Can people and goods really be propelled in pods through cylindrical steel tubes at speeds approaching — and even exceeding — 700 mph?
A few companies say the answer is “yes,” and they say they’re zeroing in on the technology to make it happen.
Some six companies at some point have acknowledged exploring the “hyperloop” concept in the United States.
They include billionaire Elon Musk’s Boring Co., which was said to be looking at a route from Maryland to Washington, D.C., and Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One, which is looking at a route that would tie Pittsburgh to Chicago via Columbus.
Hyperloop One is one of two companies considering putting at least part of a hyperloop route in Ohio, the other being California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Thea Walsh — transportation systems and funding director at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in Columbus — said the commission has consultants conducting a pair of studies, examining the feasibility and the environmental impact of a Buckeye state hyperloop route.
“It’s a corridor we were looking at for passenger rail anyway,” Walsh said. “As you know, (Columbus) is also a heavy freight area. Dayton is, and Ohio is too.”
Walsh said the feasibility study should be completed in seven months. “At least our early numbers indicated there could be a significant level of travel for people and goods.”
In February this year, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — or HyperloopTT or HTT — and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency unveiled plans for what they called “the Great Lakes Hyperloop.”
Key to that partnership is a feasibility study which will take six to nine months.
The companies take pains to set themselves apart. Marcia Christoff, spokeswoman for Virgin Hyperloop One, said hers is the only company that has achieved anything approaching a proof of concept for the high-speed transportation mode.
“It must be made clear up front that we are the only hyperloop company on the planet that has built the actual hardware, that has done live-test track demonstrations, that has the financial backing necessary for this kind of undertaking, and the kinds of investors who are in many respects household names,” Christoff said.
HTT, on the other hand, has told online magazine Slate that it is building a 400-meter working prototype in the south of France. In about a month after the Slate article was published, HTT announced the arrival of the first tubes designed to move people and freight to the company’s research and development center in Toulouse, France.
HTT has recently signed commercial agreements for 10-kilometer passenger systems in China and Abu Dhabi, Dick Ahlborn, HTT chief executive, said in an email. Besides its work with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the company is also working with the Illinois Department of Transportation in Chicago.
More recently, HTT and German insurance company Munich Re said they have crafted a set of core safety requirements and certification guidelines for the fledgling mode of transportation.
“It has been gratifying to see that global interest for the next evolution in efficient high-speed transportation now sees us sharing the stage with multiple governments, universities, and multiple companies, like Virgin, around the world,” Ahlborn said.
Grace Galucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, said the Great Lakes Hyperloop would be a network between cities. Cleveland to Chicago would be the spine, with other points added to it later, creating what she called a “mega-region.”
The network would include Dayton and Cincinnati, at least according to the early vision, said Galucci, herself a graduate of the University of Dayton.
“We definitely want this to not just be for city folks,” Hyperloop One spokesman Ryan Kelly said when asked about a possible Dayton stop on that company’s prospective route.
But he said stops along routes need to make economic sense.
No one is talking about precise timelines or costs at this point. Walsh and Galucci each said they understand skepticism, but they believe in the companies with which each of their organizations are working.
“It’s simply a plane without wings. It’s simply at ground level,” Galucci said.
“I will admit that when I first heard of the hyperloop, I thought it was really exciting … but at the same time, (I was) skeptical,” Walsh said. “It seemed it would be far into the future.”
“But the technology is pretty much on its way,” she added.
“I think it’s a lot closer than people think,” Galucci said.
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