On a sunny Thursday in April, Jenna Remack packed up her 2011 Kia Sorrento and strapped her 20-month-old son Sawyer into his car seat. Sawyer babbled in the back seat as the two set off on their six-hour drive from Independence, Mo., to Springfield, Ill.
After moving to the Kansas City metro area about four years ago, Jenna and her husband, Bobby, planned to visit their family in Illinois four times a year. But the distance makes such frequent visits impossible. With two jobs, a toddler, and a baby on the way, the couple can’t easily manage 12 hours of commuting — although they really want their relatives to be involved in their children’s lives.
“When I was little, I’d always spend the weekend or the summers with my grandparents. That was a big part of my life,” Remack said. But “right now for my kids, that’s just not an option.”
Travel time is a global concern for the modern commuter, as are pollution, congestion and cost. Realizing this, transportation pioneers in the United States and India have converged on a sustainable, futuristic solution — the hyperloop, a high-speed pod in a vacuum tube.
Traveling with minimal friction, hyperloop may go as fast as 700 mph and presents an energy-efficient alternative to traditional modes of transportation. But skeptics doubt the hyperloop will become a reality anytime soon. While plans are further along in India than in the United States, obstacles abound in both countries.
Many commuters hope the skeptics are wrong.
Not only would the hyperloop make it easier to work in distant cities, it would help solve nightmarish traffic snarls.
Shasheesh Tiwari, a graphic designer from Bangalore, said it takes an hour and a half to make a mere 18-kilometer trip (about 11 miles) to his office by rideshare services like Uber.
“Bangalore has grown in an unplanned way at exponential pace in the last decade. Most roads are narrow, leading to traffic congestion in every part of the city,” he said. “It’s a constant and defeating exercise to beat the mounting traffic in the city.”
An old dream in a new age
George Medhurst, an 18th century British inventor and engineer, first envisioned vacuum-pipe transportation, and the idea has since been revived by modern entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX.
SpaceX is now working to maximize speed in the hyperloop pod, while another company — Virgin Hyperloop One — is working to commercialize the hyperloop.
Virgin Hyperloop One built the first full-scale test track in Nevada, setting a record speed of 240 mph in 2017. “We want to get the system at least operational first for testing and certification by the year 2023,” said Dan Katz, the company’s director of global policy.
Virgin Hyperloop One has long been seeking a location for the first real hyperloop system, and asked innovators across the world for route possibilities in its Global Challenge contest in 2016.
The Missouri Department of Transportation responded by submitting its proposal for a Hyperloop One route from St. Louis to Kansas City via Columbia. Tom Blair, St. Louis district engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation, spent five hours meeting with the Hyperloop One team in early 2016. “I walked out somewhat of a believer that these individuals might actually create a new mode of transportation,” he said.
Soon the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition was formed, comprising representatives from the transportation department, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and other groups.
They envision a system better than the so-called “bullet trains” — less dependent on weather, quieter, and able to carry both passengers and valuable freight. Hyperloop would travel faster than high-speed rail systems in China, Japan and Germany, and also require less maintenance, said Bill Turpin, CEO of Missouri Innovation Center, a member of the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition.
Although Missouri wasn’t a finalist in the Global Challenge, its coalition has created a public-private partnership that is still working toward a St. Louis-Kansas City hyperloop route that would take about 25 minutes to travel.
In January, the coalition announced it would launch a feasibility study, which is expected to conclude in October.
A month later, in India, the winning route from the west coast of Mumbai to Pune announced a feasibility study of its own. (India also has winning routes from Bengaluru to Chennai and Mumbai to Chennai.)
Winner Hyperloop India, a team of students from several Indian colleges, is also working on a second-generation pod for the 2018 SpaceX Pod Competition. The pod is designed to reach 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles per hour, said Vinayak Kamal Ghosh, a member of the business development team of Hyperloop India.
“We are currently working on manufacturing the pod in Bangalore,” he said, adding that they are seeking funds from the government and corporate groups in order to finance the construction and assembly of the pod prototype and facilitate the functioning of the team.
Dubai’s Gulf News reported that India and the United Arab Emirates are the likeliest countries, according to Virgin Hyperloop One’s CEO, to be selected for the first commercially viable hyperloop.
Enthusiasts consider the hyperloop a great mode of transportation for all ages, from children to senior citizens who can no longer drive.
“They could get on the hyperloop, go to the football game and be back that night, or go to the basketball game or go to the concert,” said Drew Thompson, director of data center solutions at Black & Veatch, the engineering firm conducting the feasibility study.
Blair said hyperloop fits perfectly into Missouri’s Road to Tomorrow initiative, which is working toward innovative transportation partnerships along the Interstate 70 corridor.
“If things don’t change, we are headed to driverless vehicles using our dumb, underfunded and under-appreciated roads,” Blair said, projecting a future of on-demand transport systems in place of private cars, especially since fuel taxes paid by drivers are barely enough to take care of today’s roads and bridges.
Technologies like the hyperloop, on the other hand, may bring a business model that not only pays for itself through tickets and fares, but also generates revenue — a business model more akin to airline companies.
“Missouri, for us, is a very exciting project,” Katz said, “because we have the opportunity to look very specifically at how hyperloop can remake what was traditionally just the highway into a transportation corridor of the future.”
Besides creating shortened trips for residents on either side of Missouri, advocates say the hyperloop, when built, would attract people who normally wouldn't travel back and forth — and perhaps tourism.
In the meantime, they said, it would create construction jobs, increase demand for restaurants and hotels, and hopefully attract more business to Missouri.
Indian officials say the hyperloop would solve many problems for their country as well.
Megacities in the developing country are battling transportation unreliability, congestion and pollution, said Bishwanath Deewanjee, chief engineer at the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation Ltd.
In the capital city of Delhi, drivers with odd- and even-numbered license plates must alternate days to restrict the number of exhaust-spewing vehicles on the roads.
In the long run, Deewanjee said, transportation systems that emphasize walking, cycling and public transportation would be better than continuing to depend on “the use of private cars, which would in turn lead to more pollution.”
Kolkata Metro Rail is now building the East-West Metro Corridor in Kolkata, a city of over 14 million. Deewanjee said this project should ease congestion on the roads with its underwater tunnel beneath the Hooghly River, the first of its kind in India.
Down the road, experts said, the hyperloop could also ease congestion throughout the country.
But plans in both countries face a big roadblock: Money.
There hasn’t been a cost estimate for Hyperloop One in Missouri. “But it is not going to be cheap,” said Ryan Weber, director of KC Tech Council, a member of the coalition.
The feasibility study will determine the estimate and set a price range for fares, Thompson said. He said the starting point of the study will be the routing (most likely along I-70).
Andrew Smith, vice president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, said the feasibility study should answer “everything from the route alignment along I-70 to station locations ... right of way issues, environmental and economic impact … regulations and then, ultimately, business models.”
Whatever the final estimate, paying for the hyperloop won’t be easy. Funding for transportation in Missouri relies solely on the 17-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t risen in decades.
All this means Missouri will have to rely on private industry to move ahead on the hyperloop, which everyone agrees would be a multi-billion-dollar investment.
Katz said the Indian hyperloop proposal also comes down to partnership. “We have a number of partners coming together, including the government,” a leading port operator and financial backers, Katz said.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis touted the benefits of Virgin Hyperloop One, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessed the signing of agreement for the Mumbai-Pune route.
Across the world, hyperloop proponents remain optimistic.
Remack, the pregnant mom in Missouri, said she’s been following the progression of the hyperloop since the beginning.
“Can you imagine our travel time only being 2 hrs?!” she commented on Facebook, tagging her father in Springfield, Ill.
“Six and a half hours in the car, that’s hard… (as) opposed to a quick two-hour commute.”
Souryaprokas Bhaduri, Maiyankini Bose, Brooke Vaughan and Yanqi Xu contributed to this report.
As part of a University of Missouri journalism class last semester, six teams of students worked on story projects that connected India and Missouri. The students worked under the direction of Laura Ungar, investigative and enterprise reporter for USA Today and The Courier-Journal, and journalist Sujoy Dhar, a former Reuters correspondent and founder of the Indian news agency India Blooms, based in Kolkata, India. Students reported and wrote material from their home countries, communicating and collaborating through Skype and email.