Headlines in the Rust Belt region for the hyperloop, a proposed high-speed pod that promises to shuttle passengers at speeds up to 700 mph, would have readers believe that the futuristic project is already in the works.
A Feb. 22 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was titled “Proposed hyperloop to Chicago could be in line for federal infrastructure funds.” A Feb. 27 article in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reads, “Great Lakes Hyperloop consortium sees Cleveland-Chicago link possible in 3 to 5 years.”
The proposed technology would thrust a light-weight pod through a vacuum-sealed tube at near-super-sonic speeds, either above or below ground. The tech company Hyperloop One has said a trip from Pittsburgh to Chicago could take about 30 to 40 minutes. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto added his own comments on Twitter, speculating just how awesome hyperloop would be for Pittsburgh travelers. “That could mean lunch breaks in Chicago,” he wrote in September 2017.
But Pittsburgh hyperloop dreams could easily remain a fantasy. Although Pittsburgh has been chosen to get a hyperloop station from two different tech companies, fully functional hyperloops don’t actually exist anywhere in the world. Also, the fastest hyperloop tested has only reached top speeds that are a fraction of what the tech companies are claiming is possible. Even local hyperloop engineers, who are giddy about the prospect of seeing hyperloop become a reality, say the technology is years away from being ready.
Transit experts say people should be skeptical of hyperloop’s prospects in Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities. They say there are other, more realistic transit and infrastructure projects that deserve support, and hyperloop could be serving as a distraction.
Hyperloop is far from the first futuristic transit proposal to capture the imagination of Pittsburgh. In the 1960s, a remotely operated Sky Bus line was proposed to carry passengers on elevated platforms all throughout Allegheny County. But Sky Bus’ cost and labor concerns eventually killed the project, and busways and light rail were built instead. In the 1990s, a Maglev project from Greensburg to the Pittsburgh International Airport gained momentum and even attracted $28 million in federal funds. The project promised to propel passengers at 250 mph on train-like tracks where cars levitate above super-powerful magnets. In 2011, the company running Pittsburgh’s Maglev went bankrupt.
But these past failures haven’t decreased excitement and support for hyperloop. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, a regional-transit coalition supporting the Columbus region, has contributed $2.5 million to a feasibility study for the tech company Hyperloop One’s proposed line connecting Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago. Pittsburgh’s regional-transit coalition, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, is also supportive of that proposal. SPC even sent staff to watch Hyperloop One’s competition in Nevada this January, during which engineers tested their hyperloop prototypes in a quarter-mile-long tube to see which pod could travel the fastest.
In March 2017, SPC president James Hassinger sent a letter to Hyperloop One stating that hyperloop in Pittsburgh and beyond would “benefit the entire Midwest and provide new opportunities for the rapid spread of information and expansion of trade among industry leaders.”
David Cole, a Seattle-based architect who has designed transit proposals for cities like Cincinnati and Seattle, says hyperloop isn’t nearly far enough along in implementation to deserve such attention. “I’m highly skeptical,” wrote Cole in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. “So far, all we’ve seen are some hyperbolic press releases with questionable claims and slick renderings. It hasn’t yet transported a single passenger.”
In 2017, Germany’s Technical University of Munich won Hyperloop One’s contest commissioned by tech billionaire Elon Musk. The German pod weighs 176 pounds and reached speeds of 201 mph in a quarter-mile-long test tube. While an impressive feat for a new technology, high-speed rails in China currently travel faster while carrying hundreds of passengers.
Rishav Khemka is the business lead for the Carnegie Mellon University hyperloop team, which competed in the 2017 hyperloop competition. Even he knows that hyperloop technology isn’t anywhere near real-world implementation. “We are not that close yet, a couple of years at the minimum,” says Khemka. “But once it becomes more concrete, CMU will play a big role.”
Khemka understands the skepticism surrounding hyperloop. For example, hyperloop boosters have floated the idea that the tube could run underground, but Khemka says that seems unlikely in Pennsylvania and Ohio, with the states’ abundance of underground mines and fracking wells.
But Khemka is still confident hyperloop will become a reality. “With any new technology there is always criticism,” says Khemka. “People had some concerns with drones, but now they are the norm. The same with self-driving cars.”
Chris Sandvig, a transit expert with the nonprofit Pittsburgh Community Redevelopment Group, doesn’t fault people for getting excited about hyperloop since it’s such an innovative transit project. But he worries the hyperloop proposals could be offering some false promises.
Another tech company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has proposed a Great Lakes hyperloop line from Toronto to Chicago, with a connecting line from Pittsburgh. According to their proposal, the Great Lakes hyperloop system “would not require government subsidies” and “would have a low cost of implementation.”
Sandvig says, “No transportation system in the world is created without subsidies in some way by the public. I don’t know if putting something in a tube is going to change that.” He estimates a large-scale hyperloop project would cost billions of dollars.
Sandvig thinks the excitement for hyperloop is positive development, but wishes equal energy would be put to proposals that address more immediate transportation issues that focus on improving communities. He says Pittsburghers need more options to help improve their local commutes, not new infrastructure that allows them to live more than 100 miles away from their jobs in Downtown Pittsburgh. Sandvig says commuter rail to Pittsburgh suburbs and more daily Amtrak trains to Harrisburg are a more immediate need for Pittsburghers. Sandvig also sees the expansion of the East Busway to Monroeville and a possible Bus Rapid Transit system to the airport as more pressing transit projects for Pittsburgh.
“We need to take seriously, investing in mass transit,” says Sandvig. “I would rather [be] asking what sort of transit solutions we need now and what problems [do] we want to solve in the next 10 years. We really need to think multimodal to help our communities thrive.”
Transit architect Cole agrees. He wrote to CP that hyperloop proposes a technology solution to a political problem. “We already know how to quickly move large numbers of people between Point A and Point B: subways, light rail and high-speed rail,” wrote Cole.
He believes hyperloop is just another “convenient shiny object” that Rust Belt politicians can market as a sign of the region’s progress, without improving more immediate needs like public transit, housing and public schools. “Hyperloop … gives anti-transit politicians a convenient excuse to sabotage needed transit investments while painting skeptics as anti-progress,” wrote Cole.