Experts Say Hyperloop Is Option for Texas Mass Transit

A new study shows Hyperloop, which uses electric propulsion to shoot passengers in a pod through low-pressure tubes, scores the highest among possible high-speed transportation options to connect Texas cities.

by Mary Huber, Austin American-Statesman / December 16, 2019
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(TNS) — How feasible is a 700 mph Hyperloop that would send people in a near-vacuum tube from Laredo, Texas, to Fort Worth, Texas, in 48 minutes?

Engineers think pretty feasible.

A study presented to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, this week shows Hyperloop, which uses electric propulsion to shoot passengers in a pod through low-pressure tubes, scores the highest among possible high-speed transportation options to connect Texas cities along the Interstate 35 corridor.

And while the technology doesn't exist yet anywhere in the world, minus a test site in the Nevada desert, Steven Duong, urban planner for the engineering firm AECOM, said the estimated multi-billion dollar system has advanced quickly enough that it is a reasonable contender for high-speed transit across the state.

"While it is obviously dramatic and fanciful, there is also a lot of reason for optimism," he said at a Monday board meeting. "Our opinion is that is has developed fast enough and far along enough in the last four years that knowing that the time horizon for potential technology deployment in the state of Texas is a ways off, it does seem like it is an important technology worth considering."

The idea for high-speed travel through vacuum tubes did, in fact, begin as science fiction, more than a century ago. However, the concept transformed into an attainable reality after billionaire Elon Musk unveiled his idea for a high-speed hyperloop transit system in 2013, spurring interest from investors.

Now, at least two Hyperloop companies exist in the world today, Virgin Hyperloop One, which started in a California basement and is now a multi-million dollar company with a test site in the Nevada desert; and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is expected to unveil its first Hyperloop system in Dubai as early as next year.

The technology, which is electric and autonomous and twice as fast as a plane, has excited transportation officials and is one many options being considered in the soon-to-be-due-out Fort Worth to Laredo High-Speed Transportation study, which was funded by the North Central Texas Council of Governments and conducted by AECOM.

Others on the table include maglev train, a technology already employed in China and Japan that uses magnetic propulsion and magnetic levitation instead of wheels on a track; guaranteed transit, a technology that would involve an autonomous, electric bus that moves down a managed lane with dynamic pricing; high-speed rail; higher-speed rail and conventional rail.

Duong said Hyperloop scored the highest, from a technology-standpoint, and maglev second, with stops along each of the major cities on the corridor, including Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, Killeen-Temple, Waco and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Estimations are that Hyperloop would reduce a nearly six and half hour car trip on that route to less than an hour, transporting 16,000 passengers in that time frame.

The study is still very high-level. It doesn't include cost estimates for the various technologies or where the routes, specifically, would run, though Duong did mention the likelihood that tracks through Central Texas would be placed east of Austin, after Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt asked about land preservation in anticipation of the new technology coming online.

Kristen Hammer, business development manager for Virgin Hyperloop One, which is consulting for the high-speed transportation study in Texas, said the track doesn't require a lot of room.

"We can squeeze in to pretty tight spaces because we are elevated on columns, so highway medians, abandoned rail lines," Hammer said. "We take up less rail than high-speed rail."

As for cost, Duong said best estimates come from the technology companies themselves and those vary depending on the route. Hammer said a feasibility study for Hyperloop in Missouri had estimated construction costs at roughly $40 million per mile. At that same rate, a 430-mile system in Texas would cost about $17 billion. Hammer said the variations in price depend on the terrain and how consistent the column heights need to be. "It's very route-dependent," she said.

According to AECOM, Hyperloop also scores high as a high-speed transit option in Texas because it is both a freight and passenger system, which means the technology could be extended to places like Monterrey and used to transport goods across the U.S-Mexico border.

Duong said more detailed information about project costs and routes will be included in the completed high-speed transportation study, due out early next year.

In the meantime, at least some CAMPO officials appear skeptical about Hyperloop, questioning whether the idea is more "pie in the sky" than reality.

"I would like to see a little more analysis on how much of that benefit can we get from an existing technology like higher speed rail because that's better than what we have today," CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson said at Monday's meeting. "I am concerned about the amount of time it would take for development of the technology, in addition the time it would take to test, and then the safety issues that may or may not be involved. Rather than put something off waiting for the perfect, the good might be fine."

It's true that Hyperloop is in its infancy, but Duong said the technology doesn't have any "fatal flaws." And according to Hammer, Virgin Hyperloop One could be ready to start construction in six months upon signing a contract, minus the regulatory hurdles it still has to overcome.

So far, a regulatory framework for something like Hyperloop doesn't exist.

In March, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin the creation of a new Non-Traditional and Emergency Technology Council to tackle that problem, providing oversight for new technologies like Hyperloop, drones and autonomous vehicles.

Until the framework is in place, Hammer said Virgin Hyperloop One engineers are fine-tuning the technology, anticipating possible safety concerns and finding ways to tackle those so the technology will meet regulatory requirements once they are created, likely in another three to five years. Add about the same amount of time for construction, Hammer said, and it's likely we won't see any vacuum tubes on the ground for another decade.

"Construction takes a long time," Hammer said. "When we are talking about building a couple hundred miles of track, it's not a fast process."

Virgin Hyperloop One plans to open a certification center in 2021, in a place yet to be determined, where it can bring in regulators to see the technology. Hammer said conversations are happening in Texas as a potential home for the site. Plans are also in the works to build a Hyperloop in India, which has been friendly to the regulatory challenges facing the industry, Hammer said.

"We work very closely with the local governments so we can integrate into a society; we don't just come in and deposit a Hyperloop in the city and hope for the best," she said. "We need to make sure we are putting our stations in the right place, make sure there is demand for people to use it. There is a lot of collaboration that happens."

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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