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Researchers Say Hyperloop Tech Won’t Be Ready Until 2040

Researchers say the technology is available to move passengers at up to 700 miles an hour in pods, but the lack of a certified test facility for government regulation and the high cost will delay development of the systems.

by Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 21, 2020
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(TNS) — Developers of proposed hyperloop systems with ties to Pittsburgh strongly dispute an international research firm’s conclusion that the lack of government regulations and financing difficulties will delay the first travel through high-speed, low-pressure tubes until at least 2040.

Lux Research Inc., based in Boston and with offices in three other countries, released a report last week that concluded developers of the innovative system are far too optimistic in predicting commercial operation by 2030. Their researchers say the technology is available to move passengers at up to 700 miles an hour in pods, but the lack of a certified test facility for government regulation and the high cost will delay development of the systems.

“Lux has found that, while the Hyperloop concept is technically feasible, it will require significant development to become cost-effective,” the company said in a news release. “As proposed Hyperloop projects are seeing increasingly large estimates in cost per mile, and key variables in operating costs are unknown, Hyperloop projects are a long way from proving economic feasibility.

“Important indicators to watch for are development of high-speed and full-scale test tracks and government support, both financially and in developing hyperloop regulations.”

The 2030 date would be for a partial opening, as the track will be laid in sections from west to east.

Developers and proponents of proposed hyperloop routes from Pittsburgh to Chicago, one by way of Cleveland and the other through Columbus, say they believe the first system will operate at least 10 years earlier than the study suggests.

“We are moving ahead on a much more aggressive time frame,” said Rob Miller, chief marketing officer for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc., the firm working with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency on the route through Cleveland.

Mr. Miller said the firm already is working with private investors and hopes to break ground early next year for a 5-kilometer facility in Abu Dhabi that would begin moving passengers between two stations in 2022. The hope is the company can use a successful operation there to satisfy U.S. regulators.

A study by consultant Transportation Economics and Management Systems released in December said the system passing through Cleveland would cost about $40 billion but would generate a profit of about $30 billion over 25 years. The study assumed a public-private partnership with government providing rights of way and stations.

The study estimated it would take three to four years to conduct an environmental impact study and six years for construction.

The other area project, proposed by the Columbus-based Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Virgin Hyperloop One, is taking a different approach. Virgin expects to build a system in Mumbai, India, before 2030, but it is looking to build a government test facility in the U.S. to set industry standards before building here.

“By 2025 to 2030, we want hyperloop operating somewhere in the world,” said Ryan Kelly, Virgin’s head of marketing and communications. “We still feel very bullish that 2040 isn’t going to be the number.”

Thea Walsh, director of transportation and funding for MORPC, said the Lux study would be a reasonable time frame for many major transportation projects, but hyperloop is different because of the great interest in the new technology.

“If there’s motivation to get this done, it will get done faster than [2040],” she said.

A study by Mid-Ohio last fall estimated the route via Columbus would be built in sections from over the next 30 years with a ridership cost comparable to airfare. Both systems propose trips from Pittsburgh to Chicago in less than an hour.  

In the U.S., Virgin first wants to build a government certification facility, which could cost several hundred million dollars and create several hundred jobs, to set industry standards and ease the regulation process once a project begins. It has been reviewing proposals from across the country and has whittled the field down to about 10, including one north of Columbus and another in West Virginia led by West Virginia University.

Mr. Kelly said Virgin hasn’t decided whether it should locate the facility in the same area as a hyperloop proposal such as near Columbus or go to a completely separate site in an economically needy area like West Virginia. The company expects to decide early next year.

“The proposals are all coming in different shapes and sizes,” he said. “Really, the states are a huge factor in how much interest they are showing in this.”

Ms. Walsh said the test facility is a big step regardless of whether it’s near Columbus, an area that already features a government testing facility for the automobile industry that has drawn multiple other businesses to the area. The facility could open by 2025.

“A project like the test facility would take this to another level,” she said. “If we can’t be part of the implementation now, we can be part of the implementation process.”

Another factor that could lead to quicker implementation of hyperloop projects is the current downturn in the U.S economy due to the COVID-19 virus. In addition to the benefits of cleaner air around cities such as Los Angeles, the crisis could lead to a long-discussed government infrastructure construction program that could include non-polluting hyperloop transportation.  

“We think we’ll be in a period where we’ll see an acceleration in public infrastructure projects,” Mr. Miller said. “We see it really as an opportunity. We’re ready.”

©2020 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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