Is the Hyperloop Taking Cities for a Ride?

The Hyperloop has never carried human passengers. Yet Ohio officials signed off on a grant based on the promise of Cleveland-Chicago route in just three to five years.

This image, from a Hyperloop promotional video, shows how the above-ground tube might look. Video still:  Hyperloop TT
This image, from a Hyperloop promotional video, shows how the above-ground tube might look. Video still: Hyperloop TT

The Hyperloop and Silicon Valley are going to save the rust belt.

That’s the message in a slick marketing video dropped by Hyperloop TT after a big announcement in Cleveland Monday. Civic leaders in Northeast Ohio, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Congressional reps Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan, were on hand for the signing of a $1.2 million grant, funded in part with $200,000 from the Cleveland Foundation, that kicks off a six-month study of Chicago to Cleveland Hyperloop service.

Grace Gallucci, director of NOACA, the local regional planning organization, told NPR that Clevelanders could look forward to an operational Hyperloop offering 30-minute trips to Chicago in three to five years. That’s a wildly optimistic timeline for a 340-mile project of any type, much less one that hinges on unproven technology.

Right now, the Hyperloop consists of a short test track in the Nevada desert. It has never carried a human any distance. Would it be a comfortable way for people to travel? Would it carry enough passengers to be useful for the public? Could the infrastructure be constructed at a competitive cost? No one knows.

That hasn’t stopped officials from going all-in. The grant led Hyperloop TT to promise that the Cleveland to Chicago route will be the system’s first.

A promotional video is heavy on flattery and rust belt nostalgia. “Flying 700 miles an hour through a tube using magnets and sunlight isn’t a dream,” says a deep-voiced narrator. “It’s a ‘We’re building this and coming to the Midwest to do it’ thing.”

Amid images of regular folk who are “unafraid of work,” local “partners” recite their professional bona fides, though their exact relationship to the project isn’t made clear.

Monday’s event certainly earned Hyperloop TT a lot of local publicity. The Plain Dealer basically reran the company’s press release without much in the way of critical analysis.

Hyperloop TT says its technology is for real and claims the system will be profitable. Yet it will rely on funding from one of the poorest big cities in the country.

As for why would a company that owns revolutionary transportation technology would select its first route on the basis of a relatively tiny $1.2 million grant, well, that’s another question public officials and the press apparently aren’t asking.

  • Richard

    Japan is building a new Maglev shinkansen that is completely incomparable with their existing technology. Just like how the original shinkansen in 1964 was completely incomparable with their existing technology.

  • Richard

    The US has continued to have HSR plans since the 1950s. None of them were every funded. Plans dont amount to anything unless you find money to actually build it.

  • JoRo

    Calculate all those planning costs since the 1950s, I bet you’d have enough to build HSR all across the US.

  • BlueFairlane

    For me, it’s mostly because I’ve spent 50 years watching guys like you get off on Popular Mechanics covers from the 1930s.

    Build a tube one mile long in the real world that can sustain a vacuum, and then tell me how much it costs to make sure it stays a vacuum. Then come meet me for lunch in your robot car, and we’ll talk.

  • SFnative74

    The way to answer all these questions is for someone to try, and if Ohio wants to put the money and effort into trying to complete this, good for them and good for the rest of us who will be able to see how it goes.

  • Charles

    We just need a functioning rail system. An essentially normal, meat and potatoes train can sustain speeds of 120mph, so long as the right of way is straight and the tracks are in good shape. This is bonkers.

  • Sean

    Can you really not tell the difference between an illustration 50 years ago and a multi-billion dollar investment from multiple corporations that have tens of millions of self-driven miles under their collective belts?
    AVs are the soon-to-be. Hyperloop is an infant project. Who knows it it’ll work, but trying to suffocate it in the crib is pointless.
    If you were born 50 years earlier you’d be making fun of JFK for wanting a moon shot I imagine. That was on the cover of magazines as well.

  • bolwerk

    I’m aware, and all true, but that kind of belies the notion of “almost entirely … the work of private industry with governments only role being to get out of the way and let it happen.”

    And, well, there are matters that are unprecedented here too. Such as the scale.

  • Charles

    The Long Island Railroad runs at an average speed of 30mph. Most residents of Long Island think they live twice as far from the city as they actually do because the trains are so slow and the traffic is so terrible. An average commuter train speed of 65 mph would remake the whole region.

  • Daniel

    yeah, how’s Minneapolis’s PRT system working out?

  • Daniel

    keep in mind it’s the Senators who most denounce Amtrak whose states rely the most on the long-distance lines, the same ones that lose the most money and (you guessed it) are why those same Senators denounce Amtrak!

    but that’s the precise trick to how US politics operates–it lets the Senator 1. pretend that rail service is a personal boon from them that they wrestled out of the tax-and-spend beast, 2. dodge the issue that their states are uniformly financially dependent on Washington, and 3. dodge the underdeveloped levels of industrial and social infrastructure there

  • Sean

    A wacky, niche, locally-hatched, home grown goofball rapid transit setup backed by local government bonds is a pretty bad comparo.

  • BlueFairlane

    The thing is, before JFK proposed the moon shot, NASA had proven it could use rockets to get people to orbit. So far, Musk hasn’t made anything about Hyperloop more real than a Jetson’s cartoon.

    But the moon shot is a pretty good illustration of what the Hyperloop will be: A massive, expensive, highly complex decade-long project that results in a grand total of seven trips, one of of which was a massive failure, with zero long-term purpose or gain. Only Hyperloop doesn’t have the benefit of letting us think we beat the Russians.

  • Sean

    You’ve convinced me.
    We should just stop researching things. The extremely unreliable metros we have are good enough for getting to work, and the extremely expensive and slow Acela is great too. I love spending $400 to take 3 hours to go 200 miles.
    Pack it in boys, we’re done with science.

    What’s the *actual* problem? Until states and cities start cutting Musk checks all they’ve done is allow him to dig a few holes. So what?

  • Daniel

    yes, because it makes something Musk subconsciously stole from the LaRouchites and refused to put a cent into look WORSE than the pods

    in fact, scratch that: you can go to Morgantown, Heathrow, or the Getty and actually get into a PRT and see what the fuss is all about

  • HayBro

    A vacuum tube of any length is basically impossible. The amount of volume associated with a Hyperloop line will be larger by magnitudes the largest vacuum chamber on earth right now. And if you go vacuum, you better find a way to prevent yahoos with rifles (or worse) from shooting holes in it.

  • HayBro

    For quality travel that is definitely fast enough, I don’t think anything beats high speed rail. It’s super smooth and has much nicer amenities than planes.

  • Richard

    Neither of those is impossible, but both are difficult problems. There are other immediate problems relating to safety, thermal expansion, stations, etc.

    The biggest concern is cost though. Building a Hyperloop isn’t going to be cheaper than building a similar size maglev line. A vacuum tube over any length is going to be really expensive, possibly making the hyperloop an order of magnitude more expensive than a similar maglev. A 150 billion dollar line might become a 1.5 trillion dollar line. With that kind of cost will there be any capital interested in funding it?

  • neroden

    Well. Ohio officials blew foundation (charity) money on a worthless study — consultant feed. Not surprising. It’s Ohio.

  • neroden

    Small pods are an idiotic idea because they miss the entire point of MASS transportation, which is to move LARGE MASSES of people.

    Very simple.

    Nothin’ wrong with private passenger rail service. It would still be functioning if the government hadn’t poured public money into the roads and airplanes, which it is still doing.

    But imagining that tiny pods can replace trains which move 1000s of people per minute… is just stupidity.

  • neroden

    Haven’t you read the article? Idiots *are* cutting checks to one of these Hyperloop scams. Throwing away money which could be spent on real improvements.

    High speed rail is straightforward, proven, and pretty cheap. If you avoid the American construction mafia. If Musk were simply proposing to build rail lines with an efficient, non-mob-controlled construction company, I’d be all for it. Instead he keeps on with these dumb *LOW CAPACITY* ideas which simply won’t move a significant number of people.

  • neroden

    If “Hyperloop” were proposing full-sized trains, you’d be right. Instead, they’re proposing idiotic miniature pods.

    To move a lot of people, you need big long trains.

  • neroden

    Amtrak’s problem is that private “freight railroads” own the tracks. Get Amtrak its own tracks and it does pretty darn well.

  • neroden

    I beg to differ. I’ve seen grassroots campaigns *against* road expansions pretty much my entire lifetime, 42 years. Politicians campaign for stupid road expansions because politicians are stuck in the 1950s; the people are totally sick of it and would like some decent train service instead.

  • neroden

    The Kansas City Streetcar was a complete smash hit success. Portland too, obviously.

    It’s all about execution, and there has been a lot of bungling in a lot of streetcar projects. So some rules for not bungling:

    (1) Run north and south on the same road whereever possible; couplets are bad.
    (2) Get exclusive right-of-way through the most congested segments.
    (3) Go where the people are. (This, most projects get right.)

  • neroden

    Well, I suppose it’s arguably good for everyone else as Ohio falls further behind by wasting its money on garbage. It’s definitely bad for Ohio, though.

  • neroden

    So, you’re thinking Sucker Financing, the method used to build the Channel Tunnel? Get a bunch of rich idiots to pay to build the right-of-way, then when they lose all their money, the government steps in and collects the right-of-way for free and operates a useful high-speed train?

    Well, it worked for the Chunnel.

    We know Hyperloop as described so far doesn’t work financially, FWIW, so the only possibilities are (a) it gets turned into HSR, or (b) it fails financially.

  • Giuliana S

    Agree heartily. I traveled Europe by rail a few years ago. Five weeks of not driving was a vacation in itself. Rail and the various Metros were all very good. Châtelet–Les Halles station in Paris is a hoot, tho, a regular rabbit hole.

  • There was a 5.4 earthquake in Ohio back in 1982. It didn’t do a lot of damage but a pickup a couple of friends of mine were working on replacing the rear shocks on fell off of 4 jack-stands. The think was solid, you could lean on it and there was no movement, and suddenly the thing shook pretty good and fell off the jack-stands. It was lucky that nobody got killed as two of my friends had been underneath it just 2 minutes earlier.

  • keenplanner

    I like it. Let’s wait and see.

  • Well, you know, the Bike Lobby is an All-Powerful Enterprise.

  • Claude

    Except in a tunnel there’s air around you and rescue workers can reach you and take you out of the train.
    In a hyperloop, the only air is what you’re carrying, if it lasts until you can be rescued. If your capsule dies another capsule has to kook up and tow you to a station because they can’t take you out of the capsule without space suits.
    And if your capsule springs a leak, at the level of vacuum they’re talking about, the little drop down oxygen mask won’t help.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Hyperloop doesn’t have track – it has vacuum tubes that are much more sensitive to any sort of motion.

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