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Hyperloop: All Hype or the Real Deal?

Brent Warren Brent Warren Hyperloop: All Hype or the Real Deal?
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The Hyperloop has been a hot topic in Columbus since January of last year, when a proposal to connect Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh with the futuristic technology was selected as one of 35 semifinalists in the Global Challenge.

A second round of media stories came last September, when Columbus was selected as one of 10 finalists in the contest, which is put on by Virgin Hyperloop One. (Known as simply Hyperloop One before a recent investment by Richard Branson, the company is one of several working to develop the vacuum tube-based form of transport.)

The local buzz grew louder when, last month, the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) announced that local funding would be going toward the production of a Hyperloop feasibility study.

And even more recently, a different company — Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — announced a plan to study a Cleveland to Chicago Hyperloop route.

Half an hour to Chicago?

Interest in the Hyperloop has grown with every new announcement, driven in large part by a tantalizing claim – that with this new technology, a trip from Columbus to Chicago would take less than 30 minutes. But is such a trip really possible? And if it is, how long might it take to develop this new technology to the point that a 300-mile long Hyperloop could actually be built?

Virgin Hyperloop One has made some major strides in just a few years. In May of 2016, the first public test of the underlying Hyperloop technology saw a small sled reach 116 mph on an outdoor track, while the latest test, in December of last year, successfully propelled a 28-foot-long pod through a depressurized tube at 240 mph.

This progress has led many to jump to the conclusion that the next leap is inevitable, that Columbusites will be making quick jaunts to Chicago for lunch in a matter of years. The city’s politicians and the Smart Columbus leadership team seem to be especially excited about just such a possibility.

But, a close examination of the claims and actual accomplishments of the various companies working on the technology reveals a much more opaque picture.

A 30-minute hyperloop trip to Chicago would require an average speed of 600 mph (we’ll keep it simple and look at a 30 minute trip of 300 miles, even though the distance could be more or less than that depending on the route). That would likely mean a top speed of well over 700 mph, which is about 200 mph faster than an airplane typically travels. It’s also right around the top speed envisioned by Elon Musk in 2013, when his original white paper on the idea first captured the public imagination and sent people scrambling to make it a reality.

The difference between the speed that the unmanned Hyperloop pod is currently being tested at and the speed necessary to get to Chicago in 30 minutes is significant. A number of serious engineering challenges would need to be overcome to make that leap, including building an air-tight tube that can flex with the weather and maintaining a vacuum inside the length of the entire 300-mile-long system. That’s to say nothing of safety concerns: what happens if the side of the tube is breached and the whole thing is suddenly depressurized?

Even if those challenges are met, though, it’s not known exactly how the human body would react to hurling through a vacuum tube at 750 mph.

What would it be like to ride in a Hyperloop?

Although engineers from Virgin Hyperloop One have promised a “vomit-free” experience that would be comparable to riding in an airplane, others have questioned how they are going to achieve this, especially along a route with changes in elevations or turns.

“People don’t really realize what the user experience is going to be; you’ll be strapped into a seat in a tube, and with the G-forces involved, you’ll not be able to get out of your seat,” said Harvey Miller, the director of OSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis and a professor who has studied the social dimensions of transportation systems. Miller added that he sees the potential Hyperloop experience as a clear downgrade from that of a train, where passengers can move around and look out the window.

How much would it cost?

Although Musk originally claimed that a Hyperloop could be built for significantly less than a high speed rail connection, citing a smaller physical footprint and the reduced amount of energy required to move a small pod through a vacuum, none of the companies currently working on the idea have provided an updated cost estimate for building an actual working Hyperloop, and experts have pointed out that compromises made in the last three years of developing the technology will likely change the cost equation significantly.

A study by the Colorado Department of Transportation, looking at the proposed Rocky Mountain Hyperloop (another Global Challenge finalist) put a $24 billion price tag on that 325-mile network. That’s a rough estimate. Nobody knows, for instance, how much will it cost to maintain a vacuum in a tube that is hundreds of miles long. But, it gives an idea of the cost of building out a completely new transportation infrastructure. A 2013 study of the proposed high speed rail link from Columbus to Chicago put the total estimated cost at $1.285 billion.

What about a slower Hyperloop?

Let’s say that the engineers at Virgin Hyperloop One aren’t able to solve the challenges inherent in a 750 mph Hyperloop, but that they continue to make progress and end up building one that travels as fast or faster than the fastest train currently in operation (that’s the Shanghai Maglev, which tops out at 270 mph).

Obviously, even a much slower Hyperloop would still get you to Chicago a lot faster than driving, which currently takes anywhere from five hours and 10 minutes to six hours and 20 minutes, according to Google Maps. Taking the top Hyperloop test speed achieved so far as a benchmark, an average speed of 240 mph could conceivably get you there in under two hours, but there are issues even with that simple extrapolation. The tests so far have been on a straight, 2,000-foot-long track in the Nevada desert, and those pods haven’t had anyone in them (a Virgin Hyperloop One engineer said last year that “we don’t anticipate putting humans on the test track any time soon.”)

Given the theoretical nature of that 30 minute hyperloop trip to Chicago, we thought it would be interesting to crunch some numbers and compare it to a possible high speed rail connection between the two cities (don’t forget, the study announced recently by MORPC will not just look at the feasibility of the Hyperloop, it will also fund an environmental impact study of a proposed high speed rail corridor).

How fast could high speed rail do the trip?

A 2013 study examined this question in some detail, looking at the potential cost and feasibility of upgrading existing freight lines between Columbus and Chicago so that passenger trains could travel the corridor at speeds of up to 110 mph. The study, which included potential time tables, estimated that an express train could get to Chicago from Columbus in three hours and 45 minutes. Local service with stops in Marysville, Lima, and Fort Wayne, among others would take four hours.

Of course, if you start looking for examples outside of the United States, there are plenty of existing high speed rail corridors that allow pretty quick trips between cities that are a similar distance apart as Columbus and Chicago:

  • Madrid to Seville (330 miles apart) – two and a half hours.
  • Tokyo to Osaka (310 miles apart) – two and a half hours.
  • Paris to Lyon (290 miles apart) – one hour and 52 minutes.

So, a US-style passenger train traveling at speeds currently achieved elsewhere in the country could get us to Chicago in three hours and 45 minutes, while a high speed rail more along the lines of what they have in Europe (or Asia, or Africa) could get us there in two to three hours.

What’s next?

Is Columbus taking a gamble by investing in a “nonexistent mode of transportation,” or is it being forward-thinking by getting in on the ground floor of a world-changing technological innovation? MORPC’s feasibility study will take the first crack at answering that question, adding some additional context and factual information to a community conversation in which, so far, both have been lacking.

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