Are hyperloop trains America’s next major infrastructure undertaking?

“Hyperloop” — even the name sounds like something from a Sci-Fi novel. Yet, this super speedy transportation system that’s been making headlines in recent months isn’t a piece of fiction. Just as the First Transcontinental Railroad did in the late 19th century, it has the potential to revolutionize travel for Americans, both for cross-country journeys and daily commutes.


What are Hyperloop trains?

A Hyperloop is a high-speed, subsonic train system designed to cut travel times significantly. It was first named and introduced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk back in 2013. Since then, several companies have drawn from Musk’s open-source model to create their own Hyperloop concepts and implementation plans.

Musk describes Hyperloops as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.” His concept was inspired by the RAND Corporation’s very high-speed transit (VHST) proposal published in 1972. Like the VHST, Hyperloops will utilize tunnels and pods to allow people to get from their starting point to their destination, similar to the vacuum tube system one may have encountered at their bank’s drive-thru.

Musk has also proposed placing solar panels atop the tunnels, allowing the system to generate enough renewable electricity to power itself.


Just how fast is really fast?

Hyperloops wouldn’t use wheels, a common point of friction in today’s rail systems. Instead, they’ll use air bearings, passive magnetic levitation, and low-pressure tubes to achieve incredibly high speeds, estimated at over 700 mph. To put that in perspective, the average speed of an Amtrak Empire Builder passenger train is just 50 mph.

The world is about to get much closer together. Hyperloop-One, the company at the forefront of the Hyperloop industry in the U.S., has proposed 11 initial routes, the longest being 1,152 miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Houston, Texas. Normally a 17-hour car journey, the Hyperloop route would take just 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Proposed Routes from Hyperloop-One:

  • Boston-Somerset- Providence
  • Cheyenne-Houston
  • Chicago-Columbus- Pittsburgh
  • Colorado Front Range/ Mtn. Network
  • Colorado Front Range
  • Kansas City-St. Louis
  • Los Angeles-San Diego
  • Miami-Orlando
  • Reno-Las Vegas
  • Seattle-Portland
  • Texas Triangle

As for the passenger experience, it should be relatively comfortable. Commuters will sit in pairs with their luggage stowed in the front or rear of the train. Despite being whisked through a tube at ten times the speed of highway driving, the Hyperloop is designed to limit accelerations to below 0.5G, avoiding the roller-coaster-level G force you might expect at such high speeds.


Implementation in the U.S. 

Hyperloop technology is still very much in the experimentation and testing phase. However, Shervin Pishevar, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop-One, did state that his company would start operations “somewhere in the world, by 2020.” Musk hasn’t set a formal launch date for his first Hyperloop, but he certainly had people talking back in July 2017 with his cryptic tweet announcing approval for a 29-minute New York to D.C. Hyperloop.

He clarified in a later tweet, “Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly.” In the meantime, Musk’s test track is already in place at a site adjacent to the California SpaceX headquarters, and the first successful trial has already been conducted.

The Hyperloop revolution

If Hyperloop technology gains traction, it could join the likes of the Transcontinental Railroad and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System as one of the most significant transportation infrastructure projects in U.S. history.

If successful, it will open numerous doors for everyone from leisure travelers to daily commuters. Professionals could seek employment opportunities far outside their local area, and vacations to desirable locations would become much cheaper and easier. Businesses also stand to gain, with cargo delivered ten times faster than by truck and the pool of viable job candidates expanding with the addition of each new route.

Of course, some of the first to benefit from Hyperloops will be the manufacturers and construction companies tasked with building the new transportation network—a rewarding challenge that many will be keen to take on.

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Banner image by Camilo Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons