Hyperloop Projects May Be Uniquely Vulnerable to Terrorism

Journalists and guests look over tubes following a propulsion open-air test at Hyperloop One in North Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Marcus.

The new technology is promising, but also creates significant security concerns.

Hyperloop projects are currently being developed all around the world, but according to experts, this new technology poses significant and unparalleled security concerns.

“We’re aiming for a city to city Hyperloop system, not within twenty years, not within ten years, but just within four years,” said Tim Houter, CEO of Hardt Global Mobility, at a TNW conference in Amsterdam.

Houter’s startup is developing a Hyperloop system with support from the Technical University of Delft, Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and multinational construction company BAM. It is one of many Hyperloop projects presently underway.

The city-state of Dubai recently announced a deal with Hyperloop One to explore the possibility of a line that would take passengers from Dubai to Abu Dubai in only twelve minutes. South Korea already has bullet trains, but the government there announced a deal with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to develop a system. Elon Musk’s original proposal examined the possibility of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco via Hyperloop, with a half-hour commuting time.

However, these Hyperloop transit systems could become a target for terrorism. The 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, the 7/7 London Underground bombings and the 2016 Brussels bombings all illustrate this point.

When asked for comment, (Ret.) Colonel David Dodd replied, “Terrorists prefer mass transit systems since they transport large volumes of people in concentrated spaces. To terrorists, these are ‘high-value targets’ with large-scale destruction. Rail transport security is difficult due to the large number of passengers, limited security screening, multiple access points, and vulnerable ground based infrastructure. Attacks on rail strike terror since rail is used by all social and economic demographics.”

At the Amsterdam conference, Houter characterized the grandiose appeal of Hyperloop transit routes by stating, “Imagine that you have the freedom to live and work wherever you want. Imagine that distances just don’t matter.”

For some industry observers, this level of optimism is undercut by a stark and dangerous reality. “A single breach in the Hyperloop will probably kill everyone else in the Hyperloop. You see once you breach the outside tube, air will rush into the tube at about the speed of sound,” said Dr. Phil Mason, a former Cornell University chemist, in a video created for YouTube.

In the scathing and controversial video, Mason highlights a series of engineering elements within the Hyperloop that he considers to be technically infeasible. He then goes on to outline substantial security concerns. The video has over one million views.

According to CEO Tim Houter, the Hyperloop will function by propelling capsules of passengers or freight through a vacuum tube. The capsules will levitate magnetically and without mechanical friction, while being accelerated and decelerated by linear electrical motors. Houter asserts that this system of propulsion will be CO2-neutral and powered entirely by solar panels.

A Hyperloop is expected to operate at an average speed of 600 mph. The nation-spanning tubes would be built above ground and placed on pillars. “And when you are near to crowded cities, or crowded places, you just go underground,” explained Houter. “And actually this is a bit more expensive because you need to dig a tunnel.”

Houter envisions a near-future in which travel over a whole continent is as easy as metro travel within a city. Dr. Mason envisions systemic design problems that will lead to massive loss of life in the event of failure.

If a terrorist attack caused a breach within the Hyperloop, the various capsules inside the tube would lose their power connections and become stranded, according to Mason. He asks, “What about the people trapped inside this six hundred kilometer-long steel tube? Well, there’s a wall of air traveling down towards them at about the speed of sound. Essentially, a shockwave, and it will kill everyone in the capsule when it hits them. The only option is to put on the brakes, the emergency brakes. Now of course you have to hope that the emergency brakes are good enough and the capsule strong enough to survive being hit by that one atmosphere pressure wave.”

Even if passengers in the capsules are able to survive this pressure wave, they would still find themselves in a devastating situation. “You are now trapped inside a six hundred kilometer tube, in a sealed capsule which you cannot get out of,” Mason states in his video. According to Mason, air in the capsules could run out and it would be logistically difficult to rescue all the people.

Hyperloop One’s global communications representative Marcy Simon and publicist Peter Coolen did not respond to requests for comment. However, levitation engineer Casey Handmer of Hyperloop One addressed security concerns in a Reddit AMA last fall. Dr. Handmer has filed five preliminary patents, focused on structures and magnetic machines, while working for Hyperloop One.