HARRISBURG, PA (WHTM) – It's faster than the fastest train. The technology is more like the vacuum tube that carries a check from next to a car to a cashier at a bank drive-through window. But will Hyperloop, as it is known, ever really transport people?
Nobody knows for sure if it will be like that. However, proponents of the technology, as well as a previously unreported study by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, say it can.
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The idea for the report actually caught some attention when it was first proposed in 2017 and then when the Turnpike Commission started work on it in 2019, but no one seemed to notice than the previously highly anticipated report itself in mid-2020 was completed – likely because it was mid-2020, full of COVID concerns and social unrest.
The conclusion of the report? That the technology that could get people from Harrisburg to New York City in 24 minutes or to Chicago in 55 minutes is "not really science fiction," said Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
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"From a technology point of view, I think this is feasible," said DeFebo. "From a funding perspective, I think there is still a lot of work to be done."
DeFebo said a Hyperloop system could – technologically at least – be operational within a decade.
Vincent Valdes, engineer and planner, executive director and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, said he had no doubts about the technological feasibility of Hyperloop but agreed that funding the system would be challenging. Valdes was previously the Associate Administrator for the Research, Demonstration, and Innovation Office within the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C.
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The report, produced by AECOM for the Turnpike Commission, estimates the cost of a Pennsylvania-only Hyperloop system that carries passengers and cargo between cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and between Harrisburg and the state line into New York City $ 63 Billion. A system that runs from Chicago to Pennsylvania to New York City would cost an estimated $ 145 billion. However, the report assumes that the system would pay for itself over a period of decades through revenue (e.g. tariffs paid by drivers) and wider economic benefits.
Followers of Hyperloops in Pennsylvania say the state's geography is ideal for hyperloops along major transportation and trade routes, but transportation historian Dan Cupper said the topography is challenging.
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"The rugged mountains either have to be tunneled through them, which is expensive, or they have to be crossed, which requires a lot of land planning," said Cupper. He said flatter states like Florida and Texas pose fewer challenges in this regard.
DeFebo said lawmakers selected the Turnpike Commission to lead the study because it already has the right of way on much of the potential Hyperloop route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hyperloop can run through tunnels directly above the ground or high above the ground.
Cupper would start with a less expensive option. "The better option would be to improve the moves we have now," he said. That could mean faster speeds, sure, but more frequency – four a day in each direction between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, he said, rather than the current one per day.
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The outlook for Hyperloop appeared to have deteriorated earlier this month when, as Bloomberg News first noted, Elon Musk's The Boring Company removed a proposed Washington-Baltimore line from a list of projects on its website. One of two billionaire backed companies – the other is Virgin Hyperloop, backed by Richard Branson – The Boring Company is hoping to build Hyperloop lines in the US and elsewhere.
Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Alfalfa), who backed legislation directing the Turnpike Commission to investigate Hyperloop, did not respond to several messages from abc27 News asking for his reaction to the report.
Amtrak, the national rail system that could theoretically compete against Hyperloop for infrastructure funding one day, was pessimistic about both financial and technological feasibility. "A high-speed hyperloop that can safely transport a person is an unproven theoretical concept that does not exist," he told abc27 in a statement that will also be posted on its website. The full explanation can be found below.
The thought of soaring aboard a maglev at 300 mph or rushing through a steel tube in a hyperloop capsule at double speed may have some appeal to some travelers. However, the likelihood that the Maglev or Hyperloop will become a viable option for intercity travel in the US during their lifespan is very slim. A high-speed hyperloop that can safely transport a human is an unproven theoretical concept that does not exist. While Maglevs have operated a few short demonstration lines since the 1970s, the Asian and European countries where they were tested invariably chose to develop high-speed rail systems first, as building a Maglev line through densely populated urban areas would be extraordinarily expensive and expensive environmentally harmful. Only 2.6% of Amtrak's NEC passengers could potentially use the federally funded maglev between Washington and Baltimore that some have proposed, while investments in Northeast Corridor (NEC) infrastructure benefit all NEC users.