In the desert miles outside of Las Vegas, a large white tube stretches for one third of a mile, and what happens inside could revolutionize travel.
What if you could get to cities hundreds of miles apart in minutes instead of hours?
Virgin Hyperloop One says this is no pipe dream.
Dr. Anita Sengupta leads the team to make the technology come together. At their last speed test in the tube, she says their pod traveled 240 miles per hour, limited only by the length of the track. At top speeds, Sengupta says the Hyperloop is expected to travel at about 700 miles per hour.
That, she said, means Hyperloop is not science fiction. “It is science fact because you can see it right here.”
She spent most of her career working at NASA but brought her expertise back down to earth to help make Hyperloop a reality. This project reminds her of working on spacecraft.
“I’m used to working with vacuum systems,” she said. “I’m used to working with electromagnetic propulsion.”
How does Hyperloop work?
Sengupta said the Hyperloop also uses a vacuum system. An electromagnetically propelled pod, designed to fit nine to twelve people, would levitate and travel through a vacuum tube. Between the levitation and vacuum system, she said the ride would remind people of an airplane but better.
“There is no such thing as turbulence, right? Because you actually have no air around you on the outside of the pod so the ride is actually going to be much smoother,” she said. “You’re not even going to be able to tell you’re going that fast.”
When will it be ready?
“We would like to have them operational within the next two to three years,” said Sengupta.
“I think it is fair to say by 2023, we could have an operational Hyperloop,” said Dan Katz, Director of Global Public Policy and North American Projects at Virgin Hyperloop One.
The company is currently considering routes all over the world and is also taking part in feasibility studies across the United States in places like Colorado, Missouri, and Ohio. Those studies will look at factors like how much building a route might cost, an unknown Katz says, at least for now.
“Every route is a little different, depends on the terrain, how you can travel. Can you go above ground? Do you have to go below? So based on the alignment that we’re looking at, the costs would be different,” he said. “But we’re checking each one and carefully examining each one for their costs and other factors.”
Other factors include wading through potential regulations and perfecting the technology, some of the remaining barriers to break through before Hyperloop can come to life.
A potential route in Colorado could connect the airport in Denver to towns north and south down the front range. Katz said it could also connect to Vail and the mountain resorts.
“Colorado features really a world class airport in Denver International,” Katz said about the potential starting point. “Going to the mountain resorts is going to be a challenge and we need to study that feasibility. There was a feasibility study years ago on high speed rail. It showed it could be, would be a problem, overly expensive. So we’re going to dig in and figure out can we do those things that high speed rail couldn’t do in the context of Colorado and getting to the mountain resorts, climbing those hills.”
A potential route in Missouri would stretch across the state along I-70 and connect the Kansas City area to the St. Louis area.
“Missouri is very exciting because we know right where we want to put it,” Katz said. “On I-70 and that allows us to really dig into to that particular route which is very unique for us.”
“If you can go along the interstate with a Hyperloop, you solve a lot of problems. “You have your right of way controlled by the government. You don’t have to take private land.”
CHICAGO – COLUMBUS – PITTSBURGH
A potential route starting in Chicago could span three states.
"We’re really excited about that particular route,” Katz said. “It is one of the longer routes we’ve looked at anywhere in the world but we have a sponsor in a government agency in Columbus, Ohio that’s really taken a strong leadership role that’s saying ‘hey let’s go for this, let’s put some real money behind this effort,’” he said. “That is a corridor that hasn’t classically had great connectivity, especially for freight, but Hyperloop could really change the game.”
A potential route in Florida would connect Miami and Orlando.
“We’ve been talking to the Miami Dade Transportation Authority about a Miami to Orlando Hyperloop Route that would not go along the coasts that are very populated but go through the center of the state,”
“There is a rural highway we would follow,” he said, adding that the raised track would allow wildlife to flow below.
Virgin Hyperloop One anticipates feasibility studies in Colorado and Missouri will be finished before the end of this year. Once those studies are done, we could hear more answers about the future of potential routes. As far as cost, Katz does anticipate a public-private partnership.
“When it comes to infrastructure projects, you need to have a strong coalition of government, business community, and local community,” he said.
While different parts of the country are working to see if they might get the one of the first Hyperloop routes, other Hyperloop companies are working too. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies just announced they are building a test track in France. Elon Musk tweeted plans for a speed test he hopes can reach half the speed of sound in less than a mile.
Sengupta answered if this is our generation’s space race.
“It is in a way and I think we haven’t had a new mode of transportation in over a hundred years,” she said. “This is high time to come up with a new mode of transportation.”