Harrisburg to New York City in 24 minutes? Hyperloop advocates say it’s possible

Science

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s faster than the fastest train. The technology is more similar to the vacuum tube that takes a check from alongside a car to a teller at a bank drive-through window. But will hyperloop, as it’s known, ever really transport people?

No one knows for sure whether it will. But advocates of the technology, plus a previously unreported study by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, say it can.

The idea for the report actually generated some attention when it was first proposed in 2017 and then when the Turnpike Commission began work on it in 2019, but no one seemed to notice when the previously-much-anticipated report itself was finished in mid-2020 — likely because, well, it was mid-2020, full of COVID concerns and social unrest.

The report’s conclusion? That the technology — which could whisk people from Harrisburg to New York city in 24 minutes, or to Chicago in 55 minutes — is “not really sci-fi” said Carl DeFebo, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

“From a technology standpoint, I do think there’s feasibility here,” DeFebo said. “From a funding standpoint, I do think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

DeFebo said a hyperloop system could — technologically, anyway — be operational within a decade.

Vincent Valdes, an engineer and planner who is executive director and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, said there’s no question in his mind about the technological feasibility of hyperloop, but he agreed funding the system would be challenging. Valdes was previously associate administrator for the office of research, demonstration and innovation within the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C.

The report, produced for the Turnpike Commission by the firm AECOM, estimates the cost of a Pennsylvania-only hyperloop system, carrying passengers and cargo between cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and between Harrisburg beyond the state line to New York City, would be $63 billion. A system running all the way from Chicago to New York City, through Pennsylvania, would cost an estimated $145 billion. The report projects, however, that the system would pay for itself over a span of decades through revenue (such as fares paid by riders) and broader economic benefits.

Pennsylvania hyperloop supporters say the state’s geography along important transportation and trade routes makes it ideal for hyperloop, but transportation historian Dan Cupper said topography is a challenge.

“The rugged mountains, you have to either tunnel through them, which is expensive, or you have to go over them, which requires a lot of land planning,” Cupper said. He said flatter states like Florida and Texas present fewer challenges in that regard.

DeFebo said the legislature chose the Turnpike Commission to lead the study because it already owns right-of-way along much of the potential hyperloop route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hyperloop can run through tunnels, just above the ground or elevated high above the ground.

Cupper would start with a lower-tech, lower-cost option. “The better option would be to improve the trains we have now,” he said. That could mean higher speed, sure, but even just more frequency — four per day in each direction between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, for example, he said, rather than the current one per day.

The prospects for hyperloop seemed to dim earlier this month when — as first noted by Bloomberg News — Elon Musk’s The Boring Company removed a proposed Washington-Baltimore line from a list of projects on its website. The Boring Company is one of two companies backed by billionaires — the other is Richard Branson-backed Virgin Hyperloop — hoping to build hyperloop lines in the U.S. and elsewhere.

State Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne), who sponsored the legislation directing the Turnpike Commission to study hyperloop, didn’t respond to several messages from abc27 News seeking his reaction to the report.

Amtrak, the national rail system, which could theoretically compete someday against hyperloop for infrastructure funding, was pessimistic about both the financial and technological feasibility. “A high-speed hyperloop able to safely transport a human being is an unproven theoretical concept that does not exist,” it told abc27 news in a statement, which is also posted on its website. The full statement is below.

The thought of levitating aboard a 300-mile-per-hour Maglev, or whooshing through a steel tube in a Hyperloop capsule at twice that speed, may have a certain appeal to some travelers. However, the likelihood that either Maglev or Hyperloop will become a viable option for U.S. intercity travel during their lifetimes is very slim. A high-speed Hyperloop able to safely transport a human being is an unproven theoretical concept that does not exist. While Maglevs have operated on a few short demonstration lines since the 1970s, Asian and European countries where they have been tested have invariably opted to develop high-speed rail systems first because construction of a Maglev line through heavily populated urban areas would be extraordinarily expensive and environmentally disruptive. Only 2.6% of Amtrak’s NEC passengers could potentially use the federally-funded Maglev between Washington and Baltimore that some have proposed, while investments in Northeast Corridor (NEC) infrastructure benefit all NEC users.

Amtrak statement

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