Live in Abu Dhabi and go to work in Riyadh? Starting your two hour trip in Jeddah to Dubai? Day trip from Riyadh to Makkah?
This futuristic notion could become a reality in the era of hyperloop, fast transit technology that will change everyday life in the Middle East, and around the world, over the next decade.
Harj Dhaliwal, managing director for the Middle East and India at Virgin Hyperloop Group, is more confident than ever that hyperloop technology is the future transport system after the first successful test of passenger transport on a desert route in Nevada in weeks. then.
“The US Secretary of Transportation (Elaine Chao) said hyperloops were the most interesting thing that happened to transportation today, and you have to agree with him. Once this technology is proven, high speed rail will be a thing of the past, “he told Arab News.
Derived from Dhaliwal, quite a claim. His career, initially focused on transportation projects in the UK, has developed into sophisticated rail systems in the Middle East, including the Etihad Rail project in the UAE and the Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia, for the US group Parsons. But the hyperloop will change the basics of travel forever, he believes.
“Why would anyone want to invest billions in technology that was basically a steel wheel on a steel rail, effectively 150 years ago, when they had hyperloop potential?” He asked.
Dhaliwal acknowledged that railways will still have a role in the region – in the movement of heavy bulk goods and petrochemicals, for example – but hyperloops are the technology of the future, and no more so than in Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, the company signed an agreement with the Kingdom’s transport ministry to study the potential for a hyperloop, which involves building a test line facility and other technological infrastructure.
The agreement could mark a closer financial relationship between Saudi Arabia and Virgin Hyperloop, which has so far raised $ 400 million from investors including DP World, a UAE port and logistics company, but which needs more resources to fund the next stage of its evolution.
Saudi Arabia will be one of three strategic centers for the Hyperloop, with others in India and the US. The company recently announced plans to build a $ 500 million testing and certification center in West Virginia.
“We envision a similar facility in Saudi Arabia to connect the Kingdom and the wider Middle East, but also to act as a hub for manufacturing, technology and materials. Europe is not too far (from Saudi Arabia) and you can export technology and materials there, “he said.
The strategy is in line with the objectives of the Vision 2030 diversification plan, he said, which seeks to build a technology-based economy that is less dependent on oil revenues and creates high-value jobs for Kingdom citizens.
Born: England 1964
Education: Bachelor of engineering, Nottingham Trent University
Various roles in UK transport projects
Project director, Qatari Diar
Senior vice president, Parsons Corp.
Managing director, Middle East and India, Virgin Hyperloop
Dhaliwal sees the hyperloop playing an important role in linking several mega-projects planned under the reform plan, such as a technology metropolis under construction at NEOM in the northwest of the Kingdom, a sprawling theme park planned in Qiddiya south of Riyadh, and a maritime hub. in the Economic City of King Abdullah on the Red Sea.
He has also collaborated with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, near Jeddah, on the detailed aspects of hyperloop technology.
“We are working on understanding the Kingdom’s transportation requirements. Along with diversifying this increases the opportunities for a company like us to work in partnership with it as it looks to be a leader in the technology sector.
“There are many spin-offs in other technology areas, such as batteries, electric vehicles, solar power and artificial intelligence. It’s not just about transportation from A to B, there are endless opportunities for growth in manufacturing and knowledge, ”he added.
The Nevada test was an important milestone in technological development.
Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, said: “This is a historically significant step. I don’t think you can overstate it. This is the moment of dawn. I believe this will change the world. “
Dhaliwal takes a more modest view. “That is the culmination of two years of work. Since we started, a lot of people have asked me when people will actually ride it. So, we’ve proven that levitation in a vacuum environment works, and we can safely transport passengers in pods in a floating vacuum, “he said.
Other competing groups are also developing vacuum tube travel similar to hyperloops, and running tests in various parts of the world, but the Nevada trial is the first to bring a human in a pod inside a closed tube. The original idea for this technology came from Elon Musk, billionaire Tesla.
Two Virgin Hyperloop employees traveled the 500 meter test track in 15 seconds, reaching a speed of 172 kph.
“It doesn’t feel that different from the acceleration in a sports car,” said one person. Its speed is limited by the length of the test run, but Virgin Hyperloop has ambitions to move people and goods at speeds in excess of 1,000 km per hour.
That’s roughly the same speed as a commercial jet yacht at 30,000 feet, and it’s no surprise that Dhaliwal used airplane flight terminology – banking, rolls and pitch – to describe the performance of a moving vehicle.
Safety at such speeds is a major concern, and Dhaliwal and other Virgin Hyperloop executives spend considerable time discussing with regulators and certification officials as they work to prove the technology is viable for passengers.
There is no global standard for hyperloop travel, so the technology and associated infrastructure develop its own developed rules, mainly combining US and European regulations, along with local requirements in the Middle East.
“As a company, we have done what we have to do to get regulators and authorities to talk to the industry,” he said.
While all the attention was on the important first passenger journey, Dhaliwal also highlighted the hyperloop’s cargo carrying capabilities, especially when speed and efficiency are prized for the transport of high-value and perishable goods.
“Pods can combine to create convoys, which are by far the most efficient way to transport goods at high speed, and then separate electronically, then assemble again to continue the next part of the journey,” he said.
The ability to move high-value goods is one of the things that attracts DP World, the majority shareholder of Virgin Hyperloop. The UAE company has plans for a sophisticated logistics system at its Jebel Ali hub, and among other centers in the Middle East and elsewhere through its CargoSpeed operations. Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of DP Dunia, is also chairman of the Virgin Hyperloop.
Virgin, a business run by entrepreneur Richard Branson, is a minority investor and is also represented on the board. “Virgin is an intrinsic part of the business and we still have a lot of support from them,” said Dhaliwal.
At some stage, Virgin Hyperloop will be looking to add to the $ 400 million investment it has raised so far for expensive businesses building and operating more test facilities and, ultimately, for the first working service, although this is a long way off, perhaps at the end of the decade. .
“The amount we’ve raised is incredible for a startup that’s only six years old, but, yes, we’re going to need more investors and partners. We can always use more, “he said.
With its emphasis on advanced technology and job creation, the Virgin Hyperloop looks natural to Saudi Arabian investors. The Public Investment Fund, the Kingdom’s growing sovereign wealth fund that is behind the mega-project, has prioritized high technology and automation in its plans to help diversify the economy’s strategy.
“We are involved with the government in Saudi Arabia and with people who are running big projects. If there are investment opportunities, we will be very interested in developing them and that is what we are aiming for, “said Dhaliwal.
Assuming hyperloop technology lives up to its promises – and the Nevada passenger tests are a big step in that direction – it could be a game-changer in Saudi Arabia’s logistics and transportation, as well as a critical element in the Vision 2030 diversification plan.
“When I came to Virgin Hyperloop, I had a vision for a connected Bay, to create a ‘virtual territory’ where time and distance are no longer a barrier to work and development. The vision has not diminished, ”said Dhaliwal.