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Dreaming of a Speed Train Connecting Every City in the Midwest

A 760 mph rail could turn every major hub in the region into a suburb of Chicago. But is it just a sci-fi fantasy?

Illustration by Alex Even Meyer
Illustration: Alex Even Meyer

Earlier this year, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a California startup that aims to build the world’s fastest high-speed rail lines, announced plans to explore a Great Lakes hyperloop, a Chicago-to-Cleveland run that would whisk a magnetically levitated capsule through a vacuum tube at 760 miles an hour. It seemed to open up the possibility of a daily commute as swift as George Jetson’s morning ride to Spacely Space Sprockets. Imagine: Your company moves its operations to Cleveland because office space there is cheaper. You wake up in your South Loop condo, take a bus to Union Station, and step into a 30-seat capsule. Exactly 28 minutes later, the hyperloop drops you off in downtown Cleveland. At the end of the workday, it carries you back to Chicago in time for the White Sox game.

Some transportation experts still see the hyperloop as more science fiction than science, but regional planners in Cleveland are so excited about the possibility of bringing their city within commuting distance of Chicago that they’ve commissioned a $1.2 million feasibility study. They envision this run as the first in a network that would make every major city in the Midwest a suburb of Chicago, forever changing the dynamic of where we choose to live and work.

The benefits for Cleveland, which has never been able to transition from industrial center to global city like Chicago did, are obvious. “It would open up a marketplace for Clevelanders to work in Chicago,” says Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which is commissioning the study. “Perhaps the cost of living, or family, is keeping them in Cleveland.”

But what would high-speed rail do for Chicago? It could make us the capital of the nation’s most expansive megaregion, says Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. Located in the middle of a constellation of small-scale metropolises, Chicago is better situated to become a high-speed rail hub than any place in America. Cleveland planners have already produced a map of rail lines linking Chicago to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. At the center of it, Chicago’s Loop would become a global business district, as accessible as if it had its own airport. (A 2017 study by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland found that a hyperloop could be more efficient than regional flights.)

A Chicago-to-Cleveland line could be running by the end of the next decade, boasts Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is basing its designs on a template by Elon Musk, the transportation wizard who recently won a contract for a high-speed tunnel from O’Hare to the Loop, and is already building a six-mile link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. If Midwest lines come to pass, the company hopes to make fares on them free by selling services on the journeys: manicures, doctor visits.

Hyperloop rendering
A rendering of the hyperloop line proposed between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to be completed by 2020. Next up: Chicago to Cleveland?

Despite its promoters’ optimism, there are still plenty of obstacles standing in the way of a ride to Cleveland that’s quicker than a pizza delivery. Although Ahlborn says that the technology exists, his company is still in the process of building a prototype. And building the tube would require obtaining 350 miles of right of way. (Gallucci proposes running it alongside where Interstates 80 and 90 merge.) Other skeptics call the hyperloop the “barf tube,” saying the rapid acceleration and slight bends could nauseate passengers. (Answers Ahlborn: “If you have taken an airplane, you’ve already gone 700 miles an hour.”) Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a bullet train advocacy group in Lincoln Square, also cites safety concerns: “What happens if the vacuum fails?”

Harnish’s organization favors a more modest proposal: The Illinois Fast Track Initiative, a plan to run 220 mph trains along existing rail lines, would put Champaign 45 minutes away and Decatur an hour and 15 minutes away—reasonable commutes from Chicago. When Archer Daniels Midland moved its headquarters from Decatur to Hoffman Estates, the company decimated its hometown’s professional class. With a high-speed rail line, Harnish says, executives wouldn’t have to uproot their families. In France, for example, 205 mph trains have created a class of “supercommuters” who travel 300 miles from Lyon to Paris three days a week and work locally the other two. “If you had trains connecting these places, Chicago benefits, because you can’t continue to grow and prosper as the capital of a dying region,” Harnish says.

The Illinois Department of Transportation signed a memorandum of understanding with NOACA to assist in its study but isn’t putting up any money itself. “We’ve agreed to support that effort with whatever data we can provide them,” IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell says.

Cleveland acted first because it has more to gain. As a former deputy executive director of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority, Gallucci understands that “right now we need Chicago more than Chicago needs us,” and she is working hard to sell her former colleagues on the benefits of the connection. “This is the Midwest,” she says. “We build stuff here. This could be the start of a new industry.”

Unless it turns out to be the world’s longest pipe dream.

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