KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — Commercial goods packed in giant capsules and moving in vacuum-sealed steel tubes at nearly supersonic speeds from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh?
That means packages hurtling from one end of the state to the other in under a half hour.
Pennsylvania transportation officials think it’s less futuristic than it sounds, and they have committed $2 million to study the cost and impact of building a “hyperloop” across the state.
“This is an emerging technology that’s coming at us very quickly,” said Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “It’s smart for the Turnpike Commission to be prepared.”
Popularized by engineer and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, a hyperloop is a trainlike system of sealed pods zooming at more than 700 mph, just below the sound barrier.
No such system has ever opened, though India claims it is getting close.
For years, governments have been abuzz about the possibility of such an ultrahigh-speed transportation network in the face of naysayers who cite the high cost and question the practicality of planning such a project.
In Pennsylvania, DeFebo said turnpike officials are mostly interested in exploring how hyperloop technology can improve traffic conditions, noting that some 15 percent of vehicles on state roads are tractor-trailers.
And, more critically to turnpike officials, commercial vehicles account for some 50 percent of toll revenue. In other words, hyperloop has the potential of being a threat to an essential piece of the turnpike’s annual revenue. To an agency already careening toward a financial catastrophe, toll money is a dire matter.
“If there’s a new way for shippers to ship goods, we need to be a part of that. There’s a chance it could take away a critical segment of our customer base,” DeFebo said. “It’s not going to replace tractor-trailers. It’s not going to replace trains. But it’ll work with existing modalities to be part of a wider transportation solution.”
A hyperloop for humans, at least in Pennsylvania, is secondary to its commercial potential, DeFebo said. And it might not be underground.
Officials are exploring whether it could propel goods on the ground next to moving traffic or even suspended above state highways,
“There are fewer safety concerns with cargo than with passengers,” he said. “So, when it comes to passengers, they would be more impacted by the G-forces. The hyperloop for freight, for instances, can have sharper turns, since we wouldn’t be trying to smooth out the ride for passengers.”
Not ‘missing the boat’
The study approved this month by the Turnpike Commission, will be conducted by Dallas-based consulting group Aecom, which constructed Musk’s first SpaceX Hyperloop test track in the Los Angeles area.
Questions involving cost, design, engineering, environmental impact and acquiring right-of-way near the turnpike will be addressed by the Pennsylvania study, which is expected to be released by spring 2020.
Turnpike officials ordered the study at the direction of state Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, who wanted to make sure Pennsylvania “didn’t miss the boat” on hyperloop, as other states made similar moves to study the technology. Kaufer proposed that the zippy transportation system could have a northeast extension to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, which includes parts of his district.
Martin Pietrucha, a civil engineering professor at Penn State University, said in the context of the state Department of Transportation’s nearly $4 billion budget, a $2 million study is a paltry sum.
“That’s like a sparrow farting in a hurricane,” Pietrucha said. “That said, it’s good for any organization to do a little ‘blue sky’ thinking about the future, and that amount of money isn’t really going to seriously affect any other elements of the transportation system. So why not?”
Pietrucha said investing in high-speed rail and expanding existing train track may make more, but it is unlikely that a cash-strapped agency will be in a hurry to start pursuing high-speed rail, similar to the Acela, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, which state officials claim could cost nearly $40 billion.
Michael Boyer, associate director of comprehensive planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, welcomes the hyperloop study, though he is far from bullish on the concept.
“It provides an exciting opportunity for high-speed travel, but it will be competing for scarce resources against established and other new technologies,” Boyer said. “Benefits in travel speed need to be weighed against other considerations, such as safety, environmental stewardship, ridership, cost, and other transportation infrastructure needs.”
In the summer of 2017, Pennsylvanians were seeing headlines about Musk’s hyperloop dreams after he claimed officials in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., gave him the verbal go-ahead for a passenger train. Soon after, officials in those cities said no such talks happened and no approval was ever secured.
That status quo remains, according to Philadelphia city officials.
“There are numerous hurdles for this unproven ‘hyperloop’ technology before it can become a reality,” said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney. “Philadelphia is focused on near term feasible improvements to bus service for city transit and supports proven technologies like high-speed rail, or intercity transit.”
Ultra-high-speed rail? For now, it remains a vacuum-sealed pipe dream.
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads/.