Travel from Pittsburgh to Columbus, Ohio, in 15 minutes?
January 11, 2017 12:17 AM
John Locher/Associated Press
A sled speeds down a track during a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system .
John Locher/Associated Press
People stand in a metal tube after a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system.
John Locher/Associated Press
A recovery vehicle and test sled sit on a track after a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system in North Las Vegas, Nev.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh to Columbus in less than 15 minutes or Chicago in less than a half hour for about the price of a bus ticket?
Sound like a pipe dream? Maybe its more of a “tube” dream that developers say could be a reality in five years or less.
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, based in Columbus, is among 35 semifinalists around the world in the Hyperloop One Challenge. Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles company with 200 employees, is developing a system to move freight and passengers at speeds up to 700 mph in pods that use low-pressure tubes and magnetic force, similar to pneumatic tubes used at a bank’s drive-through window.
The technology, brought back to the public eye a few years ago by billionaire Elon Musk, is expected to have its first extended public demonstration near Las Vegas this spring. Mr. Musk isn’t directly involved in the project, but the co-founders of Hyperloop One are a venture capitalist with ties to Mr. Musk and the former lead engineer for Mr. Musk’s SpaceX company, which is pushing commercial space travel and holding a university competition for pods that could be used for the hyperloop system.
“I think the way we are looking at this is we are really interested in the [Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago] corridor and this is a really interesting concept,” said William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. “We thought it was worth pursuing.”
The proposal for a hyperloop, called Midwest Connect, is simply an idea at this point, Mr. Murdock said. With the selection as a semifinalist, the agency will begin the serious detail work with the other cities to determine the cost, exact path of the hyperloop, where stations might be located and how public-private partnerships might help pay for it.
“What you win is [Hyperloop One’s] expertise,” said Thea Walsh, transportation systems and funding director at Mid-Ohio. “There’s nothing monetary at this point, but we will look at forming public-private partnerships in all three cities and see what happens.”
Mid-Ohio has recent history in that area, putting together a strong proposal with local businesses and foundations to win the federal Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart Cities Challenge in September to help improve the movement of traffic in Central Ohio.
The agency estimated in 2015 there were 5.9 million tons of freight worth $16.7 billion moved between the three cities. By 2040, it projects that will increase to more than 9 million tons worth nearly double that.
Locally, officials with the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission and Allegheny County say they are familiar with hyperloop but haven’t had detailed talks about it.
The technology is based on a simple concept of sharply reducing drag on a moving vehicle, said Kaveh Hosseini, lead aerodynamicist at Hyperloop One.
Pods that could hold 20 to 40 people or carry freight are placed in a tube with air pressure 1/1000th of the normal rate. Using a quick jolt of magnetic energy to begin moving, the pods travel on a cushion of air at speeds Mr. Hosseini estimated could be 15 percent to 30 percent faster than jet travel.
Pods could be designed with individual seats or stations for businessmen or families traveling together. The speed of the pods mean they could leave every few minutes, almost creating an on-demand travel system that would make it possible to live in Columbus and commute to work daily in Pittsburgh, 185 miles away.
David Levinson, a professor of civil engineering at the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University of Minnesota, called the idea “just silly” and potentially dangerous if it moves ahead too quickly. He said the technology is less developed than the ill-fated maglev system proposed here in the 1990s.
“People don’t want to be hurled at 700 mph… People aren’t made to move at that rate,” he said. “It might be OK for freight, but I’m doubtful.” By comparison, he noted, it took the aviation industry several decades to develop after the Wright brothers made their demonstration flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.
Mr. Hosseini disagreed, saying access to computers, simulation and optimization software and advanced manufacturing techniques sharply reduce extended field tests. “Something that used to take weeks of trials and field tests can be optimized with the push of a button,” he said.
Another semifinalist, the Colorado Department of Transportation, proposes a 40-mile hyperloop to move freight from Denver International Airport. Department spokeswoman Amy Ford called the concept “intriguing ... We watched the demonstration, we think it will work and we’re willing to put some money into it.”
As far as Mid-Ohio planners are concerned, the project is valuable to that growing region even if the hyperloop is never built.
“As we do our planning here, our region wants to connect with other areas around the country,” Ms. Walsh said. “This will allow us to develop closer relationships with that corridor.”
Mid-Ohio and the Colorado Department of Transportation will participate in a Washington, D.C., presentation of projects in April.
Local students already are involved with the concept. A Carnegie Mellon University team will compete Jan. 27-29 in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, Calif. The international competition involving some of the world’s top technology programs has been reduced to 30 teams, each of which is designing a half-scale pod to operate inside a 1.5-mile vacuum tube at speeds of 220 mph with eventual expectations of 700 mph.
In addition to competing later this month, the team of 55 undergraduate and graduate students already has qualified for the next round of competition known as Hyperloop 2.0, team captain Vishal Jain said.
Ed Blazina: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1470. Staff writer David Templeton contributed.
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