Travel 700 Mph In A Vacuum Tube? Hyperloop Promises A 30-minute Trip From Chicago To Cleveland, But Multiple Challenges Ahead

April 28, 2018 GMT

CHICAGO — Suppose you want to go to Cleveland from Chicago — how fast can you get there? A car ride takes around five hours. A plane takes an hour and 20 minutes, not counting waiting time in the airport. Hyperloop technology, which involves a system composed of a vacuum and magnets to propel vehicle pods through a tube, could theoretically get you there in 30 minutes. You could leave Chicago at 10 a.m. and have plenty of time to tour the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before lunch. But first someone has to build it, and there are plenty of challenges ahead for this form of transportation, a smaller version of which is being considered for an express train between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago. A California company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is talking with Ohio authorities about building the Chicago-to-Cleveland route but still needs to figure out big issues like government regulations and land acquisition. It also needs to test real prototypes before launching people through nearly airless metal tubes at close to the speed of sound. “The publicity generated by this project seems out of proportion to its feasibility,” said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “The challenge of acquiring right of way alone could doom the project.” If it succeeds, however, the technology could revolutionize intercity travel, eliminating the need for many short-haul airplane trips, reducing distances between cities in a way that’s cheaper than high-speed rail and cutting pollution caused by planes and cars, promoters say. “It will actually produce more energy than it consumes, so it will put electricity back into the grid,” said Grace Gallucci, a former Regional Transportation Authority official who is now executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for northeast Ohio. HyperloopTT and NOACA are offering $1.2 million to finance a feasibility study for the project. The idea of using vacuum tubes for transport is not new — a pneumatic subway briefly operated in Manhattan in the late 1800s. Such tubes used to be employed by businesses for document delivery, and are still used at many bank drive-throughs. The idea of using vacuum technology commercially for transportation was revived in recent years by inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk. Hyperloop companies include HyperloopTT, Virgin Hyperloop One and Musk’s Boring Co., which is one of two contenders to build an O’Hare express train. Other hyperloop routes are being considered in Maryland, Colorado and Missouri, Gallucci said. Hyperloop consists of a passenger pod traveling through a metal tube maintained at a partial vacuum. Magnets cause the pod to move and levitate over the track once it picks up enough speed, explained Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and founder of HyperloopTT. It helps to imagine the way a puck floats above an air hockey table. Removing air from the tube eliminates wind resistance, allowing the train to move much faster while using less energy, Ahlborn explained. Gallucci said the trains could eventually go as fast as 700 mph.