MOSCOW -- Russia is working around the clock to develop its own version of the Hyperloop, a futuristic high-speed transport system proposed by U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk. Construction of a route linking the Russian Far East and northeastern China is being planned and is expected to be completed in 2020.
Funneling massive amounts of capital into a fledgling technology may sound risky for a country struggling with a flagging economy, but Russia is banking on the project to kick-start economic activity in the underdeveloped Far East region, while also promoting the country's scientific and technological prowess.
Musk, the billionaire inventor behind electric car company Tesla Motors, came up with the idea for the Hyperloop in 2013. The concept involves the use of capsules that shoot through tubes in a virtual vacuum. On paper, the capsules will be able to reach speeds of up to 800mph (1,287kph), faster than the speed of sound.
When Russia got wind of the idea, it was immediately interested. According to the Russian media, Ziyavudin Magomedov, head of Summa Group, a diversified holding company for numerous Russian ports, has pumped more than $100 million into Hyperloop One, a venture company involved in the conceptual development of the transport system. A Russian state venture fund is also an investor.
In May, Hyperloop One completed the initial phase of testing in the U.S. state of Nevada. The following month, the Russian Ministry of Transport and Summa Group signed an accord to build a 70km cargo route linking the Russian port of Zarubino, on the Sea of Japan, with China's Jilin Province. Also in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Hyperloop One executives and promised his government's support to turn the idea into reality.
Maksim Sokolov, the transport minister, has indicated that the $460 million construction cost will be partially subsidized by a Sino-Russian government fund.
Connecting with Asia
Russia's embrace of the Hyperloop is in line with the Putin administration's national strategy of connecting economically with the Asia-Pacific region, the world's growth center. Russia has the world's largest land mass, straddling Asia and Europe. But its railroads are slow and falling apart.
The Russian Hyperloop could run above existing natural gas pipelines and be built at a lower cost than current transportation systems. Consequently, "this would solve in one brushstroke weaknesses in the transportation infrastructure and maintain distribution capabilities throughout Eurasia," said a high-level Russian economic official.
Moscow apparently sees revamping transport routes connecting to the European Union as a way to combat a shrinking population in the Russian Far East.
But there is more to Russia's embrace of the Hyperloop idea. Its bid to be an early adopter of a transport system far superior to the high-speed railroads used in advanced industrialized nations also hints at efforts to stir national pride. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was a world leader in space exploration, but a brain drain means today's Russia lags behind other industrialized countries in science and technology. The Putin administration appears to have a growing sense of crisis about the effects of this loss of talent.
Before Putin can celebrate the planned transport system, however, many technological hurdles must first be cleared -- not least of all those related to safety. Plunging prices of crude oil, Russia's main export, has dented the country's economy. The resultant decline in living standards has made more than a few Russians unhappy about the idea of dumping massive amounts of public funds into the project. And with corruption so prevalent, it is not unusual to see construction costs balloon to several times the initial estimate, destroying profitability.
Renowned Russian economic critic Leonid Bershidsky had this to say about the project: "It is difficult to reconcile the way Silicon Valley does business with the way the Russian state does."