TOLEDO — Since time immemorial, transportation access has guided where people live and do business, whether that was near harbors and rivers centuries ago, along railroads during the Industrial Revolution, or near Interstates and airports since World War II.
Some visionaries believe humanity is on the cusp of another transportation revolution in the form of Hyperloop, a technology that — if it fulfills its promise — could allow people and freight to travel at or near ground level at speeds exceeding today’s commercial aviation.
While cautioning that travel in 760 mph pods propelled by magnetism and vacuums is not just around the corner, leaders of transportation planning agencies in Toledo and Lima, Ohio have gotten on board with studies led by counterparts in Cleveland and Columbus, respectively, to assess the feasibility of two potential corridors across northern and central Ohio.
Tim Brown, the executive director of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, called Hyperloop “very futuristic,” and said officials and experts agree that the technology still has a long way to go. But, he added, much of the technology that people take for granted today also were once considered the stuff of science fiction.
NEXT BIG THING
Like the internet, smartphones, and drones, Hyperloop systems could pan out to be the next big thing.
“And we don’t want to miss the opportunity,” Mr. Brown said.
Two main companies at the forefront of Hyperloop research and development in the United States, Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, are involved in different proposals to bring the technology to Ohio. Both are based in Los Angeles, and both have their own technologies and theories underlying their proposals.
They share a general premise, though: using electric propulsion to move capsules full of people or cargo through low-pressure tubes at extremely fast speeds. Vehicles, in theory, will levitate magnetically to further reduce drag, and entire systems will be fully autonomous.
One of the enticing possibilities about ultra-fast pod travel is that lots of places along the way could have access to the system, not just the biggest cities that would generate the most trips, said Thea Walsh, the transportation and infrastructure development director at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in Columbus.
While airplanes and high-speed trains — currently the world’s fastest means of commercial transportation — are both at greatest efficiency carrying large numbers of people long distances with few if any intermediate stops, Ms. Walsh said a Hyperloop line conceivably could be almost on-demand, with vehicles of varying sizes dispatched to any station along the route based on trip requests.
That would be a game-changer for a city like Lima, which lost its last plodding passenger train three decades ago and last had scheduled air service in the 1970s.
“You could live in Lima with one of the lowest costs of living in Ohio” and be within commuting time to Chicago, said Thomas Mazur, executive director of the Lima-Allen County Regional Planning Commission. “A $100,000 house here would be $600,000 in Chicago.”
Service businesses like health care that benefit from being close to population centers could draw from much farther away, and employers of all kinds could tap those distant places to fill jobs, officials said.
“I don’t think everyone wants to have their company in Chicago or downtown Columbus,” Ms. Walsh said.
Stations would not be cheap, she said, so “you can’t afford to have stops everywhere.” But with pull-off tubes analogous to railroad sidings, allowing passengers and freight to load and unload along the way while longer-distance movements whiz past on the main line, stations could be close enough to drastically improve travel times for a lot of places.
The Hyperloop service concept that Kathleen Sarli, planning director for the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency described during a presentation to TMACOG’s Transportation Summit last spring called for pods traveling as close together as 40 seconds apart on guideways either above ground or in tunnels, carrying 28 to 40 passengers each.
It would be like a big-city subway, Ms. Sarli said. Passengers wouldn’t have to worry about being on time to catch a ride, because the next opportunity would be just a few minutes aways.
Ms. Sarli’s agency is engaged with Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in its study of a corridor linking Pittsburgh and Chicago via Cleveland and Toledo.
“We’re trying to make sure that we remain in the plans,” said David Gedeon, TMACOG’s vice president for transportation. “There’s the potential for getting to Chicago in 20 minutes … [but] there’s a lot of technology here that still has to be worked out.”
Five-mile test tracks are under development in Dubai, where a demonstration is scheduled to be ready for the 2020 World’s Fair, and in France, Mr. Gedeon noted.
He and Mr. Brown were more cautious about predicting the potential for stops at the smaller places between cities like Cleveland, Toledo, and South Bend, Ind.
“For the short term, there probably won’t be stops like you have with conventional passenger rail today,” Mr. Gedeon said. “Just to get things rolling, I don’t think that would be part of the plan.”
But like Ms. Walsh, Mr. Brown said places along the way would benefit from having a Hyperloop system nearby.
“You still shave 4½ or 5 hours off your commute if you go to Toledo and then have a 20-minute ride to Chicago,” he said.
And Hyperloop stations could well become transportation hubs where other forms of public transportation branch out to surrounding areas.
Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission study of ultra-fast transportation, done in conjunction with Virgin Hyperloop One, is a logical extension of high-speed rail the Columbus planning agency has long contemplated for central Ohio, Ms. Walsh said. An Indiana agency previously identified Lima as a logical continuation of a study corridor linking Fort Wayne with Chicago.
High-speed rail planners long have grappled with balancing end-to-end speed with demand for intermediate stops.
In some cases, Ms. Walsh said, high-speed trains and Hyperloop could be developed in the same corridors. She cited Columbus-Lima-Fort Wayne as a prime example, especially west of Lima where an existing rail route is straight and lightly used.
Between Columbus and Pittsburgh, by contrast, high-speed trains could mostly follow existing, but curvy, railroad tracks. A Hyperloop line would have to be all-new right-of-way to be straight enough for that technology’s imagined speeds.
Farther north, existing railroad corridors are so heavy with freight trains that their availability for high-speed passenger service or a Hyperloop-type system is questionable, but the Ohio Turnpike has offered its relatively straight pathway as a potential overlay candidate for Hyperloop.
High-speed rail discussions for Toledo-Chicago, meanwhile, have included the possibility of running such trains via Fort Wayne or Michigan instead of the current, freight-heavy tracks Amtrak uses.
The Lima planning agency’s Mr. Mazur said he believes high-speed rail — already running faster than 200 mph in some European corridors and widespread at 180 mph — is “what’s next” in the region as transportation evolves.
Hyperloop would be the “Holy Grail” of transportation with its game-changing speed, Mr. Mazur said, but high-speed rail is “more within reach.”