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Columbus hyperloop project stalled, technology still lacks federal approval

The route of a proposed Midwest Connect hyperloop between Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh.
Hyperloop One
Hyperloop One

A proposed hyperloop line that promised to provide high-speed travel from Chicago to Columbus and Pittsburgh appears to be dead in its tracks, at least for now.

Hyperloop technology involves powering pods down low-pressure tubes via magnetic force, reaching speeds of over 500 miles per hour.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has been working with Virgin Hyperloop One on the feasibility of such a line since 2017.

Thea Ewing, the commission's chief regional development officer, said the company's technology has yet to receive approval from federal regulators.

"An opportunity could certainly miss us if we just held down to a technology that hasn't even been certified in the United States. It's just too far beyond where we're at today for us to continue looking at it at the moment," Ewing said.

Another factor: Virgin signaled last month that it was shifting its focus from passenger to cargo transport, a move Ewing said was not surprising.

"Cars are not tested with people in them. First, they're tested with test dummies, and so the the ultimate test dummy, of course, is our packages moving from place to place, and the safety of them first, and then they will be able to expand further once they figure that out," she said.

In 2020, MORPC released a study showing that a hyperloop connecting Columbus with Chicago and Pittsburgh would be possible to build, although it didn't consider the cost of such an endeavor.

By sending pods of passengers through above-ground tubes at about 500 miles per hour, the proposed route would just take 18 minutes to go from Columbus to Pittsburgh, and 29 from Columbus to Chicago.

"We will keep our eye on it. We're not walking away from it. We do think it has great freight applicability, and I think there'll be a day and a time for it. It's just it's not going to be today," Ewing said.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.