Monday, August 26, 2013
I held off posting on this until I saw some sober second thought. Here we get a dose of all that.
Quite seriously, high speed rail links for these distances are excellent solutions using the technology already deployed globally with serious success. By that I mean reaching 200 miles per hour. At the same time delivering 100 miles per hour also works well. Both systems demand modern trackage and an active suspension making the customer experience excellent.
As important, such a system needs to be linked into the urban train system that shifts people around. Thus a trip would consist of a normal commute that steps directly through the station to the high speed train at either end. Thus a San Francisco to LA trip would add either two or three and a half hours to the commute. Either competes well with air travel and it’s built in delays.
The real problem in California is that the political will is hindered by legacy issues that will not step aside for Elon Musk either. The physical issues are readily solved.
The technical problems themselves of the hyperloop do not look to be intractable and may allow a real cost advantage if weight can be traded off. The effective speed may be a lot slower though.
Sorry, Elon Musk – your Hyperloop is going nowhere
Friday 16 August 2013
Reading Elon Musk's proposal published this week to develop his Hyperloop transport concept into a fully fledged intercity people mover, a jibe from the scabrous 27bslash6 website came to mind: "Your last project was actually both commercially viable and original. Unfortunately the part that was commercially viable was not original, and the part that was original was not commercially viable."
This is slightly unfair. Musk, who counts helping to found PayPal as one of his more mundane achievements, has pursued unoriginal but underexplored ideas – such as electric vehicles and space travel – with terrific flair and increasing commercial returns.
The Hyperloop looks like a truly original take on the quest – familiar from countless sci-fi films – to deliver a new mode of transport that will render boring cars and trains obsolete. It involves transporting passengers in aluminium pods along tubes, using air cushions to achieve near-supersonic speeds. Not content with a high-level concept, Musk has provided detailed costing for a 350-mile Hyperloop connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco (all right, his home to his office); a fraction of the cost of the planned high-speed rail line, and much quicker.
As far-sighted technology evangelism, the Hyperloop is laudable and deserves deeper discussion. As an intellectual idea, or the groundwork for some speculative fiction, it is fascinating. But as a shovel-ready infrastructure project, it is dead on arrival.
Various queries have already been raised about Musk's design. For example, the need to rapidly compress air to provide the air cushion would generate tremendous heat inside both pod and tube. With the tube too narrow for air conditioning, the Hyperloop could be plagued by the same overheating as that granddaddy of mass transport systems, the London underground.
I also have concerns about his cost estimates. Musk apparently makes no allowance for the fact that, unlike his electric cars, an entire Hyperloop would not be bolted together on an assembly line by one manufacturer, but delivered by a consortium of engineers and constructors, each with their own profit margins. The need to keep vertical gradients to almost zero would require the pylons supporting the tube to be of constantly varying height, making mass production – the cornerstone of modern lean construction techniques – impossible.
Land acquisition, which tends to inflate infrastructure costs, is as nothing to Musk, who cheerfully believes that most of the Hyperloop could be built above the central reservation of Interstate Highway 5. True, this practice has been followed with urban monorails, but when an urban road is closed there is usually an alternative route. Closing I-5 for years for building work would be suicidal for the project, and possibly for Musk too if car owners found out where he lives. Additional land would also be needed for several large construction sites.
However, such gripes are minor when compared with the ultimate reason for the Hyperloop's unfeasibility: its hi-tech novelty. Why, he wails, can't the home of Silicon Valley come up with something more cutting-edge than a not-very-fast rail line? (The line could be faster, actually, if it didn't include bits of existing slow line, but never mind.)
The answer is that developing new infrastructure technology is much costlier, messier and riskier than developing software. PayPal goes offline and everybody lives; if the Hyperloop failed, the results could be carried out in body bags.
It's not just passengers that are risk-averse; infrastructure investors are too. Musk's plan to amortise (a fancy term for paying back) the multibillion-dollar cost over 20 years would drive Hyperloop developers away from short-term private equity and towards banks and pension funds – who would take one look at the untried, untested technology and laugh in their faces. Public money is unlikely to come from an American establishment that struggles to fund even conventional infrastructure.
Musk is right to look for cheaper solutions: a McKinsey study this year found the world would need to spend US$57tn on infrastructure between now and 2030, just to keep pace with economic growth. But it will take years of research and millions of dollars to work up the Hyperloop from a tantalising desktop concept into a technology guaranteed to work the way its inventor expects it to. Until the land transport equivalent of Nasa or a bored billionaire intervenes, California will have to take the train.