‘Hyperloop One’ rail concept could cut Denver-to-Vail trip to 9 minutes
Personal travel that tests the sound barrier in hermetically sealed tubes might seem like some far-flung, futuristic notion, but if Colorado gets its way it could be less than a decade from reality rather than the light years away most probably imagine.
From an original group of 2,600 whittled down to two-dozen in April, the state was named to an exclusive list of 10 finalists last week in a worldwide competition for precisely this concept. Should the electromagnetic capsule design proposed by Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One ever get off the ground, a 360-mile track that includes a leg from Denver to Vail, with a stop in Silverthorne along the way, may soon zip people up to the mountains in mere minutes at speeds of 700 miles per hour.
“There are a lot of questions still to answer,” acknowledged Peter Kozinski, who presides over such projects that push the limits of technology for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “But we have faith that this is real, so we’re going to invest resources to looking at it. They’ve shown the propulsion works in a test track and that they’re sincere about doing this thing.”
The implausible enterprise is progressing so quickly, in fact, that he speculated a functional hyperloop of some scale — and perhaps initially moving only freight over a 20-mile pilot stretch — will exist somewhere on the globe within the next three-to-five years. And maybe it’s closer to between five and 10 years, but that it’s coming sooner than later.
“We’re hoping that it’s here in Colorado,” added Kozinski.
One with the Loop
The idea of, essentially, a pneumatic tube that hurtles humans from places like Dallas to Houston, Toronto to Montreal and Edinburgh to London — three of the other finalists for the supersonic-speed rail line — is the brainchild of one-man think tank and transit pioneer Elon Musk. The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and founder of commercial space exploration company SpaceX, among other radical ventures, first conceived of blueprints for the pod-based passenger network in 2013 and then challenged the engineering community to find a way to perfect it.
“Well hell, we’ve been using them at banks for a thousand years, at the drive-up where you put a tube in,” said Thad Noll, Summit assistant county manager who also holds a master’s in transportation engineering. “It’s a similar thing … with almost zero air pressure, like a vacuum in the front and high pressure in the back. It’s as simple as that.”
The main line in Colorado would run from Cheyenne, Wyoming, south to Pueblo, with stops in Fort Collins, Greeley, a hub at Denver International Airport, and Colorado Springs along the way. The whole trip would take less than 30 minutes rather than seven times that long without traffic.
The mountain route would be expected to pass through the Denver Tech Center and Golden as part of a 9-minute jaunt to Vail. The run to Summit could clock just 6 minutes — thereby rapidly solving the riddle that is travel in the High Country.
That the Interstate 70 mountain corridor is crumbling is no secret, but how to fund its repair has remained a conundrum for the state. CDOT, with its budget constantly stretched thin, struggles just to keep the highway operational for yearly record-breaking traffic counts set by the second-fastest growing state in the country.
“It’s a system that was designed in the ’50s and built in the ’60s for a population that they thought would be about 3 million statewide in the ’80s,” Shailen Bhatt, CDOT’s executive director, told 5280 magazine earlier this year. “It’s ridiculous that with all the tourism dollars generated by outdoor recreation, the artery that feeds them is in its original configuration.”
Which is why Bhatt, going on three years in the role, is feverishly searching for an answer to this decades-long problem. The possibility of a high-tech fix — however seemingly far-fetched — is just too good to pass up.
“There’s a chance that this doesn’t come to fruition,” Bhatt told the Denver Post. “But I’m sure there were a lot of people who told the Wright brothers they would never fly. Or transcontinental railroads wouldn’t work. We have significant challenges in both public safety, freight and congestion issues, and if there’s technology out there that can help us solve it, it’s our (duty) to explore it.”
The Future Is Now
Relying heavily on a prior analysis for a high-speed train along 120 miles of I-70 completed in 2014, CDOT is now entered into a public-private partnership with engineer consulting firm AECOM and Hyperloop One to judge the feasibility of the project over the next nine months. The mountain leg would face obstacles the straighter, more direct Pueblo run would not, and would have to negotiate right-of-ways through U.S. Forest Service lands and most likely away from the curves and bends of the current I-70 alignment.
These conceptual studies are also designed to decide whether the rail system would function above, below or on the ground. To avoid the impacts of snowdrifts and loads, the potential mountain line would be above ground.
Cost is the ultimate factor as well, of course. Early on, Musk envisioned the price tag of a passenger line at $6 billion and one-way tickets running $20 apiece.
Word on what the eventual expense for infrastructure and operations would be is a long way out. But with an annual budget of about $1.4 billion for all of its projects, what CDOT knows for now is that if a hyperloop ever does come to Colorado, it won’t be the only one footing the bill.
“At the end of nine months, we’ll have a much better handle on the first segment, the cost, and the structure around public-private partnerships,” said Kozinski. “Because this is not just going to be funded by Hyperloop One or the state of Colorado, and will more likely be a partnership with outside investors.
“The sense I’m getting from these guys is every year they’re not building, they’re not capturing dollars, and they have limited resources, too,” he added of Hyperloop One. “So they’re contributing money to this, and have a vested interest in seeing this as a success in Colorado, and we’re enthused by that.”
With a pitched battle brewing in the state legislature over his signature “public option” health insurance bill (HB19-1004) from last session, state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, is urging calm before the coming storm.