Transportation

Could Hyperloop Find a Home in Texas?

Planners think a route could be possible within the next decade or so.

by Gordon Dickson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / October 6, 2017
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(TNS) -- Hyperloop may be a realistic, safe and extremely fast way to travel across Texas in the coming decade or so.

Or it may be little more than a concept, rivaling anything seen on the 1960s television cartoon The Jetsons.

Either way, North Texans likely will be hearing about it a lot in the coming months, and maybe years, after a Texas group won an international competition for proposals to build the first links of the futuristic transportation system.

Hyperloop would propel passengers and cargo at jet-like speeds of 600 mph or more in pods that would be launched through a giant tube (not unlike an oversized pneumatic cylinder used at a motor bank).

The Hyperloop Texas team was one of 10 winners chosen from among roughly 2,400 entries in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge sponsored by a group called Hyperloop One. It wants to connect Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin, San Antonio and Laredo with above-ground tubes, using airports and mass transit hubs for passenger travel. A trip to Austin could take just 19 minutes.

The exact routes are still undetermined, but one proposal being kicked around would bring the Hyperloop to Fort Worth.

“If we were to do a first corridor, a corridor from Dallas to Fort Worth makes sense,” said Steven Duong, one of about 15 members of the Hyperloop Texas team.

Intrigued? Here are answers to some basic questions.

What is Hyperloop?

Hyperloop passengers would be propelled using magnetic levitation. A small amount of electricity would be used to power the pods, which would glide above their monorail track in a low-pressure sealed tube.

The modern concept of tube travel was devised in 2013 by entrepreneur Elon Musk — best known for his Tesla luxury electric car and SpaceX private-sector space flights. Musk continues to push for development of a Hyperloop system connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. He’s not involved in the worldwide Hyperloop One Global Challenge, although he has encouraged others to join the competition.

Is it safe?

That’s likely to be determined as systems are tested over the next three years. This technology has never been used, although Hyperloop One in August announced the successful testing of an unoccupied pod on several hundred feet of test track built in the Nevada desert.

In general, it appears that a Hyperloop system would be less susceptible to human error than either air or train travel since it would operate in a closed system with no road crossings.

“The acceleration will feel like you’re flying in a plane, so if you are comfortable in a plane you should be comfortable in one of our pods,” said Duong, who is an urban designer with the big design and engineering firm AECOM.

AECOM has invested heavily in Hyperloop projects by appointing dozens of its employees to work at least part-time to design projects in various states. Teams of AECOM employees won Hyperloop bids not only in Texas, but also Colorado, Florida, Canada and India — half the winning bids worldwide.

If any of the projects came to fruition, AECOM wouldn’t provide the actual construction funding. That would come from venture capitalists and other resources pooled together by Hyperloop One’s corporate office.

When will we get it?

Likely not for many, many years, probably more than a decade. Developers aim to have the concept proven as feasible by 2021, but actually building a Hyperloop route could take many more years, and could be confronted by opposition from land owners or political opponents, or suffer a setback from unforeseen mechanical problems.

In the United States, such a system would need to pass a feasibility study, as well as an environmental review, a federal process that often takes at least two years. Then there’s the issue of whether land could be obtained to build the system, and if property owners who didn’t want to voluntarily take part in it could have their land taken through eminent domain, a process opposed by many Texans.

And the actual construction would likely take many more years and cost millions of dollars per mile.

The process could be sped up by building on existing public right-of-way such as highways. But that would require state and local government approval.

Theoretically, a system could be built in another country (perhaps China) with far less review. Duong said he can only speculate that the first Hyperloop system will be built in a country with less regulation than the U.S., although when the time comes to build one here, he feels confident that Texas could be the first in line.

Bill Meadows, the Fort Worth resident who chairs a state high-speed rail commission that is aiming to connect Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, says the commission hasn’t been approached by Hyperloop One with any proposal to replace its lines with Hyperloop tubes.

“They would have to go through the same regulatory process we all go through,” Meadows said. “But, whenever we are presented with a better way of doing things, we ought to consider it.”

Does any other city have one?

No. Although science fiction has proposed tube travel for decades, and real-world engineers have attempted some designs, the effort to actually build such a system is essentially brand new. China does have high-speed trains that run about 260 mph on a similar magnetic levitation technology, but those trains don’t run nearly as fast as Hyperloop proposes, and they don’t run in a tube.

A maglev train in Japan holds the world’s fastest record, recording a top speed of 374.6 mph on a test track last fall.

Where would it go in DFW?

The route will be decided in cooperation with elected officials throughout the region, Duong said.

A map published by the Hyperloop Texas team shows the system terminating at DFW Airport, and also stopping in downtown Dallas. Stops also would be in Austin, San Antonio and Laredo.

“That’s just a concept map,” Duong said. “We haven’t determined the precise locations.”

Artist renderings show the Hyperloop One system connecting with high-speed rail stations, making it possible for passengers to transfer from one mode of travel to the other simply by walking across a platform.

Texas Central Railway, which is working to build a high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston, has not been approached by Hyperloop One about merging the two systems at multimodal stations in Dallas and Houston, said Travis Kelly, Texas Central vice president of internal affairs.

“It’s exciting technology, but it’s very early in the development,” Kelly said, adding that he would have concerns about whether passengers would be comfortable traveling in pods with no windows for long periods of time. He also would like to know more about how the Hyperloop technology fares in elevation changes.

Would it come to Fort Worth?

Actually, it might.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is working on a proposal to build an urban test track for Hyperloop One, possibly connecting Dallas, DFW Airport, Arlington and Fort Worth.

The idea would be to let the test track be a proof-of-concept for Hyperloop One designers nationwide, a way to demonstrate how such a system could work in an urban area. Once the testing was done, the Hyperloop system could serve as a replacement for the high-speed rail that has been pitched between the North Texas cities.

The Hyperloop could also connect to Texas Central Railway’s planned high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston. The council of governments has been working on the project for about six months, said Michael Morris, the agency’s transportation director.

Regional planners have long believed that North Texas should have a single form of high-speed rail, so passengers can ride seamlessly from one city to another without changing trains. But the Hyperloop proposal is forcing them to reconsider that notion.

Now, the thinking is that the traditional high-speed rail proposed by Texas Central Railway — trains with metal wheels running on parallel steel tracks — could arrive at connecting stations on platforms side-by-side. That way, passengers could depart one mode of travel, walk a few steps and board the other mode.

“Our policy is, if you have two different modes, then (riders) should only have to cross a platform to transfer,” Morris said.

©2017 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.