Chicago to Pittsburgh in 45 minutes? To Cleveland in 28? That might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but serious people, and serious money, are committed to the effort to make so-called "hyperloop" travel a reality.
While skeptics question its technical, economic and practical feasibility, supporters envision a transformational technology.
"A hyperloop connecting Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago would transform the movement of goods and people in the Midwest and create a Great Lakes Megaregion, home to some 20 percent of the nation’s population and economic activity," one of the companies, Virgin Hyperloop One, stated in support of its preferred route.
The other company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HyperloopTT, is focusing on the Chicago-Cleveland connection. "The Great Lakes Megaregion is the gateway between the Midwest and the Northeast," HyperloopTT stated. "The Great Lakes Hyperloop will take the region’s over-stressed infrastructure into the 21st century by establishing an efficient network connecting a megaregion which boasts over $6 trillion in annual GDP. "
Both companies are active internationally. In the Midwest, they have teamed up with two Ohio metropolitan planning organizations to plan routes for the futuristic transportation system
'Transportation of Tomorrow'
Hyperloop technology is the brainchild of entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made the intellectual property available to the public in 2013. The hyperloop would use podlike vehicles traveling through a tube with very low atmospheric pressure.
"The benefit of the low-pressure environment is that it all but eliminates aerodynamic drag on the vehicle," Virgin Hyperloop One Business Strategy Director Josh Raycroft told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation at a Sept. 13 hearing on "Transportation of Tomorrow."
"This allows it to reach very high speeds and consume a small amount of energy while it's traveling along the track," Raycroft continued. "We use electromagnetic propulsion to move the vehicle, and we use magnetic levitation, rather than wheels, to allow the vehicle to glide along the track."
Raycroft told the Senate committee that Virgin Hyperloop One, which is based in Los Angeles and employs about 250 people, has had success at its test facility, called DevLoop, near North Las Vegas, Nevada.
"On May 12, 2017, we had our 'Kitty Hawk moment'," Raycroft said. "We successfully completed the world's first full-system, self-powered Hyperloop test-run. In December 2017, we reached speeds up to 240 mph. This gives us high confidence we can reach our target speed of about 600 mph as we continue to develop the technology."
The company has invited regional planning officials to its test site to see its progress first-hand. Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Ty Warner and Chairman Geoff Benson were there in May, and reported their impressions to commission members this summer.
"I think our big takeaway was that, just like autonomous vehicles have gone much faster than anyone expected, there's a lot more being poured into this research and this concept than you might think, from the sort of science fiction aspect of it," Warner said.
The Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh route is one of 10 worldwide that Virgin Hyperloop One is pursuing as a result of a 2017 "Global Challenge."
The company's main partner in the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh project is the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the metropolitan planning organization serving the greater Columbus, Ohio, area — the mid-point region in the Midwest Connect route.
"We have the opportunity to transform those regions by connecting those economies — connecting the assets in those cities in new ways," MORPC's executive director, William Murdock, said in announcing a $2.5 million planning project called the Rapid-Speed Transportation Initiative.
MORPC has been joined in the effort by the Columbus Partnership, a group of more than 65 Columbus CEOs.
The initiative will include a feasibility study by the engineering firm AECOM, a frequent partner of Virgin Hyperloop One. A second phase will consist of the first tier of an Environmental Impact Statement, the federally mandated, detailed analysis necessary for any major transportation project. The EIS, to be done by the engineering firm WSP USA, also will include traditional high-speed rail.
Thea Walsh, the transportation systems and funding director for MORPC, said the feasibility study should be done in seven or eight months, and the EIS in about 10. They will include two potential corridors and multiple alignments along them, she said.
Walsh noted the lack of a direct connection between Chicago and Columbus as a motive for the project.
"There's no over-the-road, easy way between Chicago and Columbus," she said. "This isn't duplication of an existing route."
She also said freight-hauling would benefit from hyperloop.
"There's a lot of freight moving between Columbus and Chicago," she said. "It's a faster connection to get more done."
The initial Midwest Connect route has the hyperloop passing through Fort Wayne, and the city and the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association are partners in the planning project.
Public-private partnership is at the core of both hyperloop projects.
Great Lakes Hyperloop
HyperloopTT, also headquartered in southern California, has signed a public-private partnership agreement with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, backed by a large consortium of business, educational institutions and civic groups, to pursue a Chicago to Cleveland hyperloop. NOACA has also contacted the Illinois Department of Transportation for its assistance.
NOACA, the metropolitan planning organization for five counties in the Cleveland area, intends to pursue its own feasibility study, a $1.2 million project funded by HyperloopTT, the agency and its partners. According to HyperloopTT, the study will address route options, travel demand, environmental considerations, technology and finances.
The Great Lakes Hyperloop project map shows a route along the Indiana-Michigan stateline into Ohio. But HyperloopTT hopes that's only the beginning of a wide-ranging Great Lakes network.
“The Great Lakes megaregion represents a $15 billion transportation market with tens of millions of tons of cargo and millions of passengers connecting to the cities within the region every year,” NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci said when the partnership with HyperloopTT was announced. “Technologies like the Hyperloop can take our over-stressed infrastructure into the 21st century and beyond.”
But critics aren't convinced the technology and business model are sound. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is direct in its preference for "steel wheel on steel rail."
"Transportation experts have ... noted that hyperloop backers have wildly underestimated the costs of right-of-way acquisition, construction and operating," the association argues. Also, hyperloop cannot take advantage of the network of railroads and train stations already in existence, in the way high-speed rail can, it notes.
And, while testing has begun, some question hyperloop's safety and comfort for passengers.
HyperloopTT insists "there would be no turbulence along the travel, and the capsules would be pressurized to ground level air pressure. The capsules have been designed with special attention to maintaining a high level of passenger comfort throughout the trip, including methods of limiting the force felt by passengers during the critical acceleration and braking phases."
People working on hyperloop know challenges remain. Walsh, of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, cites questions over cost, funding, creation of a regulatory structure, determination of the system's path and where it would have stations. Officials hope right-of-way could be acquired along existing highways or railroads, but that remains to be seen.
"There are so many questions," Walsh said.
Work, meanwhile, continues. Virgin Hyperloop One's Raycroft told the Senate Commerce Committee that his company hopes the technology will be operational by the mid-2020s.