By Roger Dupuis, The Times-Leader
In response to state Rep. Aaron Kaufer’s calls for a statewide high-speed train system, the turnpike commission has approved a $2 million contract with Los Angeles-based engineering and construction firm AECOM to undertake the study.
(TNS) — State Rep. Aaron Kaufer is tired of watching Northeastern Pennsylvania waiting for a train that might never come.
“My entire life we’ve heard about plans for a train from Scranton to New York City, and we’re not one foot closer,” Kaufer, 30, said.
The Kingston Republican believes the region has a much better chance of linking to a developing mode of transportation that would blow passengers away — literally.
Kaufer supports connecting the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area to a statewide hyperloop system, in which passengers and freight would zip across the commonwealth in magnetically levitating pods propelled through low-pressure vacuum tubes at 700 miles per hour or more.
That is two to three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 to 15 times faster than traditional rail, not to mention vastly quicker than cars, buses and trucks can move — when they’re not stuck in traffic or construction zones — and competitive with jet air travel.
At such speeds, Northeastern Pennsylvania travellers could theoretically reach Harrisburg in 10 to 15 minutes, or step off in Pittsburgh in just over a half-hour.
It might sound like a futuristic fantasy, but prototypes are under development in the U.S. and overseas, and Kaufer wants to make sure Pennsylvania is ready to take advantage of the technology once it is ready for commercial use.
“This is our opportunity to be on the cutting edge and not be left out,” Kaufer said.
That is why Kaufer sponsored a resolution directing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, supported by the state Department of Transportation, to conduct a feasibility study on the potential for a system linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with a branch north from Harrisburg to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. His House Resolution 1057 was overwhelmingly approved by a bipartisan majority in October.
In response, Turnpike officials earlier this month approved a contract worth up to $2 million with Los Angeles-based engineering and construction firm AECOM to undertake the study.
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo told the Times Leader that the commission expects the study results could be ready as early as April 2020, and it will look at the feasibility of construction, its potential costs and environmental impacts.
AECOM previously built a hyperloop test track in California for SpaceX, the exploration and transportation company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has been promoting the hyperloop concept since 2012.
Musk and his companies are only one of several firms looking to link American cities using the technology, and DeFebo explained that at least one of those projects already has Pennsylvania in its sights.
Last summer, the The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission announced a partnership with one company, Virgin Hyperloop One, to study options for building a route between Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago.
Musk, meanwhile, also has been looking at a route that would connect New York and Washington.
As in the glory days of trains, when the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world and tied major East Coast centers with the Midwest, Kaufer sees the Keystone State positioned to play a similarly critical role in the development of hyperloop lines.
“If those two projects are happening on our two edges, we want to be connected to them here in Pennsylvania,” he said.
It’s also a question of competitiveness, DeFebo added. He noted that one potential route between the seaboard and Great Lakes could follow the New York State Thruway, so it makes sense for the Turnpike to be studying its options.
That’s also true because hyperloop technology could be both a blessing and a curse for the 552-mile Turnpike system — potentially reducing the number of cars and trucks on the toll road, but also adding new revenue if operated in conjunction with the network.
The commission takes in $1.2 billion in annual toll revenue, DeFebo said, hence the agency’s interest in working to develop hyperloop routes that would complement the system.
“It’s about ensuring the viability of the Turnpike,” he said.
It’s also about topography. The key, experts say, is to keep the lines as straight and level as possible to accommodate high speeds and keep the ride smooth.
Given Pennsylvania’s hilly terrain, building cross-state routes that follow the existing highways such as the Turnpike and PennDOT-maintained Interstates could be easier and cheaper than attempting to create all-new corridors, DeFebo added, though some additional land might be needed to accommodate the tubes and minimize curves and grades.
Some media outlets have referred to underground hyperloop tunnels across the state. DeFebo acknowledged that the tubes could actually be at ground level or elevated on concrete piers above the highway, depending on the terrain encountered, which is another issue the study will be considering.
Cargo vs. passengers
While people hurtling through tubes may most capture the imagination, DeFebo predicted that we could see freight lines developed before passenger routes, for two critical reasons.
First, he noted, cargo pods wouldn’t require the same level of creature comforts needed to transport humans, meaning there is less need to worry about buffeting boxes and crates from heat, cold and G-forces to which people are extremely sensitive. That would allow the technology to be tested and improved in operating conditions until its ready for live riders.
Second, he believes the exponential growth of same-day and overnight delivery services, driven by the likes of Amazon, has created a demand for ever faster movement.
“This type of cargo is absolutely changing the way ground transportation runs,” DeFebo said, and it also could reduce their dependence on expensive air transportation.
Either way, he stressed that the technology needed to make hyperloop transportation possible — magnets, motors, tubes and solar panels — is anything but radical. Rather, developers are merely looking at combining existing technologies in new ways.
“You already see a form of this when you go to the drive-through window at the bank,” DeFebo added.
How soon will we see it racing across American’s mountains, valleys and plains? That remains to be seen.
As of now, however humans have yet to ride in a hyperloop pod, even though there are several test tracks around the world.
Observers see great strides being made in the technology overseas, especially in the Middle East, where flat, open spaces and less stringent regulations could lead to quicker implementation.
In the U.S., federal authorities have yet to determine exactly how hyperloop technology would be regulated, as it blurs the lines between rail and air transportation.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last week announced the creation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council, intended to ensure the federal DOT is equipped to review and support emerging transportation technologies like hyperloop and autonomous vehicles.
“We basically have a 20th century organizational structure for 21st century technologies. So when new technologies don’t fit neatly into the existing modal structure, the results can slow down and even stifle transportation infrastructure,” Chao said.
Here in Pennsylvania, Kaufer just wants to make sure hyperloop construction is done right when the time comes, that the state is positioned to take advantage of any federal funding that might be available, and that our region is included in the process.
“I want us to have a real conversation about what lies ahead, and I’m going to keep this in the minds of the caucus,” Kaufer said. “I also want to make sure that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is not going to be left out.”