Imagine traveling from St. Louis to Kansas City in 30 minutes, with no airplane involved. Now imagine an hour from St. Louis to Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, or Knoxville. A pipe dream? No, but pipes would be involved. Big pipes. Tubes, actually. And something else that makes St. Louis unique. Have you heard about Hyperloop?
Hyperloop is a mode of transportation consisting of a low pressure tube with capsules that are transported through the length of the tube on a cushion of air and propelled by electromagnets. Passengers or cargo enter and exit a tube at stations located at either end or branches between the ends. Hyperloops have been proposed above ground and in tunnels as the next step beyond high-speed trains. There has even been a paper written about a subsea Hyperloop to connect continents, but that one doesn’t hold water, so to speak.
Practical problems with constructing above ground Hyperloops include rights-of-way and the potential for disasters taking out a section of tube, not to mention unsightliness. If an oil pipeline looks bad, then how about a tube that’s three times the diameter? Going underground presents a whole different set of challenges. The longest tunnel in the world is a little over 85 miles long and carries water, not people or cargo.
But what if Hyperloop was embedded in an age-old natural transportation system, one that propelled Lewis and Clark to greatness and even today accounts annual cargo transportation of tens of billions of dollars a year? Could the Mississippi River system, including the Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Red rivers, and their tributaries hold the solution to the vexing practical problems of constructing Hyperloops?
Consider the advantages of using natural pathways through the country for high-speed transportation. Major cities were built along rivers, so appropriate end points already exist. While rivers are not the most direct paths between cities, speeds of up to 700 mph can make up for the inefficiency. The rights-of-way problems disappear if the tubes are at the bottom of rivers. It should cost less to construct river bottom Hyperloop than digging tunnels. Most rivers are wide enough to accommodate multiple tubes that are needed for two-way transportation, the segmentation of people and cargo, and express versus regional lines. The flow of river water could be used to generate electricity to power the capsules and their propulsion through the tubes.
Technology exists to build Hyperloop infrastructure in riverbeds. Immersed Tube Tunnels have been in use for more than a century to cross underneath rivers. With these tunnel, segments are prefabricated on land, the river is dredged to create a bed, the prefabricated segments are floated to the location and sunk, and the segments are connected to create a continuous tunnel.
There are challenges to overcome with Hyperloops in riverbeds. Exits would need to be placed along the route in case of electro-mechanical failure or medical emergency. A road inside the tunnel that parallels the Hyperloop tubes could be used to transport people to safety if a tube is compromised. Rivers tend to have bends that would keep the Hyperloop from traveling at maximum speed, and any curves would need to be as smooth as possible to avoid slinging passengers around. The Hyperloop would need to bypass dams and reservoirs, most likely by routing the tubes above ground. A practical implementation of Hyperloop in a riverbed would start with a stretch of river that is free from dams, and would be built first to transport cargo instead of humans until safety was proven.
Linking Hyperloops that run through the Mississippi River system and other inland waterways with Hyperloops being envisioned above ground for both coasts would create a new transportation system to augment those already in place. Airports such as St. Louis Lambert International could be linked via high-speed rail to river ports where passengers and cargo could catch Hyperloops.
There was a time when St. Louis was the hub of transportation in the United States because of its strategic location where two major rivers combine. That distinction was lost with the advent of rail service. Could Hyperloop inside the Mississippi River system once again transform St. Louis into a major transportation hub?
Cameron Coursey of Defiance is vice president of product development for a telecommunications company.