The future of transit

Rieneke Van Noort

Delft Hyperloop, TUM Hyperloop, Swissloop and EPFLoop – these university student teams were the finalists of the Hyperloop Pod Competition 2019. While most of us were a spectator to the finals, Rieneke Van Noort was in the midst of all the action. I sit down with the 21-year-old Civil engineering Master’s student and captain of the Delft Hyperloop (2019) team to talk about leading a group of 40, the work that goes on behind the scenes, California and much more. 

Text by Padmini Manivannan

Rieneke van Noort walks into the room with an air of assuredness. She makes quite the statement with flaming red hair and an impeccably put together outfit. With a brisk handshake, we settle in to talk about her work with the hyperloop dream team. 

The Delft Hyperloop team qualified for the finals of the Hyperloop Pod competition organised by Space X in the headquarters at Los Angeles yet again. The Hyperloop is touted to be the next big innovation in the field of transportation – fast, efficient and sustainable. The pods are meant to travel in sealed, reduced-pressure tubes. Rieneke, along with the rest of her team flew to the US in batches, staying at a modest Airbnb near the site of the finals. After weeks of running tests and fine-tuning the pod, the team was placed fourth in the competition. The pod reached speeds of 200 km/hr before communication broke down which activated the emergency brakes.

“Being captain wasn’t really part of the plan. I had just graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and at that point, you’re just so young.” Like every happy happenstance, her friend had convinced her to try out for one of the dream teams. “I thought because of my Civil engineering background, innovation in the transport sector might be interesting to explore. By the end of the Interest drinks, I was super excited about the hyperloop and applied for a technical position.”

The selection team noticed her background in leadership (she was the President of the Civil Engineering student council) and she eventually got selected to be the team captain of Delft Hyperloop.

Personal information:

Name: Rieneke van Noort
Country: The Netherlands
BSc: Civil Engineering, TU Delft
MSc: Civil Engineering - Hydraulic Engineering track, TU Delft
Position: Captain of the Delft Hyperloop team 2018-19

You need to be whatever your team members need you to be.

In this team, the largest part of the group is devoted to the Hyperloop Pod Competition. “For us, the challenge was to build a vehicle that goes as fast as possible. For that, we have to ensure that the power to weight ratio is as high as possible. We also have another part of the team working on the concept and scalability of the hyperloop for the future.” The team released a VR concept video that went viral and word has it that Elon Musk liked it. “The scalability team worked on this VR concept that allows the user to experience what it’s like to go to a Hyperloop station, get in using a sort of OV Chipkaart and travel in the hyperloop pod. We did this so that more people become enthusiastic and more comfortable with the idea of the hyperloop and get used to the idea of travelling in a station of the future.”

I ask her what it’s like to be responsible for 40-odd people and in a way, carry the expectations of a whole community of people rallying for them to win. She immediately delves into the team’s structure and has a very rational, Dutch response. “We have 3 people in the management team who basically run the whole project and it involves a lot of coordination and practicalities. This also includes communication with the dream hall and with our partners. We have people dedicated to these tasks but when they needed help with brainstorming, I would usually do that.” She tells me she was mostly responsible for the vision and image of the Delft Hyperloop and for keeping team’s spirits up. “I would talk to a lot of people – how are you doing? how are you feeling in the team? is everything going alright?” she lists each question with her fingers. It also speaks to her management style. “Obviously, we had a lot of discussions in meeting rooms, but for one-on-one conversations like these, we would just take a walk or get a cup of coffee. People are more likely to open up that way.”

I guess it’s the mark of a good captain – of truly being a team leader. “Being flexible is very important. You need to be whatever your team members need you to be.” Rieneke admits she has had previous experience leading people but never in this scale. “You need to be enthusiastic about what the team is doing and the field they are working on – in my case, innovation in the transport sector because as team captain it is your responsibility to get that enthusiasm across. If you are presenting on stage, make sure the audience leaves the room just as excited about your visions as you are,” she says passionately. I recognise a fellow storyteller in her – “I learnt that I love public speaking and presenting, sharing visions and making people enthusiastic by telling stories.”

I love public speaking and presenting, sharing visions and making people enthusiastic by telling stories.

I asked if she had ever been to the US before. “This summer was my first time going to America! Everything was bigger and over the top. Traffic in LA is not doable,” she says, channelling an inner valley girl for a split second. “You’re stuck in traffic all the time. It was nice to be there but it was also really nice to be back home,” she remarks contently. “Every team is given their own booth for scrutineering and inspection and as the final week started, we became very friendly with the other teams. The vibes of the place were completely different from anything I had ever experienced before.”

The journey to the finals was in no way easy. “There are 40 people in the team and everyone comes in with different expectations. It was difficult to align their goals such that everyone was able to learn what they wanted to and reach the goals they aspired to and still get the best pod design. It became a challenge partly also because we found out about it late in the year.” There were, of course, plenty of happy memories along the way. “Collectively, the day before the competition was the happiest because, on the day of the competition, the pod didn’t go as fast as expected. But the day before, when we tested it with the final settings, it worked exactly as expected and everyone was cheering!”

When you are part of a team, the emotions and adventures are, in a sense, amplified and resonate through the group “It was such a rewarding experience. When the pod disappointed us in the finals, the team was as strong as ever – comforting each other with hugs and kind words. Everyone truly had each other’s back. Especially, at the end of the night, when our emotions had some time to settle, everyone was so proud of themselves and the team. Especially as a team leader, I have never been more proud in my life.”

Being so young and having the experience that she does now surely opens up a lot of avenues for Rieneke. I ask what’s next for her, personally. “I first want to finish my Master’s in hydraulic engineering. I am not sure what I want to do after but I think I definitely want to stay in the Civil Engineering field. I am not sure about managing projects yet. I think it has been a really valuable experience. It taught me what my strengths are but also exposed my weaknesses.” She takes a moment to think, trying to imagine what the future holds. “I like presenting and public speaking. Maybe I’d like to do something with that but not sure how it aligns with Civil engineering just yet.”

The Hyperloop is still being developed and several spin-off companies have been launched. I ask her what she thinks about the future of the hyperloop. “I think the most important thing is to get people enthusiastic about it – to know the concept and accept it. Because sometimes people just think whatever is new is weird and we want people to get over that. It might be 10 years from now to have a working prototype but I think it has great potential.”