Let’s mull a ‘hyperloop’ future

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

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It's an indisputable fact that a "hyperloop" high-speed transportation system between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn., would be really cool. No doubt about it.

We reached that conclusion at no cost to the public purse.

Proponents of such a system are asking for a more authoritative and expensive opinion, however. Global Wellness Connections is seeking about $2 million from the Metropolitan Council to study whether a hyperloop is feasible on the 85-mile route between Rochester and the Twin Cities. The feasibility question would be easier to answer if there were already a working hyperloop system in place somewhere. There isn't.

Being the first to deploy a revolutionary system like a hyperloop to carry passengers and light freight between Rochester and the Twin Cities seems like an audacious step, doesn't it?

"It is audacious," agreed Curtis Johnson, a former Met Council chairman and now a board member of Global Wellness Connections. "There's no question about it. It would be a first in the nation, and Minnesotans are not accustomed to being first on anything. People like to say, 'Maybe we could be second, or third or fourth, but not first.'

"Well, some of us think that Minnesota ought to be first to try something."

Johnson explained that his group's mission is to win recognition of Minnesota as a world leader in health care and the medical device industry, much as California's Silicon Valley has won recognition as a leader in information technology. Part of what makes Minnesota that leader, however, is Mayo Clinic, whose headquarters are an inconvenient distance from the Twin Cities.

"You see the advantages of joining Rochester and the Mayo Clinic to its natural partners here in the Twin Cities," Johnson told an editorial writer. "Right now, the trip along Hwy. 52 is very treacherous. You're lucky to make it in two hours — an hour and a half at the least. If you're able to shorten that to 15 minutes, we're absolutely confident there will be synergies from joining the labor markets, from joining the economic markets, that will be momentous."

Promoted more than a decade ago in a white paper by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, the hyperloop sends passenger or freight capsules hurtling through a tube at speeds in excess of 700 mph. Most air has been sucked out of the tube, leaving an environment, Musk helpfully noted, with "about 1/6 the pressure of the atmosphere on Mars."

Unencumbered by air friction, hyperloop capsules can move faster than commercial aircraft, reducing the travel time to Rochester to just minutes. No need to bring a book, unless you're on your way to Mayo and anticipate spending time in waiting rooms between appointments.

The system Musk envisioned involved a thin cushion of air beneath the cars, using "the same basic principle as an air hockey table." The initiative being explored for Minnesota, however, designed by HyperloopTT, operates with a magnetic levitation system. The capsules would not touch the walls of the tube, except at the beginning and end of the journey.

HyperloopTT describes its capsules as "similar in size to a small commercial aircraft without wings," with room for 24 to 48 passengers. Mock-ups promise a personal entertainment system for each, but it's hard to imagine needing one on a 15-minute trip.

When the first commercial hyperloop system starts running, the trip will be even briefer. HyperloopTT has won a contract to develop a system running between Venice and Padua, Italy, a distance of only about 26 miles. A promotional video on HyperloopTT's website makes clear, however, that the company does not see the short distance as a reason to be humble. "The era of hyperloop begins now," intones a narrator, as an animated network of tubes spreads across the planet.

Whether that network will take root in Minnesota anytime soon is anybody's guess. We hope, at a minimum, that the hyperloop study gets full consideration. The Met Council has federal funds to distribute for transportation projects, but demand for those funds far outstrips the supply.

And we're mindful of the Zip Rail project, a long-dead effort to build high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester. That project encountered stiff resistance from landowners along the route and trouble raising the funds needed to get rolling. Johnson said most of the resistance came from farmers who didn't want a railroad crossing their property; he expects the hyperloop, traveling mostly underground, would encounter fewer objections.

And talk of capsules reminds us of Personal Rapid Transit, a highly ballyhooed system that, like the hyperloop, once was supposed to revolutionize transit. It didn't. Except for a few small demonstration systems, it never got off the ground.

But it would have been cool.