Engineers who worked on the California test tunnel fondly remember their contributions as Musk moves on.
Erik Wright was elated when he received news in 2016 that his company had been selected to help with an ambitious technology project: building the prototype tunnel for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. The initiative was intended as a test run for a futuristic transportation system with floating pods hurtling through tubes at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Earlier this year, Wright received a text message with an update about the tunnel: it would be torn down.
The Test Tunnel Demise — a roughly a mile long white cylinder that runs along Jack Northrop Avenue near the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. office. in Hawthorne, California – symbolizes a greater retreat. While Musk still says he wants to build a Hyperloop, the project has been shelved indefinitely. Musk eventually established a tunneling company called Boring Co., but it falls short on levitation and jet-like speeds. Instead, Teslas in the transit system in Las Vegas drive conference attendees at a ho-hum pace through dedicated underground roads.
Representatives of Boring Co. and SpaceX have not responded to requests for comment.
Still, Wright said, the short-lived test project remains a high point in his career. When his company, San Luis Obispo, California-based Precision Construction Services, took over, it was a small business with only a handful of accomplishments. Since then, it has had several high-profile appearances, including building a 3D printing lab for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and working on several launch facilities at the Vandenberg Space Force Base.
“The Hyperloop is a badge of honor for us,” said Wright. It even helped the company land several non-transport contracts, such as an 8,000-square-foot climbing gym. Clients told him, “If you’ve built the Hyperloop, you can definitely build my project,” he said.
Before it was demolished, the Hawthorne Hyperloop test tunnel served as a testing ground for future Hyperloop technology. Starting in 2017, it hosted student competitions to run Hyperloop pods at high speeds.
Construction engineer Aecom designed and built the foundation and steel tube of the tunnel. Precision was responsible for everything in the tube, including the concrete sub-course, concrete joints, the aluminum track and the interior lighting. Each of those components expands and contracts at different rates, making it difficult to meet the measurement requirements of forty-thousandths of an inch.
After learning the fate of the tunnel via group text a few months ago, Wright went on a video call with other contractors working on the project. The call was a reminder. “We had a sentimental moment when we knew this was going to be removed,” he said. “Like a memorial service.”
Today, Boring Co. extensive plans for its transportation network in Las Vegas. But there’s no sign of a return to the ambitious dream of super-fast pods — despite Musk’s occasional tantalizing tweet. Still, Wright hasn’t given up on a future Hyperloop system to come out one day, crediting the Boring Co. for taking things in the right direction.
Meanwhile, last week there was no trace of the Hyperloop tube on Jack Northrop Avenue. A team of workers wearing safety helmets dug and took measurements. A local councilor said parking spaces for SpaceX employees will soon line the street where the tunnel once ran.