The hyperloop high speed transportation project is futuristic, but it might be coming through Missouri.
As you may have already heard, the hyperloop concept is a 27-passenger train car that uses electromagnetic levitation to hover in a low-pressure tube to eliminate a large amount of surface and aerodynamic friction
Speeds are estimated to be up to about 670 mph, meaning a trip from Columbia to St. Louis or Kansas City could take about 15 minutes for a target ticket price of about $40.
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction from an old “Jetsons” cartoon. But visionaries like Tesla’s Elon Musk are pushing it as the next big thing.
British entrepreneur/adventurer Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One has a short test track in Nevada, and there’s now competition among several research groups in the country to be chosen to build a 15-mile hyperloop track.
I had a chance to chat with MU College of Engineering Dean Elizabeth Loboa and Professor Bill Butler, who are helping lead the Missouri consortium’s proposal to do just that.
If this comes to fruition, Columbia could actually have the world’s first segment of this next-generation transportation technology.
The next award stage from Virgin Hyperloop One is to be announced Dec. 13.
Missouri, by the way, has a history of firsts: Lewis and Clark setting out to explore the Louisiana Purchase; wagon trains heading west from Independence; and the nation’s first stretch of the interstate highway system, starting in St. Charles County in 1956.
Though this part of the world never got high-speed rail going as it was implemented in Europe and Eastern Asia, we could leapfrog it with the hyperloop.
A lot of hype around this considers the hyperloop as a futuristic utopia. The more I ponder the system’s potential, the more it does boggle the mind. It would almost completely transform our sense of space and time.
Two-hundred years ago, Conestoga wagons crawled at 15 miles a day. A century ago, a Model T might average 15 mph on dirt roads.
Today, modern cars move a mile a minute. Hyperloop promises to move 10 miles per minute.
With travel times so shortened, one could go to a distant city for dinner or plan a day trip to ski in Aspen. Work patterns would change, since a hyperloop commute from Columbia to downtown St. Louis could be faster than a drive into the city from Wentzville.
If a hyperloop station were based in town and connected to a regional network, CoMo could conceivably become a bedroom community of many Midwestern urban centers.
Where a station would be built would surely be a hotly contested topic, if and when the time comes.
Imagine the explosion in land values near a terminal — not just for the hyperloop station facility, but for last-mile connectivity. It would affect parking as well as residential development and the demand for commercial space.
Butler estimated that if Missouri gets the green light and all goes as planned, passengers still would likely have a 10-year wait to buy a ticket anywhere.
But we could only be five years away from hyperloop freight, likely the most valuable immediate use. It would not just shorten delivery times, but it would get more long-haul trucks off our highways and change warehousing and manufacturing logistics.
It could change our planning, too, since Columbia is set to plop down $30 million on a new airport. Could hyperloop eventually serve as a long-distance shuttle to the few remaining super-regional airports in Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta?
Butler says hyperloop is estimated to use only 10% of the energy of airplanes, so might traditional air travel even become obsolete, if not carbon-taxed or outlawed in the next decade or two?
It has been said that there will be a significant private investment in such networks, but the taxpayer would do well to maintain a healthy suspicion.
Whether private ownership is maintained, Virgin could shop around for subsidies, pitting communities against each other like Amazon did during its HQ2 bidding process.
Even if awarded, our state would have a lot of work to do. Obviously, the engineering research and development of the pod and tube would be world-class. There would be tons of safety tests to please regulators and set the public at ease.
We likely would need to update laws for the hyperloop age. Determining the station locations and acquiring right of way are big endeavors and would involve political wrangling.
Still, if this is the future of travel, let’s hope it gets here first.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on KOPN/89.5 FM.