Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hyperloop? Seriously?

Okay, so I leave y'all alone for two weeks, and I have to watch as everyone sings the praises of the Hyperloop? I feel obligated to respond.

For those who don't know, the Hyperloop is an idea that Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla Motors and current CEO of SpaceX, decided to do a bar-napkin sketch of. Similar proposals have existed in science fiction and futurist ramblings for quite some time. (RAND published a report on them in 1972, and Heinlein was writing about "vactubes" as early as 1956. I seem to remember that Niven's Ringworld was ringed with trains that took advantage of the exterior vacuum, although to be fair, these didn't need to run in tubes.) The reason Musk brings this up is that he claims such a system would be a significantly cheaper alternative to the current California High-Speed Rail Project.

This claim is wrong on so many levels that it's hard to address them all, and yet Musk is getting showered with media plaudits and the CA HSR project is getting attacked from all corners.

Okay, so what's wrong with the hyperloop project? First off, anyone serious should understand that Musk's "proposal" is, as I said, basically a sketch on a bar napkin. The cost estimates included sound authoritative, but they are extraordinarily high-level and rest on so many assumptions that the uncertainty involved in them is very high. The reason that the headline cost of the HSR project has basically doubled is that estimates and reality don't often coalesce. FTA wants year-of-expenditure accounting rather than 2010 dollars, NIMBYs fight you in court and you have to hire tons of lawyers, you get more precise estimates of materials and land costs that always seem to end up a little higher than your estimates, etc. etc. etc. Musk's project has the added uncertainty of being something that has never been built before, so the costs involved here are really just wild-ass guesses. (I mean, yeah, steel is a known quantity, but people are saying that he's wildly underestimating the cost of capsule environmental systems, for example.) Not to mention that he doesn't actually include the costs of prototyping and testing in his budget. Oops?

Second, he is woefully naive about the cost of right-of-way acquisition. He assumes that right-of-way is almost a non-issue because such a project could just use the median of I-5, and anyway it would be built on elevated structure so you wouldn't have to acquire so much land. Except that HSR is already planned to be built on elevated structure, and right-of-way acquisition is still a bitch. Oh, and I-5 isn't free, Caltrans will want to take their pound of flesh just like the farmers will. Oh, and that if you run it on I-5, you won't serve any of the towns that I-5 doesn't go to, like Fresno and Bakersfield, which have a million and damned near a million people in their metro areas each. And, of course, this ignores the central problem of ROW acquisition-- the cities.

The California HSR project is not expensive because it's being built over farmland in the middle of nowhere. Land acquisition and construction in the Central Valley, while somewhat contentious, is pretty cheap overall. On the ends of the project, on the San Francisco Peninsula and in urban Los Angeles, where there is no extra room down the middle of the freeway or relatively cheap farmland, and where every few feet of progress must be bought by demolishing a building or digging an expensive tunnel, is where right-of-way costs come in. And they are huge costs. More than the entire cost of Musk's proposal. So how does he avoid them?

Oh, that's the next problem. His proposal doesn't go to LA or San Francisco. It goes from Sylmar to Pleasanton. Funny how they left that out. Add in local transit times to actually get to LA proper, and that 30-minute ride actually becomes closer to a 3 hour ride. Toss in the security "similar to airports" that Musk proposes, and we all know how much that sucks, and you're looking closer to 4 hours. Also known as worse than CA-HSR. He also doesn't budget anything for station buildings, maintenance shops, or the storage areas that would be necessary for the kinds of capsule headways he proposes. Or the parking lots, because a lot of people are going to drive (their Teslas?) to these suburban stations, making Hyperloop a contributor to the problem of urban auto congestion.

And a brief moment again to discuss one of the major limitations of the technology. It's a point-to-point service. If the hyperloop had to accelerate and decelerate into stations en route, it would slow way down and the costs would go way up. You could get from LA to SF, or from SF to LA, but people from San Jose or Fresno or Bakersfield or Palmdale would be good and screwed. That leaves out millions of potential riders and, more importantly, millions of potential political supporters.

There are a lot more problems with Musk's proposal, but I think this is enough to show that the Hyperloop is a futurist fantasy, not a serious alternative to HSR. And therein lies the danger of these kinds of proposals. Now, HSR opponents have a smokescreen they can hide behind. They can say "Oh, I support the idea of having an LA-SF train, but this specific project isn't a good one. Why don't we do this Hyperloop thing that Elon Musk is talking about?" This is, in effect, the same as opposing an LA-SF train. The Hyperloop will never be built, and knowing that, HSR opponents can use it to look reasonable while still getting their desired outcome, which is killing the project.

For the record, I don't think that the Hyperloop as a technology is entirely without merit. I think we're going to see a post-petroleum future, one in which long-distance passenger aviation becomes either economically or ecologically unsustainable. I'm not nearly as sanguine as Musk is about the future of hypersonic transport. Some sort of evacuated tube train may well be the way we cross trans-continental or intercontinental distances in 2075 or 2100, where it'd be impractical to stop frequently anyway. (Either that, or maybe we'll use conventional HSR sleeper trains, much like China presently does on some of their longer HSR lines.)

Nor do I have any sort of personal vendetta against Elon Musk. SpaceX is doing way cool things, especially since NASA kind of gave up on doing a lot of cool things, and despite my feelings about electric cars, I wouldn't mind taking a Tesla for a spin up to Big Bear or Idyllwild (when it's no longer on fire). I just think this is a half-baked idea that will do more to harm the cause of intrastate transportation than help it.

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