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People-Filled Pods Propelled Through A Tube? Hype, Hope And The Hyperloop

Thomas J. Fitzgerald: "What if you could bypass flying and rail and instead use a ground-based form of transit that’s not only faster and cleaner, but cheaper?" Pictured: Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportations, speaks at the Austin Convention Center during the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Sunday, March 13, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett/AP)
Thomas J. Fitzgerald: "What if you could bypass flying and rail and instead use a ground-based form of transit that’s not only faster and cleaner, but cheaper?" Pictured: Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportations, speaks at the Austin Convention Center during the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Sunday, March 13, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett/AP)
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The costs of long-distance travel are high. When it comes to flying, there are the high prices of tickets, the tons of carbon dioxide deposited into the atmosphere, the hassles of getting in and out of airports. The drawbacks of train travel loom large, as well: long travel times, spotty coverage and expensive construction costs.

What if you could bypass flying and rail and instead use a ground-based form of transit that’s not only faster and cleaner, but cheaper? That’s the dream of the Hyperloop.

From Boston to New York: 31 minutes, which is less time than it takes to drive from Wakefield to Waltham during morning rush hour on a clogged Route 128.

It’s been almost three years since the concept of the Hyperloop was put forward by inventor Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors. Since Musk planted a seed in August of 2013, the idea has grown, but the Hyperloop is still a long way from reaching its lofty ambitions.

Advocates of the Hyperloop say the technology could transport passengers or cargo at speeds of up to 750 miles per hour — nearly the speed of sound.

Based on estimates, which vary depending upon the source, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles could take 36 minutes. From New York to Washington: 31 minutes. From Boston to New York: 31 minutes, which is less time than it takes to drive from Wakefield to Waltham during morning rush hour on a clogged Route 128.

So, based on those estimates, Boston area residents could commute to Manhattan or Washington for work every day. On weekends, they could nip up or down to Montreal or Philadelphia for a bite to eat. College students living in New Jersey or Delaware could zip to Boston for a full day of classes and be home in time for dinner. Consider the possibilities for an employment recruiter, whose domain for new hires blossoms. Courting talent in farther-flung cities in Virginia and Maryland suddenly becomes viable.

But how plausible is the Hyperloop?

First, the concept: Propel passenger-filled pods through elevated tubes that sit high above ground, atop pylons, and powered by electricity from solar panels or other clean options. To achieve projected speeds, the pods would levitate inside the tubes, possibly, as Musk envisioned, on a cushion of air. Such reduced friction requires only low levels of energy to send the pods great distances at high speeds.

So far, nobody has brought the Hyperloop out of the hypothetical and into the real world. Still, 2016 is shaping up to be a pivotal year as the concept moves off drawing boards and out of labs.

In January, for example, a field of more than 100 entrants from the U.S. and abroad gathered in Texas for a competition in pod design. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took first place, winning with a design that proposes a magnet approach to levitation, called maglev, instead of the cushion-of-air idea. This summer, in the next phase of competition, entrants will meet at a test track in California to compete in trial runs of prototype pod hardware.

The concept: Propel passenger-filled pods through elevated tubes that sit high above ground, atop pylons, and powered by electricity from solar panels or other clean options.

Also delving into the concept are several companies. Hyperloop Technologies has said it will complete a test track in the Nevada desert by the end of 2016. And there’s Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which has announced that it will start building a five-mile test track in California in 2016. A Canadian startup, TransPod, is also in the mix.

At this stage, there is still much we don’t know about the Hyperloop’s chances for success. Many questions abound, including whether estimated travel times can be attained, how comfortable a ride would be, how much it will cost to build such systems, and how well they would withstand natural occurrences like earthquakes, blizzards and tornadoes. Some critics question early price estimates of $40 to $60 per round-trip. Others are doubtful that people would embrace windowless travel while confined inside a fast-moving pod.

It remains to be seen whether the Hyperloop will depart the world of fantasy to become a reality. But such an enthusiastic effort to overthrow the status quo is encouraging. And if not the Hyperloop, maybe that effort will lead to transit possibilities not yet imagined, consigning rush hour gridlock to a thing of the past.

Related:

Thomas J. Fitzgerald Cognoscenti contributor
Thomas J. Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist.

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