Hyperloop Pitch Would Bring 700-mph Freight Corridor to Pennsylvania
The turnpike’s future rides on the results of a $2 million legislative study.
(TNS) - Will a hyperloop work in Pennsylvania?
That’s the question officials from legislative and executive branches, statewide agencies, organizations and departments, as well as a handful of private business leaders are trying to answer.
Fifty people, invited to a workshop at Dixon University in Harrisburg on Wednesday, met to talk about the possibility of building a hyperloop system in the commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has until April 2020 to complete a $2 million state-legislative commissioned study on its viability.
Media wasn’t permitted to attend the invitation-only meeting.
According to the turnpike’s research, a hyperloop combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube to propel “pods or capsules” at high rates of speed. It can travel up to 700 mph.
There are currently no hyperloop systems constructed worldwide, but the first to-scale hyperloop is expected to break ground in 2020-21 in either India or United Arab Emirates. The challenge here is how well it will work on Pennsylvania’s terrain, said Barry Altman, the state’s hyperloop project manager, during a phone interview before Wednesday’s workshop.
"We recognize that on the front end, geography is a key issue,” Altman said. "Pennsylvania is not ideal for hyperloop, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built.” He acknowledged those factors could make building one in the state more expensive and longer to complete than in other states. No cost estimates have been discussed publicly at this point.
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, a Luzerne County Republican, attended the meeting. He spearheaded and co-sponsored House Bill 1057, legislation that directed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to conduct the study. AECOM, a Los-Angeles, California-based engineering firm, is analyzing what it would take to build a hyperloop tube that would run from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Philadelphia and then north toward Luzerne County.
Kaufer, a Luzerne Republican, emphasized in his legislative memo the need to identify “new economic and social opportunities for Pennsylvania companies and citizens." Regulatory rules and environmental impacts are additional pieces to the study that are being investigated, the turnpike commission reported on its website.
Among the entities invited Wednesday and being solicited for their input were Amtrak, Amazon, FedEx, PA Motor Truck Association, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, UPS, and the United States Postal Service.
The private meeting was organized to allow stakeholders to talk freely about the development of a hyperloop system, Altman said at Dixon University. No decisions were made at the meeting.
The goals of constructing a hyperloop are three-fold, according to the turnpike commission:
Improving mobility: Reducing crashes, injuries, congestion, and fatalities as well as improving passenger vehicle mobility by reducing freight traffic.
Economic competitiveness: Saving passengers travel time, as well as increasing productivity and economic output.
Building a better Pennsylvania: Providing affordable, sustainable and accessible mobility; reducing emissions and noise pollution; and lowering roadway maintenance costs.
The cost of reconstructing highways is costly, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo said in a phone interview prior to Wednesday’s meeting.
"Highway reconstruction costs anywhere from $18 [million] to $26 million per mile during a rebuild or when widening the turnpike,” DeFebo said. “When you think about what we are paying today for six lanes per highway, it’s a very staggering cost.”
Tractor trailers wouldn’t become obsolete on the turnpike, but a hyperloop would reduce how much freight travels from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on them, he explained. According to turnpike commission research, a hyperloop could move cargo from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in 33 minutes.
By comparison, the same research pointed out that airplanes take 80 minutes, cars take 4.75 hours and trains take 7.25 hours.
Pennsylvania needs to stay competitive with its New York and Ohio neighbors, DeFebo said. It’s no secret that the technology for hyperloop systems is being tested in the United States and that groups are organizing in California, the Midwest, and the East Coast to make it become a reality.
Within the last six years, four firms started testing hyperloop technology. In 2017, Elon Musk, founder of The Boring Company, said he received “verbal government approval to build a hyperloop connecting New York City to Washington D.C. with a projected travel time of 29 minutes,” according to Kaufer’s bill. It included planned stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
"If New York is first, there’s a possibility that they could get the lion’s share of freight,” DeFebo said.
Currently, freight trains are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration. There are speed restrictions in place because of curvatures, signaling, track conditions, the physical condition of the train and the presence of grade crossings.
"This technology is going to require a whole new set of governance issues: safety and performance standards,” Altman said.
Unlike current means of transit, the hyperloop is able to go above ground, below ground and operate 365 days of the year, he added. The transit is not for passenger use, he noted.
The type of freight that would be transported are mostly online high-value goods, which is driving online e-commerce business sales. Recipients have the expectation of next-day delivery, Altman said.
"It’s a totally different transport,” he continued. "We don’t know what government agency will take jurisdiction over this. New standards are going to have to be approved and applied. It’s no different than moving cargo in an aircraft. The hyperloop type of freight transit is shipped at aircraft speed, but it is delivered on the ground level.”
©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.