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Hyperloop Efforts Continue, but Don’t Count Out Passenger Rail Yet

Brent Warren Brent Warren Hyperloop Efforts Continue, but Don’t Count Out Passenger Rail YetA new map produced by MORPC shows the rail and Hyperloop routes, including the portions where they could share the same right-of-way.
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The idea of connecting Columbus to Chicago and Pittsburgh with a new, super-fast, tube-based form of transportation has received a lot of attention in the last few years.

The Hyperloop test pod made several appearances around Ohio last summer, delegations of local officials have flown out to Nevada to check out a desert test track for the technology, and Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Jay Walder recently travelled around the country looking to drum up support for the idea from political and business leaders.

With all the interest and coverage of the Hyperloop concept, it can be easy to forget that a proposal to build a passenger rail network along the same corridor is also being studied, and is, in fact, farther along in the planning process than its more futuristic counterpart.

Thea Walsh, director of transportation & infrastructure development for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), recently spoke to CU about the current status of the project, now officially known as the Rapid Speed Transportation Initiative (RSTI).

She stressed that for now, both the Hyperloop and passenger rail options are being studied, but, “if some of the political interests along the line start showing a preference, it’s going to limit our ability to continue on one or the other.”

“Most communities are interested in hearing about both technologies, because they know there’s risk involved in both cases,” Walsh added.

“They both have their issues – one is a technology that’s not certified,” she said, referring to the fact that the Hyperloop concept has not yet been proven to work on a large scale, let alone approved by any sort of regulating authority (the test track that Virgin Hyperloop One built in the desert is only half a kilometer long and the pods that have run on it have not had people inside).

“The other (passenger rail), is just poorly funded and not very easy to navigate from a federal and legislative standpoint,” Walsh said, explaining that current rules give trains carrying freight priority over passenger trains along most routes. That means that the process of adding passenger trains to a freight route can be complicated, and usually involves significant improvements to the corridor in order to minimize conflicts and allow for more pull-offs.

Last week, Walsh and her MORPC colleague Dina Lopez presented the latest RSTI study results to the Dublin City Council. It was the first in a series of presentations they are making to different jurisdictions in the region, with public meetings scheduled to follow in the new year.

Although MORPC is not yet taking sides in the Hyperloop-versus-rail debate, the organization does believe that some type of travel alternative is needed in the corridor. The latest study results only strengthened that case, according to Walsh, who cited projected population and job growth, as well as the safety and economic development gains that another mode of transportation could bring.

Maps produced by MORPC show the projected job and population growth along the corridor.

The latest study found that the Hyperloop could be run at an average speed of 500 mph along the route. From Columbus, that would translate to a 41-minute trip to Chicago and a 20-minute trip to Pittsburgh. The study also found that a significant amount of tunneling and bridge infrastructure would be required to enable those speeds, which would certainly add to the cost of the project.

The study did not contain a cost estimate, although an earlier study by the Colorado Department of Transportation put a $24 billion price tag on a shorter route in that state, and a study in Missouri pegged the cost at between $30 and $40 million per mile.

Another clue to the cost of the Hyperloop can be found in the “certification track.” That’s the next step in the advancement of the idea – a five-to-ten mile long track meant to prove that the technology will work on a large scale and at full speed. Virgin Hyperloop One has generally been careful not to talk too much about dollar amounts, but a representative of the company told CU in August that a similar track being built in India right now will likely cost around $500 million.

These numbers, though inexact, show that building out a Hyperloop could cost ten times or more what a passenger rail connection would (a 2013 study of a proposed high speed rail link from Columbus to Chicago put the total estimated cost at $1.285 billion).

Who exactly would pay for such an investment is unclear, but the Virgin Hyperloop One representative told CU that the company is looking for “the best offer” from the different regions currently vying for the certification track.

All that uncertainty adds up to an estimated timeline for actually building a Hyperloop that is pretty far out in the future. Walsh told the Dublin City Council that work could start on a certification track in 2023 or 2024. As for the eventual completion of a Hyperloop system along the Chicago to Pittsburgh corridor, “We’d be looking more 2040s, 2050s,” she said.

No timeline for building out passenger rail along the corridor was given, but the uncertainty associated with that proposal has more to do with the political and regulatory environment than it does with the technology itself. The latest study looked at electronic locomotives carrying trains at speeds of 110 mph, although it noted that average speeds would likely start out slower and increase as improvements are made to the route.

“Passenger rail has advanced further than Hyperloop as a result of these studies, (and) we wouldn’t have had the money to do that had it not been for interest in both technologies,” Walsh pointed out. “A couple years ago…we couldn’t get funders to come to the table (to study passenger rail without the Hyperloop component).”

Despite what may seem from the outside like slow progress and an uncertain prognosis for success, Walsh said that her team at MORPC is “really encouraged by where we’re at today…at end of day – with the significant job and population growth we’re going to see – we definitely have a good case for moving people on this corridor.”

Map showing the places where tunneling or bridges would be required to build a Hyperloop connecting Chicago to Columbus and Pittsburgh.
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