Test tube Hamburg port to test Elon Musk’s Hyperloop vision

Beset by problems that put it behind rival Rotterdam, Germany’s biggest port is upping the ante. It will build a 100-meter Hyperloop line to test transporting containers using Musk's vacuum-tube system.
Quelle: Hyperloop TT
Sea containers never moved so fast.
(Source: Hyperloop TT)

The port of Hamburg, Europe’s third-largest, will use the futuristic Hyperloop transport system devised by Tesla founder Elon Musk to transport shipping containers from the quayside to container yards inland.

The Hyperloop works by creating a vacuum in which pressurized capsules carrying passengers or cargo travel on an air cushion. Musk came up with the idea of sending people down tubes at high speed in 2011 as an alternative to a controversial high-speed railway line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In theory, the capsules could travel at speeds of up to 1,220 kilometers per hour (758 mph), making them faster than commercial airliners.

Several consortia have been working on projects to realize the idea, including LA-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which has signed a contract with the Hamburg port operator, Hamburger Hafen und Logistik.

The two companies have set up a joint venture to develop and test seaport and inland shipping container operations and bring them to market. They will start by building a transfer station at a Hamburg container terminal and a 100-meter cargo route together with a freight capsule and a loading dock.

“I’m convinced that there are opportunities in Germany for Hyperloop,” said Angela Titzrath, the CEO of HHLA.

The aim is to pave the way for more ambitious applications of the Hyperloop idea. One day, containers could whoosh down pipes to logistics hubs outside the port, relieving congested roads and rail lines and reducing air pollution.

The partners will initially invest €7 million ($7.9 million) in the venture, a manageable sum given HHLA’s annual revenues of €1.3 billion.

Hamburg, a former tech trailblazer

The project is also a way for Hamburg to revamp its reputation after the port lost business to Rotterdam and Antwerp in recent years. That's mainly due to the 10-year delay in dredging the Elbe river to enable to port to handle the new generation of bigger container ships.

The delays were caused by concerns that dumping mud and sand on fragile coastal wetlands would devastate the environment. The dredging won’t be completed for two more years.

In the first nine months of 2018, the port’s throughput fell 3.4 percent to 100.8 million tons and container throughput fell 2.4 percent to 6.6 million TEU – 20-ft standard containers.

Titzrath, a former manager at automaker Daimler, was hired to run HHLA two years ago and has been tasked with propelling the port into the digital age. “After I joined people kept saying: ‘You promised digital change, so start delivering’,” she said. Now, she needs to complete the showcase project in time for the global ITS mobility congress that Hamburg will host in 2021. It’s being billed as Hamburg’s chance to show it’s serious about developing modern hinterland connections – and to build on past innovations. In the late 1990s, Hamburg was first to introduce GPS and automated port operations. In 2001, it was one of the first terminal operators to use self-driving vehicles and other ports around the world emulated it.

Tech-shy Germany needs ‘visionary projects’

HyperloopTT, founded in 2013, has been arranging cooperation deals to build Hyperloop lines around the world including Europe’s first test line in Toulouse, home to the Airbus consortium. It plans to build a line in Abu Dhabi and has signed a feasibility study to link the Slovakian capital of Bratislava with Brno in the Czech Republic, 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. It is also exploring ventures in South Korea and Indonesia.

A letter of intent signed by Hyperloop TT in Ukraine could be of particular interest to Hamburg because it runs a terminal in the port of Odessa.

Ideally, Hamburg could license the technology for other ports. It would be a welcome change given Germany’s sluggish embrace of new technologies in recent decades as it struggles to catch up with other countries in rolling out high-speed internet.

The Transrapid magnetic levitation system, a promising technology allowing high-speed rail travel developed by Siemens and Thyssen – with a vast amount of taxpayers’ money – foundered on public opposition to the cost of building commercial routes.

“On one hand, we in Germany complain that we lag behind technologically, on the other, ideas are talked down before they’re even started,” said Titzrath, adding that's why brave, visionary projects matter.

Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]