North Carolina

Futuristic transit system of high-speed pods gets a closer look in the Triangle

Six months ago, Ryan Kelly came to Raleigh to speak to a group of transportation planners about what his company calls a hyperloop, which would whisk pods full of people or cargo through tubes at speeds of up to 670 mph.

Kelly was back in the Triangle on Friday, before a ballroom full of the region’s business and transportation leaders, to explain how the technology works and how it might change the way people get around in the future. Kelly, the marketing director for Virgin Hyperloop One in California, brought along the company’s senior civil engineer, Ismaeel Babur, to answer any technical questions.

The development of a hyperloop system in North Carolina remains theoretical; the company doesn’t expect to have federal approval to build one in the U.S. until at least 2024. And while the company is developing the technology, it would take state and local governments to plan and finance the construction.

But bringing Virgin Hyperloop One back to the Triangle was meant to demonstrate the state and region’s interest in something Kelly acknowledges can feel like science fiction.

“North Carolina has got to be the place where big ideas are looked at,” said David Howard, the state’s chief deputy secretary of transportation. “This was a way of getting people excited about this.”

The event was sponsored by the Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Among those listening was David Hyder, a transportation engineer for Ramey Kemp Associates who has been in the business for nearly 40 years.

“It’s promising,” Hyder said afterward. “I’ve learned not to discount things that sound fantastic.”

The Kitty Hawk test

Hyperloop One built a 550-yard-long prototype in the Nevada desert, where the company says pods moved at up to 240 mph in December 2017. It says they could achieve much higher speeds with a longer tube, where they would have room to accelerate and brake. Company engineers refer to that first demonstration run as their “Kitty Hawk test,” said Babur, a reference to the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina.

Hyperloop achieves those speeds by removing most of the air from the tubes, to reduce resistance, and by lifting the pods off the track using an electro-magnetic propulsion system.

“You’d actually be floating,” Kelly said. “You’d be going at airline speeds floating, using our levitation system, but we control the weather inside the tube, so there’s no turbulence.”

The system would be automated; no one would be driving the pods, which could carry about 28 people each and could leave within seconds of each other, Kelly said. People would get on and off at “portals,” akin to a subway or train station.

Kelly told the audience that a hyperloop could carry a pod full of people from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., in half an hour, or from Raleigh to Atlanta in 45 minutes. A ride from Raleigh to Chapel Hill or Durham on a hyperloop built along existing freeways would take less than 10 minutes, said Alan Eckman, a vice president with the engineering firm AECOM, which produced a eight-page report that outlined how it might work in the Triangle.

Neither the report nor Kelly’s presentation mentioned how much a hyperloop system would cost. Kelly said afterward that those costs would vary greatly from place to place, depending on factors such as terrain and right-of-way. He said a feasibility study done for building a tube down the median of Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City — a relatively flat, uncongested area where the right-of-way is already available — estimated the system would cost between $30 million and $40 million per mile to build.

By way of comparison, a mile of six-lane interstate highway can cost about $11 million per mile to build in an urban area, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, though highway costs can vary widely; the NCDOT expects to spend $2.2 billion to build 28.4 miles of the Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County, a cost of $77 million per mile. The proposed Durham-Orange light rail project, which died earlier this year, would have cost well over $100 million per mile.

High on the Triangle

Kelly and others stressed that a hyperloop would need to be integrated with other transit systems, including local buses and the airport. While a hyperloop would no doubt replace some short flights, it could increase the reach of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, by making it easier for people from other cities to come to the Triangle to catch flights across the country and eventually to Asia and South America, said Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO.

“Our growth is worldwide,” Landguth said. “And this provides us a much larger market.”

It’s not clear who would lead the effort to develop a hyperloop system in North Carolina. But the company now considers the state among nine that have expressed interest in the technology and issued a news release shortly after the Regional Transportation Alliance event Friday saying it considers the Triangle a good fit.

“North Carolina Research Triangle — home to some of the country’s top companies, universities and healthcare centers — is an absolute prime location to examine hyperloop technology,” Jay Walder, the company’s CEO, said in the release. “It’s incredibly energizing the see North Carolina and the Triangle region take this important step forward in amplifying its vision for what 21st-century transportation can be.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739,