Transit veteran jumps to Hyperloop

Jay Walder, who spent several years at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in executive-level positions, has accepted the CEO post at Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO), one of several companies competing to build the first revenue-service version of the hyperloop, Elon Musk’s sub-sonic (700-mph) maglev-vehicle-inside-a-frictionless-vacuum-tube concept. Walder will replace Rob Lloyd, who headed VHO for three years.

Beginning in 1983, Walder, 59, worked on finance and capital projects at the MTA, working his way up to Chief Financial Officer. In 1995, he became a Lecturer in Public Policy at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, during which time he spent a year as a visiting lecturer at the National University of Singapore. In 2001, he left the U.S. to become Managing Director-Finance and Development at Transport for London, where he helped launch the contactless smartcard Oyster payment system. He was a partner at McKinsey & Company in London from 2007 to 2009, where he helped draft London’s 2012 Olympics plan and implement a downtown congestion pricing scheme. He returned to New York in 2009 as MTA Chairman and CEO, where he served until 2011 until he left for Hong Kong, where he headed up MTR Corporation at a salary approaching $1 million. In 2014, he returned to the U.S. as CEO of Motivate, North America’s largest bike-share operator. He left Motivate this past summer, after ride-share company and Uber competitor Lyft acquired it.

Walder is a member of MIT’s Visiting Committee for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Harvard Kennedy School Taubman Center Board of Advisors. He was a Fellow of the Hong Kong Management Association, member of the General Committee of the Employers’ Federation of Hong Kong, and a Governor of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Walder served on the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) Executive Board, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Executive Committee and the Eno Transportation Foundation Board of Advisors.

“Walder has a long history of working in and with governments on real, live transit projects that actually move people around,” said WIRED in a recent report. “Virgin Hyperloop One hasn’t done that yet. He’d like to help.”

“This is disruptive technology, and it’s changing the way we think about moving passengers,” Walder told WIRED. “But unlike other disruptive technologies—like Uber coming into cities—hyperloop is something that has to work collaboratively and cooperatively in partnership with them. Hyperloop could help us reimagine the ways we build cities and satellite cities, and make travel incredibly simple. It’s an incredible new technology, but we have to move from being at the science fair to turning this into a real project.”

VHO (founded as Hyperloop Technologies in June 2014) has a provisional agreement with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra to build a hyperloop between the cities of Punne and Mumbai, and hopes to start construction on a 6.8-mile test loop next year. VHO is also working on feasibility studies with Ohio and Missouri. And, according to WIRED, it is talking with the United Arab Emirates, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, and Estonia. The company has a 1,600-foot-long test track in the Nevada desert called the DevLoop.

VHO also has a new Chairman, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, Chairman and CEO of DP World, Dubai’s port operator and VHO’S largest investor. Sulayem replaces Richard Branson, who provided financial backing.

“Transit advocates and professionals have often argued that moonshot-like technologies like hyperloops are shiny distractions—that governments should use their time and money to create fast, frequent and usable transit instead of finding (and debugging) the next new thing,” WIRED noted. “So a few reacted with surprise when they heard Walder, a steadfast transit realist, was getting into hyperloop. ‘Intriguing is a good word,” says Bruce Schaller, a former New York City transportation official who is now a consultant. ‘Walder had already moved away from the mainstream transit type of job, but if you thought running a bikeshare company was a little bit novel…’ Schaller laughs. ‘You haven’t heard anything yet.’”

“If an accomplished transit CEO such as Walder agrees to join Hyperloop One, is it real?” one long-time rail industry professional told Railway Age. “I don’t know what they paid to get him, but we know money motivates him, judging from his move to Hong Kong. There is no proven technology and no product ready for commercial service. When will the distractions from following a realistic path end?”

“It’s really just a collection of existing transportation and industrial technologies. It’s a chimera, part elevated structure, metal tube, bullet train, pressure vessel, and vacuum system, all smooshed together. The challenge is integrating them without smooshing paying passengers—or profit margins …

“To suck the air out of the DevLoop, Hyperloop One uses a row of small pumps, housed in a metal building to one side. These are off the shelf components, typically used in steel factories or meat processing plants (it’s probably better not to ask for details). They can drop the pressure inside the tube to under 1/1000th of atmospheric conditions at sea level, the equivalent of what you get at 200,000 feet. By that point, the few air molecules left are not going to get in the way of a speeding vehicle. At the right-hand end of the tube, one section of pipe, about 100 feet long, operates as an airlock. A 12-foot steel disc slides across to separate that chunk from the longer tube, so that pods or other vehicles can be loaded in and out without having to pump the whole tube down to vacuum, which takes about four hours.

“The company plans to run these tubes along pylons, which should be easy enough, and lets it avoid some of the engineering work that comes with laying heavy [railroad] tracks along the ground. This short tube isn’t quite level, sloping down with the contour of the land, which a production system could do, gently, too. ‘That allows us to minimize the cost of the civil structures while keeping our elevations in check,’ says [Senior Test Engineer Kevin] Mock.

“Where the tube meets each T-shaped pillar of concrete holding up the 2.2-million-pound structure, sits a sliding bracket. Any civil engineer has wrestled with metal’s habit of expanding and contracting as temperatures change, and the Hyperloop crew in the desert is no exception. Even this relatively short section of steel changes length by several feet. ‘It moves a lot, and we had to account for that in the design,’ says Mock. A full sized hyperloop, running, say, 350 miles from LA to San Francisco, would need some sort of sliding expansion joints, which the company says its design will accommodate.

“Since introducing its prototype pod to the tube (VHO unveiled it in Dubai last year), Virgin Hyperloop One has completed some 200 test runs at varying speeds, collecting data on every variable it can track. In December [2017], it went for pure speed, sending the pod to 240 mph in just a few seconds—a new hyperloop record.”

Among the other companies competing for hyperloop glory:

  • Arrivo, run by ousted Hyperloop One founder and former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan. Arrivo is working with the Colorado Department of Transportation on a “hyperloop-inspired” system, minus the tubes.

  • Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which earlier this year unveiled a full-scale passenger pod, the Quintero One, which is more than 100 feet long and weighs five tons. Built in Spain, the pod was designed by “engineers with full-time jobs at places like Boeing and NASA [who] worked on it … in their spare time, in exchange for equity,” according to WIRED. “Now, HTT has more than 800 engineers helping out. It has struck partnerships with a pile of established engineering companies, including vacuum maker Leybold, engineering design firm AECOM, and Spanish tech company Airtificial. It has signed deals to investigate hyperloop networks—figuring out where the thing could run, who might use it, how much it should cost, how to build it with minimal fuss, and so on—in the U.S. France, the United Arab Emirates, India, Brazil, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. It’s working on regulatory, legal and insurance frameworks for this new transportation method.”

“None of these companies … has built an actual hyperloop,” WIRED recently noted. “Not one that transports people, or even cargo, running between actual destinations for actual money. Accordingly, the once-frantic hype has died down. The media, WIRED included, has dialed back its coverage of this young industry. But that doesn’t mean these engineers’ loop dreams have fizzled out. The physics of friction-free tube travel are solid—it’s just that lots of engineering work needs to be done to take a concept to reality. Add the regulatory questions of how to prove such a system is safe. The politics of getting new infrastructure built. The cost and time of doing so. And then, toughest of all, the question of how to make hyperloop financially competitive with current forms of long-distance travel. Railroads and airlines may not rake in cash, but they’re established, both as businesses and as trustworthy, effective ways to get around. And they’ve already spent decades amortizing the infrastructures that support them. Any new hyperloop venture will have to work off the cost of building out a whole new world of tubes.”