Containers hovering through low-pressure tubes between the port of Hamburg and transfer points located in the hinterland. Sounds like SciFi but could become reality in the coming decade. It would be a pioneering and ground-breaking project like no other before revolutionizing the world of freight transportation.
In a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) inked by Germany’s leading terminal operator Hamburger Hafen and Logistik AG (HHLA) and Los Angeles, California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technology
(HTT), both companies emphasize their determination to operate the first Hyperloop capsules carrying steel boxes between the port of Hamburg and its hinterland.
“We are in advanced contract negotiations with HTT to build a joint venture aimed at going ahead with the Hyperloop plans and to address numerous technical, legal and financial issues that have to be clarified as a precondition for realizing the venture,” HHLA’s head of communications Hans-Joerg Heims confirmed the current status to CargoForwarder Global.
Describing the working atmosphere of these meetings he spoke of “intensive and constructive discussions,” held in a “topic-oriented manner,” and “focused on achieving a positive outcome.”
Hurdles appear surmountable
However, until a final deal is inked clearing the way for the first capsule transporting steel boxes, smoothly riding on a frictionless magnetic cushion through the low-pressure environment of a tube, both companies still face a bumpy road ahead. This is because the “preconditions” the HHLA manager speaks of are numerous. For instance, it needs a new concept enabling fully automated, fast and efficient loading/unloading processes to get the containers on board the vehicles and out again at the transfer points. The cabins, originally shaped for carrying passengers, have to undergo a complete redesign for carrying large and heavy ocean freight containers. Besides the design changes the system requires numerous technical adaptions. For the technical side of this project the Hyperloop crew is ultimately responsible for.
Together, both players have to decide if the airless tubes should be mounted on stilts along or above today’s highways connecting the harbor with the hinterland or – optionally – be constructed below ground. It can be presumed that at the end it depends on financing to determine which of the two solutions will get the okay.
Finally, speaker Heims reminds that the entire project has to undergo a planning approval process. A legal requirement that often is arduous, lengthy and whose final outcome before being fully watertight is unpredictable until the last minute, evidenced often enough by similar schemes.
Nevertheless, it’s worth driving the plans forward fast because once containers are transported in Hyperloop capsules from the quayside to consolidation centers outside the city, this way replacing trucks, it would surely ease the permanent traffic jams at Hamburg harbor. Also, it could become a model case and thus door opener for similar schemes, Herr Heims emphasized.
Driving force for Industry 4.0
Turning to politics, it can be assumed that the intended Hyperloop-HHLA joint venture plans are supported by Hamburg’s coalition of Reds and Greens. Not only because the city owns a majority interest in the terminal operator but also because it fits nicely with HHLA’s digital strategy to become an engine for technological change.
When we asked Mr Heims about the timeframe set by the initiators for realizing their ambitious Hyperloop aims, he said that this is a million-euro question. It depends on a multitude of factors, making a precise roadmap unpredictable from the vantage point of the present.
Therefore, it seems that until day X a lot of water will still flow down the Elbe river.