Imagine being able to leave your house in Los Angeles at 8:15 and be at a meeting in San Francisco at 9, or leave DC at 5 and be in New York for dinner by 6. When it comes to the future of transportation, you won’t be asking, “Are we there yet?” but rather, “Should we take the Hyperloop or Maglev?” These two new technologies could fundamentally change the way people and goods are transported around the country. As the technology becomes more and more viable, public policy will become more at issue for the pioneers at Hyperloop and Maglev.
If you haven’t been following the development of these technologies, here’s a quick recap: Hyperloop is a technology that uses vacuum tubes and pneumatic air to propel pods, which can contain passengers or cargo, up to speeds of 600 mph. Maglev — short for magnetic levitation trains — uses superconductive magnets to hover train cars above an electric track, traveling up to 373 mph.
Recent breakthroughs in Maglev and Hyperloop make the potential for both technologies a real possibility. In November 2015, the Hyperloop Technology Corporation (HTC) secured $80 million dollars in Series B funding from private venture capital to begin initial tests and design. In December of 2015, HTC announced that they began construction on a test track in Las Vegas. The announcement was followed by the Hyperloop Pod Design Competition, which was held at Texas A&M University this past January. HTC and its visionary, Elon Musk, are confident that the Hyperloop will be a reality by 2020.
Maglev has seen developments as well. In late 2015, The Northeast Maglev, the company that’s trying to bring the technology to the U.S., completed an environmental impact study on a line between Washington DC and Baltimore. The Maglev seems to be gaining political traction as well, as the federal government issued Maryland a $27.8 million grant for a feasibility study. Governor Hogan of Maryland seems to be on board, as well as the Prime Minister of Japan who offered to help the U.S. cover some of the construction costs associated with Maglev.
Which technology will succeed, or will both? One way to analyze this question is to look at the regulatory and policy hurdles that both technologies will have to overcome in order to operate successfully.
Right-of-way might be a major hurdle for Hyperloop, which has to figure out if its tunnel will be above ground or below. The co-founder of HTC, Brogan BamBrogan (yes that’s his real name) seems to prefer below ground. Regardless of where its tunnels will be, HTC will have to navigate the tricky land politics associated with the development of new transportation infrastructure. One way Hyperloop could get around this issue is by renting existing right-of-way from freight-train or power-utility companies that own the rights to the land where a tunnel could be built. Hyperloop could then build its tunnel on these valuable tracts of land without having to purchase it for a new right-of-way, which might be politically fraught and costly.
Maglev might have an advantage over Hyperloop in this regard, as the company has already engaged with federal and state governments on the issue of right-of-way. Its support in Maryland and D.C. governments seems to signal that Maglev is being considered to replace Amtrak’s aging and slow trains in the Northeast Corridor, which is the biggest passenger train market in the country. Acquiring existing rights-of-way from freight operators or Amtrak would be the most efficient way for Maglev to construct a new track and less intrusive than burying a tunnel underground.
Real Estate Investments
Both technologies will have to invest in expensive real estate to provide their service to the public. Public infrastructure will most likely play a role, as new stations will have to be built to connect passengers to the service. While a Maglev station could be easily implemented into existing train stations, the Hyperloop might require its own station. If so, the cost of constructing new stations that link to the city’s existing transportation network might be prohibitive and necessitate public investment by city or state governments.
Unlike traditional rail, the Hyperloop and Maglev operate at tremendous speeds. Both technologies must consider carrying freight cargo, given how lucrative the freight market is in the United States. Carrying freight would also help both technologies convince the government to invest in new infrastructure as well. In order for Hyperloop to carry freight, engineers would have to design freight-specific pods, which would be considerably larger than passenger pods. A larger pod might need a larger tunnel to pass through, which would have to be built separately from the tunnels that contain passenger pods. Maglev would have the same problem, considering the speed of its trains might limit the size of its freight cars (due to excessive air friction when traveling >300 mph.)
Most importantly, both Hyperloop and Maglev will need political support in order to get off the ground. The cost of a Hyperloop connection between LA and San Francisco, estimated to be $16-20 billion, would most likely need significant investment from the federal government in order to cover its initial sunk costs. Maglev might cost even more than the Hyperloop: some estimate that a Maglev train between Baltimore to DC would cost $10 billion alone. Expand that line to NYC, and Maglev’s costs could reach $100 billion.
Recent comments made by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, President Obama, and other political leaders seem to suggest there is political support in both projects. Secretary Foxx attended the Hyperloop design competition in Texas this past January. The chairman of HTC, tech investor Shervin Pishevar has been in communication with President Obama on the progress of Hyperloop’s new test track. Governor Larry Hogan has expressed support for the Maglev, as have city councils in DC and Baltimore. While these signs are encouraging, considerably more support will be needed to turn the Hyperloop and Maglev dreams into reality.
Which Technology Will Prevail?
It is too early to tell whether Hyperloop or Maglev will serve the public any time soon. Both projects face enormous regulatory, finance, and viability challenges. The technologies will have to fight to gain political and financial support from the government, which might be the ultimate decider on issues of right-of-way, public infrastructure, and safety. While the technology is there, public policy might be the deciding factor on whether or not you’ll be taking a Maglev or Hyperloop to your next meeting in San Francisco. Regardless of how you get there, it’s exciting to anticipate the future of intercity travel in the United States. For Hyperloop and Maglev enthusiasts, the hope is that policy can keep pace with both companies as they work hard to change how people get around this country.
Header image source: Wired.