Liz McCormick Published

West Virginia Could Play A Role In Revolutionizing How We Travel

Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center.jpeg

Updated on Dec. 18, 2020 at 8:40 a.m.

In October, Gov. Jim Justice and Virgin Hyperloop made a major announcement. West Virginia would be home to the first hyperloop certification center ever in the country.

“For years, I have been saying that West Virginia is the best kept secret on the East Coast, and it’s true,” Justice said in a press release. “Just look at this announcement and all it will bring to our state – investment, jobs and tremendous growth.”

A hyperloop is a new concept for transportation that can move people and goods through pods in a vacuum at roughly 600 mph. To put that into perspective, a hyperloop could theoretically enable travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago in about 40 minutes, or from New York City to Washington, D.C. in just 30.

The hyperloop concept was first proposed by Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

Virgin Hyperloop Pod.jpeg

Virgin Hyperloop/WV Governor’s Office

Virgin Hyperloop’s new certification center will include a six to seven-mile test tube in the Canaan Valley covering parts of Tucker and Grant counties. The center is expected to be completed in five or six years.

The project may create up to 10,000 construction jobs in that time. Once fully operational, it could employ anywhere from 150 to 200 people with engineering and high-technology backgrounds who either already live in West Virginia or want to move here. West Virginians are expected to be given priority in the hiring process, according to company officials.

Long term, there may be efforts to connect the test track in the Canaan Valley to Morgantown, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Reporter Liz McCormick spoke with Mike Schneider, vice president of project development at Virgin Hyperloop, over Skype to learn more about the certification center, hyperloop technology and what this could mean for West Virginia and the world.

Transcript below. This conversation was edited for clarity.

MCCORMICK: In layman’s terms, what is a hyperloop?

SCHNEIDER: The concept of hyperloop is…it’s almost closer to aviation than it is to a train. It relies upon several technologies that exist but have never been actually combined to form an actual transportation mode. So, the centerpiece of hyperloop technology is a process called magnetic levitation. There’s a series of magnets along the track. And there’s a series of magnets inside the vehicle. And what makes the vehicle move is the pulling function of the magnets on the track, attracting the magnets on the vehicle. But if you put that system inside a tube, and then evacuate the air, so there is essentially no friction — because it’s the air friction, which is largely a deterrent to speed — but if you remove the friction component, then have it operate in effectively a vacuum, there’s almost no limitation to how fast those magnets can pull the vehicle without there being any air resistance. So, that’s what allows us to get up to 650 or 700 mph within the tube once evacuated of air.”

MCCORMICK: What will the certification center in the Canaan Valley be doing?

SCHNEIDER: The first step is evolving and proving the technology works at scale, meaning at speed. You probably have seen videos or reports of our recent successes with our initial, much, much shorter test track in the Nevada desert above Las Vegas, where we have actually achieved speeds in a very short tube, about a third of a mile. We achieved speeds of about 250 mph, which obviously is an acceleration that humans couldn’t withstand. But it has proved the concept of magnetic levitation in a vacuum tube. And then of course, just a couple of weeks ago, we did put two live people in a vehicle and did demonstrate that we can move people in a vehicle in a vacuum tube. We of course didn’t take it up to that speed; they achieved about 110 mph within the third of a mile. But we proved for the first time ever that people could ride in a hyperloop vehicle. So, the real purpose [of the certification center] is to have a facility where the technology can evolve, be tested, and be used with government observers and monitors to assure that all of the safety provisions are embedded, and that it is indeed safe and therefore can be certified. So, that’s the ultimate mission.

MCCORMICK: Why West Virginia?

SCHNEIDER: We chose West Virginia for a number of reasons. All of which are very, very relevant. We had four basic criteria. One, what were the corridors that were being offered? What were the alignments? Would they work for hyperloop as a test track with respect to the speed and alignment that we wanted to achieve? Secondly, what kind of funding and financing proposals were being proffered by the states to partner with us? What kind of incentives and packages were being put on the table for our review? Thirdly, what was the composition of the team? Who would we be working with? Who was leading the team? What organizations, public and private, would comprise those teams? And finally, what kind of overall support was there? Political, community, business? And frankly, West Virginia, scored exceptionally highly on all four of those. And in the end, it was not a difficult decision.

MCCORMICK: Was West Virginia’s workforce something you took into consideration when you were considering the location in Grant and Tucker counties?

SCHNEIDER: We know that the location is not in the middle of Los Angeles or Dallas or even Kansas City, but on the other hand, the commitment that [West Virginia] seems to be already making to both education, to job training, to employment growth, to a focus and a movement from an extraction economy, in many ways to a high technology economy. All of that was quite compelling to us. We knew there weren’t hundreds of thousands of workers living in Tucker and Grant counties at this point, but we also knew that this was an area that, over time, would be developing in a number of different ways, and we felt that the attraction of this high technology enterprise would be quite a stimulus for both local residents, those in school in West Virginia, and others from around the country who would move to West Virginia because of the opportunity to work on this project.

MCCORMICK: How do you envision a project of this magnitude affecting West Virginia’s image throughout the rest of the country?

SCHNEIDER: I think it’s best summed up by what Gov. Jim Justice told me when I first came to the state a year ago to take a look at the opportunity and to talk to our potential partners. Justice said in his characteristic style, ‘you will find out that we are the can-do state. If we say we’re going to make this happen and be your partner, we will.’ When you’ve had as many decades working with elected officials as I have, you take that with a bit of a grain of salt. But he was absolutely right. It was uncanny how enthusiastic everyone from the research community, the university community, the private sector, the state has been about this. And one of the things that we really like is the notion that we can be part of, I guess what I would call a transformative project, that everyone we’ve talked to in the state feels will do a great deal to help advance the economy and put the state on the map as an emerging, advanced technology center.

MCCORMICK: Looking nationwide, what do you think the impact will be from this certification center? On the country and the world as we explore how we are going to travel in the future?

SCHNEIDER: It’s time for two things to happen. We haven’t had a new mode of transportation in over 100 years. I think it’s time. Secondly, we want to take the status of our planet seriously, and we need to find new methods of utilizing less energy and having less impact on the environment. So, you know, while there are states in the country that I think might be viewed as having a greener ethic than one would think of West Virginia — I’m not sure that’s true. I think there’s a great desire to support a new direction, and I think having the technology development and deployment centered in West Virginia is going to be very positive for the state. Think about what Houston was before the Space Center was put there in the 1960s. Houston went from, kind of the home of the energy elite and the oil and gas industry to the space center capital of the world. And it didn’t take more than a decade or so for that to happen. I’m not sure that [hyperloop is] on that grand a scale, but it’s not a bad comparison.