Robert M. Salter titled Trans-Planetary Subway Systems – A burgeoning capability.

In his design documents, Musk specifically mentions the Rand Corporation’s Planetran concept as inspiration for the hyperloop – and expressed how it very sadly didn’t gain any traction.

The Planetran was conceptualised as a system of tubes “deep underground”, and the building of the tube network would have accounted for the bulk of the cost, which was enormous – $750 billion (or over $2 trillion in today’s terms).

The hyperloop is somewhat more affordable, priced at about $7 billion.

The plan

Hyperloop alpha

Both conceptualise using vacuum tubes to speed passengers along, however, Musk highlights the biggest problem with this approach:

“It is incredibly hard to maintain a near vacuum in a room, let alone 700 miles (round trip) of large tube with dozens of station gateways and thousands of pods entering and exiting every day. All it takes is one leaky seal or a small crack somewhere in the hundreds of miles of tube and the whole system stops working.”

To solve this, the hyperloop has been conceptualised as a very low-pressure system, with the pods or capsules carrying the passengers, producing their own air cushion (like on an air-hockey table) to avoid friction.

The reality

In May 2017, the Hyperloop-One – co-founded by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar – made its first successful full system test, taking some of the first steps to make Musk’s concept a reality.

In the test, a metal sled accelerated to 112 km/h – levitating on a cushion of air – and flew about 150 meters down the length of a 500 meter steel tube that had most of the air sucked out of it.

Unlike the Planetran and the many similar concepts that came before, today’s technology is coming out of the pages of books like the Future Catalog, and into the very real world outside.

Read: This is what the future of tech looked like for people 35 years ago

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Meet the ‘flying train’ concept – 30 years before Elon Musk made it a reality