Space Travel on Earth? Hyperloop Partnership Pursues Possibilities

Meeting at University of Houston Considers Innovation in Transportation

Experts across a range of disciplines are coming together to promote Hyperloop technology, which promises the ability to move passengers and freight more quickly than air travel.

A proposed 1,152-mile link between the Port of Houston and Cheyenne, Wyo., could  transport both people and freight in one-third the time it would take to fly. Or how about traveling the 200 miles from Houston to San Antonio in less than nine minutes?

Hyperloop technology is moving closer to reality, no longer the stuff of science fiction. Researchers, transportation leaders, local officials and other experts met at the University of Houston Wednesday for a one-day symposium led by the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP), a nonprofit focused on bringing together both U.S. and international advocates for Hyperloop technology and transportation. 

“More than ever, we need new technologies, new modes of transportation,” said Dane Egli, president of the board for HARP.

Hyperloop technology, also known as loop or tube technology, propels a pod-like vehicle through a reduced-pressure tube, potentially at speeds far faster than air travel. The pods accelerate to cruising speed gradually using a linear electric motor and glide above the track via passive magnetic levitation or air bearings. The technology promises to be energy-efficient, quiet, environmentally friendly and autonomous.

Rich Byrnes, chief infrastructure officer at the Port of Houston, noted that the port is the busiest in the United States in terms of tonnage, with Mexico and China the No. 1 and No. 2 trade partners, respectively. Forty million people live within 500 miles of the port, and that number is growing. In a study released this week, the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs reported that the state’s population could reach 54 million by 2050.

“Houston can’t keep building highways,” Byrnes said. “We need to think about alternate ways of doing things.”

The Wyoming-to-Houston proposal was created by the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium, one of 35 teams – 11 from the United States – vying for a spot in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to demonstrate how Hyperloop technology could serve particular regions. Ultimately three projects will be chosen to work with Hyperloop One. Space X is hosting a similar competition for student teams to design the pods.

But consortium founder John Whitcomb said the project will continue, whether or not it is ultimately chosen by Hyperloop One. He created HARP in February to advance the Hyperloop concept and address issues common to all groups pursuing the technology.

Egli is leading the effort, which includes scientists, representatives of industry, land use experts, academics and others. Universities involved include UH, Cornell University and the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Richard Geddes, director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy at Cornell, is on the HARP board of trustees.

Mary Ann Ottinger, associate vice president/vice chancellor for research at UH, said academic involvement offers objective, science-based research into not just Hyperloop technology but also the policy, land use, economic and other issues. "Before we go into full-scale production, the public needs the assurance that there has been a sound, data-driven assessment," she said.

Wednesday’s meeting – the second for HARP, which held its first symposium in Denver in March – drew several dozen people, working on topics including funding, education and inter-governmental requirements and cooperation. By day’s end, each group had set goals for advancing the concept.

Among the topics covered:


  • Avoiding right-of-way issues that have dogged high-speed rail efforts. Two possible responses were mentioned: Determine if it is possible to stop more frequently than high-speed rail, allowing rural and small-town landowners to directly benefit, and provide solar panels or another power source on the Hyperloop infrastructure to power irrigation and other uses.
  • The need for detailed research into the cost-benefit ratio of the technology, allowing policymakers, government regulators, consumers and landowners to better understand the details.
  • Determining how to educate the public, as well as policymakers, about the project.

Future symposiums will be held in New York City and Washington D.C.

“There is no silver bullet,” Egli said. “It needs a holistic approach. It’s going to require federal and local governments, private enterprise, academia and young entrepreneurs.”

That last will be crucial, he said. “People need to sense that there is something special about being on the ground floor of a new mode of transportation.”

Hyperloop companies ET3 Global Alliance, Inc., of Longmont, Colo., and Loop Global, Inc of Fort Collins, Colo., also participated in the symposium. Both are building prototypes to demonstrate the technology.




Photo credit: Kevin Krejci Flickr (CC BY 2.0)