Is a hyperloop in the US feasible? Skeptics doubt whether the futuristic transportation system can ever become a reality, but a new study supported by Virgin Hyperloop One finds many possible benefits of a high-speed route between St. Louis and Kansas City.
A coalition of Missouri business leaders and government agencies joined with the Los Angeles-based company a year ago to kick off a feasibility study of a hyperloop in their state. Released today, the study examined where the ultrafast transportation system should be built (along the I-70 corridor), how many riders it would attract (6,000 during peak hours), and how much money it could save commuters who rode the high-speed transit system ($410 million per year).
But there is one important thing missing from the report: how much it would cost to build a hyperloop in Missouri.
When Elon Musk conceived of the hyperloop in 2013, he estimated that a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost about $6 billion, or $11.5 million per mile. Leaked documents from 2016 show that Virgin Hyperloop One — then just Hyperloop One — was estimating the cost of a potential 107-mile Bay Area project to be somewhere between $9 billion and $13 billion, or $84 million to $121 million per mile. Since then, the company has been mum about per-mile costs.
Those projections were left out of the Missouri report because there are still so many uncertainties. For example, local leaders would need to figure out where to build the hyperloop stations, or “portals,” within the cities themselves and how to connect it to regional transportation hubs, said Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communication at Virgin Hyperloop One.
“Depending on where our coalition stands on where those [portals] should be and the demand, making sure we’re in a place where people can come to the station, is really going to affect cost,” Kelly said.
St. Louis to Kansas City is a 248-mile route that takes around three hours and 40 minutes by car, or about 55 minutes by plane (not including time spent traveling to the airport, security lines, etc.). Virgin Hyperloop One says the trip would take just 31 minutes using its system of aerodynamic pods traveling through nearly airless tubes at speeds of up to 700 mph. That depends on building hundreds of miles of tubes on pylons along a highway like I-70, which the study identifies as the ideal location.
“In the United States, I-70 is one of the strongest corridors we’ve seen,” Kelly said. “Not only do you have the right-of-way, but it’s relatively straight and flat, which is perfect for the first hyperloop system.”
The study, conducted by engineering firm Black and Veatch, found that travel time savings of a Missouri hyperloop would amount to $410 million annually. And the reduction of automobile accidents along I-70 could put $91 million back in people’s pockets every year.
But without cost projections, the study amounts to a little more than a glossy marketing tool that Virgin Hyperloop One can brandish as it pitches its 700 mph vision to Missouri’s leaders. The company says it will rely on its coalition of supporters to spearhead the project. And to be sure, government agencies love the idea of cost savings and economic stimulus, which is what the report suggests a hyperloop could bring to the state.
The linear infrastructure cost of a hyperloop would be 40 percent less than high-speed rail around the world, the report finds. The study authors examined high-speed rail projects in the US and around the world to make that determination. The bullet train in California is projected to cost $77 billion, up 20 percent from two years ago. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the costs of the St. Louis-Kansas City hyperloop.
Whatever the final price tag, Virgin Hyperloop One wants it to be shared between public and private entities. “Our private partners want to make sure that we’re economically viable and we’re not a sinkhole infrastructure project that isn’t going to make money back,” Kelly said. “Local governments want to see that, too.”
Kelly said 2017 was all about proving the technology of the hyperloop. The company built a 500-meter test track in the desert outside of Las Vegas. There, it has conducted several high-speed tests last year, the most recent of which sent its carbon-fiber pod prototype through a nearly airless tube at a top speed of 240 mph. Musk’s original concept theorized speeds of up to 760 mph.
Virgin Hyperloop One hopes to break ground on its first commercial route in India in 2019. The company had also hoped to conduct a feasibility study in Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom reportedly pulled the project in retaliation for criticism by Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson over the disappearance and alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.