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Science fiction or science fact? With a hyperloop system in place, Austin would be just minutes away

Virgin Hyperloop One

Drive-in bank customers are used to putting checks or cash into a container that is whisked through a tube into the main building by a vacuum system.

Visualize people instead of paper in the container and you get a grasp of what hyperloop transportation is.

As Tarrant County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes said at the Feb. 16 Ninth Annual Northeast Tarrant Transportation Summit, the “idea of traveling at breakneck speeds through a tube conjures up visions of H.G. Wells and sci-fi movies from the 1950s.”

“I’m kind of excited hearing that kind of stuff and seeing people spending money on it,” Fickes said of the hyperloop concept.

“Talking about it is one thing, but when they’re putting literally tens and maybe a hundred million dollars’ worth of capital into one of these projects, you get a little more serious about it,” Fickes said.

It’s not a new idea.

What changes the game is the involvement of billionaire entrepreneurs and visionaries like Elon Musk, whose Boring Co. visualizes a below-grade hyperloop linking New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group invested heavily enough in startup Hyperloop One in October that the company became Virgin Hyperloop One.

Virgin Hyperloop One is looking at a project in Texas it labels the Texas T-bone.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it is. There was a presentation on the idea at the transportation summit in 2011.

It was the general concept of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. (THSRTC), which was formed in 2002 after earlier attempts to build high-speed rail in Texas collapsed, in part because of opposition from the airlines.

The T-bone visualized a route along Interstate 35 between Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio with a side extension to Houston, but this time with airline support.

Airlines were interested because a passenger could arrive at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and catch a connecting flight out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston in a time-efficient manner.

That, too, failed to be recognized as a demonstration project by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Fickes is a former chairman of THSRTC, which has continued to focus on transportation issues along I-35 even after talk about the high-speed rail project along that corridor faded.

Texas Central Partners, a self-described investor-funded company, is pressing ahead with a route between Dallas and Houston following roughly the Interstate 45 corridor. The company says it will not seek grants from the U.S. government or Texas or any operational subsidy once operation begins.

Nathan Roth, assistant general counsel for Virgin Hyperloop One, said at the transportation summit that the company issued a Global Challenge, seeking best ideas from across the world for a hyperlink project, and the possible Texas project surfaced as a result.

The new Texas T-bone is the brainchild of AECOM, a company based in Dallas but with offices in Fort Worth and worldwide. It describes itself as a firm positioned to design, build, finance and operate infrastructure assets around the world for public- and private-sector clients.

The Global Challenge was a first-of-its-kind competition aimed to identify locations around the world with the potential to develop and build the world’s first hyperloop networks, said Steven Duong, AECOM associate vice president for design, planning and economics, in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press.

Eleven U.S. semifinalists competed in Washington, D.C., in early April 2017 and eight winning teams were announced Sept. 14. AECOM represented five of the eight winning teams, including the Hyperloop Texas route, Duong said.

“This is one of our most exciting entries, especially for me, coming from Texas,” Roth said. “Dallas to Austin in 25 minutes. Austin to San Antonio, 11 minutes. San Antonio to Laredo in 20 minutes. San Antonio to Houston in 25 minutes.” He did grumble that his hometown of El Paso was left out of the mix.

“My grandparents were in Beaumont when I was growing up, so we made the trip from El Paso to Beaumont in a Suburban twice a year,” he said. “For any of you who have made that trip, I think a hyperloop is definitely needed for El Paso, too. Maybe we’ll do that as a Phase Two.”

Hyperloop technology permits pods to travel at speeds of up to 670 miles per hour in a tube structure that can be built above or below grade, although above grade is significantly cheaper.

Here’s a short, non-expert lesson on how it works:

Essentially, it involves an electric motor, a tube that is nearly a vacuum and magnets that, as any child knows, can either attract or repel each other based on orientation.

There are two components to an electric motor – what is called a stator, the fixed part of the motor, and the rotor, which rotates around the stator when electricity is applied. An electric drill is a good example.

In Hyperloop One technology, the company has turned the vehicle into a linear rotor and the stator into the track. Magnets lift the vehicle off the track, greatly reducing friction. Air is pumped out of the tube, simulating the atmosphere at an altitude of about 200,000 feet, and that reduces drag.

“Only the smallest amount of electricity is needed to achieve extraordinary speeds and creates a more cost- and energy-efficient system than high-speed rail or airline transport,” the company says.

Roth said the system is energy-efficient, has zero direct emissions of pollutants and a very low footprint and emits minimal noise.

“This really can’t be underestimated,” Roth said. “In a transport space, noise is really a key factor on where you can build, how close you can build to your neighbors. … We’re much quieter than our competing technologies.”

The Texas concept is just that right now – a concept.

But there is action in other parts of the world. Virgin Hyperloop One announced an agreement Feb. 20 to build the system in India between Pune and Mumbai, a driving distance of 149 kilometers (about 92 miles).

“Here in Texas, AECOM is currently in discussion with Virgin Hyperloop One and partners … discussing next steps. I anticipate Virgin Hyperloop One to have an announcement in the coming months,” AECOM’s Duong said.

He said AECOM drew inspiration from the Texas mega-region concept while also examining historical efforts to connect Texas cities.

The corridor selections were based on “the growing economic climate, booming population, key connections to cargo infrastructure and its central location within North America,” Duong said.

“Cargo users will be able to ship their goods seamlessly between air, sea and land. Passengers will be able to travel between major cities in Texas in mere minutes, as opposed to hours,” he said.

A hyperloop network in Texas would not only increase global economic competitiveness, it also would reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion in one of the country’s most environmentally stressed areas, Duong said.

Asked whether the hyperloop could be built above grade, possibly on existing right-of-way along on or in the center of Interstate 35, Duong says it’s much too early for that kind of detail.

“The proposed corridor is very conceptual at this point. The environmental feasibility study will determine the best route that aligns with the Hyperloop Texas proposed corridor,” he said.

Fickes says the proposed route could face the same right-of-way issues that Texas Central is dealing with.

“I know that I-45 from Houston to Dallas, the curvatures are too much to accommodate high-speed rail,” Fickes said. “They’re too tight.”

He admits he doesn’t know whether a pod – the vehicle in the hyperloop – would face similar issues at up to three times the speed of rail.

Roth told the audience at the transportation summit that “it all probably seems a little bit sci-fi, but we’ve actually built this thing.”

Virgin Hyperloop One built the world’s first full-scale, fully functional hyperloop system in the Nevada desert in nine months – less time, Roth said, than it takes to build an addition to a home in the Los Angeles area, where he is based.

“We’re pretty proud of that,” he said. “It’s all built with either off-the-shelf technology or proprietary systems.”

The project demonstrated the integrated functionality of the vacuum, the motor and the levitation.

“We achieved 240 miles per hour on a 300-meter guideway. The prototype … is 500 meters, so we had to start slowing down after 300 meters,” Roth said. “My understanding from the engineers is that with that system we have built out there, if we had a longer track, we’d get up to 670 miles per hour.”

He noted that on his flight from Los Angeles to DFW Airport, the air speed was 610 miles per hour.

At that speed, Texas trips that now take hours could in the future take mere minutes.

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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