Part 3 : The New Transportation Opportunity
This is the third part of an article series on how we have a new opportunity for the United States to once again take a position of world leadership in transportation.
In part one, we looked back at three previous periods of American greatness, and in part two, we looked at how we allowed ourselves to be blindsided by the extraordinary developments in high speed rail in Europe and more recently in China.
Fortunately, having done nothing with high speed rail in the past might now redound to our advantage, as we explain below. And then, in part four, we look at the reality and the nonsense of a possible Utopian transportation future.
The Amazing Benefit of Having Done Nothing
In the past, the US has often suffered the consequences of being an early adopter of new technologies. We had the world’s worst color television system, because it was the world’s first. Other nations came up with newer better systems that it would have been too costly for us to convert to until digital and HD television forced us to start afresh.
We had the world’s worst mobile phone system, for similar reasons, until 3G and newer technologies again enabled us to join the rest of the world.
While we eventually caught up with those technologies, in other cases it seems we’re doomed to always be disadvantaged. Something as fundamental and omnipresent and taken-for-granted as our mains electricity (110V) is inferior to most of the rest of the world (220V), limiting the power available in all domestic appliances and requiring bulkier and more expensive wiring in our houses, offices, and everywhere.
What does this mean in the context of transportation?
A growing awareness of the downsides of high speed rail – environmental impacts and enormous cost – have seen continued research into alternative means of better transport systems. And now, emerging over the last several years, there is finally a credible and exciting new method of high speed mass transportation that addresses all the concerns and weaknesses of high speed rail.
Those nations who are not yet locked into high speed rail have a great opportunity to take advantage of the new technology and ignore high speed rail entirely – something that seems like it might prove to have been a very expensive transitional technology, but now technologically and functionally obsolete.
The New Hyperloop Technology
The new Hyperloop concept solves all the problems of high speed rail, plus offers additional benefits too. It is less expensive to develop, and less intrusive/obtrusive in the environment into which it integrates. It is also faster than high speed rail – faster even than planes! And, for the icing on the cake, it is the most energy-efficient and most affordable of all transportation alternatives.
The Hyperloop concept, expressed in its simplest form, involves a tube system inside which most of the air has been removed. Sealed cylinders full of passengers are propelled through them at enormous speeds – 600+ mph. Due to less friction from the reduced air pressure, they can travel faster than other forms of transport, and simultaneously with much less energy required.
Friction is a major factor, with the amount of friction increasingly more or less in line with the square of the increase in speed. In other words, prior to reducing air pressure, a vehicle at 600 mph would have 36 times the air friction acting against it that would be the case for a vehicle at 100 mph. This is why, back in the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the national speed limit was reduced to 55 mph. Reducing air pressure therefore has a major impact on the energy required to move the vehicle – which is why airplanes like to fly as high as they can, where the air pressure is lower.
The Hyperloop idea is far from new – the origins of the Hyperloop were first suggested in 1805. You may have even seen a miniature forerunner to the Hyperloop concept in department stores with central cash registers and a vacuum tube system delivering canisters between customer service points and the central cash registry area (Costco used this in their stores until recently, too). Some banks also use the system to convey materials between drive-through stations and the tellers.
The system in its present form took on a high visibility in mid 2013 when, out of the blue, Elon Musk announced his enthusiastic support and surprised the world with a detailed and costed out example of a Hyperloop system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, and traveling between the cities in a mere 35 minutes.
Different groups of developers have been frenetically developing Hyperloop systems in the three and a half years since the Musk announcement. The last weekend of January saw a competition between students at 30 universities around the world presenting their varying ideas of how best to implement the concept, with the winner being a team from Delft in the Netherlands.
Simultaneously, at least two commercial enterprises in the US (Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies) are embarked on Hyperloop development, and a number of Hyperloop routes are on the verge of being built, and it isn’t clear exactly which might be the first to be started (or, more to the point, to become operational). For a while HTT seemed to be at a mature stage of getting approval to build a system connecting Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, but that has gone quiet over the last few months.
As well as the two American companies (and, increasingly, international partners joining with them) there are other foreign companies doing their own development, such as the Korea Railroad Research Institute and their plans for a Hyperloop that would travel between Seoul and Busan – about 210 miles, at speeds of up to 620 mph.
Other routes being considered include
- Helsinki – Stockholm (including a tunnel under the Baltic Sea)
- Dubai to variously Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi
- Moscow – St Petersburg
- Paris – Amsterdam
- Toronto – Montreal
- Bratislava – Brno – Prague
- Chennai – Bengaluru
- Mumbai – Delhi
Tragically, although the concept in its modern-day form was espoused by and is being supported by Americans, none of these first Hyperloop deployments seem likely to occur in the United States – a tragedy compounded by the unfortunate combination that in the very state where Space-X is coordinating and encouraging the development of Hyperloop technology, billions of dollars are simultaneously being thrown at the California High Speed Rail project, a project that seems to take two steps backward for every one forward, and which would be an ideal opportunity for the Hyperloop concept to vividly show its potential.
The California High Speed Rail project is expected to cost anywhere up from about $70 billion, and is not expected to be ready until late in the 2020s, if at all and with a journey time of 2 ¾ hours. This compares with a projected cost of about one tenth for a similar (but actually much better) Hyperloop system that could be in place and operating well before any of the traditional high speed rail system.
Why hasn’t California shifted its focus to a Hyperloop system? Legislative and institutional inertia, and a fear that if the project as a whole was re-presented to voters to re-approve in a new form, it might be completely rejected, both as a Hyperloop system and also now as the original high speed rail concept too. The legislators and bureaucrats would rather cling to their current approvals, even in the face of waning pubic support and increasing costs, than change to a system that is maybe one tenth the cost and three or more times as fast.
Let’s look at the solutions and benefits offered by Hyperloops compared to conventional high speed rail.
Takes Up Less Space
All you need is one (or, more likely, two, to allow for simultaneous travel in both directions) tubes, with a diameter of about 10 – 15 feet, to run a Hyperloop. There is no need for any substantial clear space around the tube. In other words, you could have a twin tube Hyperloop system in about as much space as a single freeway lane – even less if you stack the two tubes vertically rather than have them side by side.
The tiny space needed would allow Hyperloop systems to run in the median between the two directions of freeway traffic, which would at times result in no more land being needed for this new system at all. (Note that due to the very high speed of the Hyperloop pod capsules, they could not turn as tightly as freeways do so sometimes their path would diverge from the freeway, but for much of the time, they could share the same space with the freeway.
Even better, the Hyperloop tubes probably won’t usually sit on the ground. They would typically be mounted on pylons, spaced 100 ft apart, and 20 – 100 ft above the ground, which allows most ordinary ground uses to continue underneath and without restriction. The varying pylon height smooths out vertical changes in elevation, and also includes design features to make them resilient to earth movement and earthquakes.
Comparing Hyperloop systems to air travel, while it is true that Hyperloops obviously take up some space along their route the most valuable space and therefore relevant considerations are at the ends of each route – airports or Hyperloop terminals. Hyperloop systems need no runways and taxiways, no ‘noise zones’, approach and safety zones, and because each Hyperloop pod is small rather than very large, the terminal platforms can also be short rather than lengthy. Hyperloop systems can run right into the heart of cities, airports have to be located further and further out of cities.
Greatly Reduced Environmental Impacts
A Hyperloop system is much quieter than trains, doesn’t create any shockwaves, and doesn’t need large dedicated swaths of land or security/access fences.
It uses very little energy, and it has been proposed to mount solar cells along the top of the tubes, allowing for much of the power it needs to be generated by itself.
Costs Less – and is Faster – to Develop
It seems that Hyperloop systems can be developed for about one tenth the cost of high speed rail. In large part this is because they don’t need as much land and could even be placed in the medians of existing freeways (as long as the freeways were reasonably straight).
They can be mounted on ground, above ground, or below ground. It has been suggested that the California high speed rail project could be done by Hyperloop for about $10 billion instead of $65 – 100 billion.
Because much less landscaping and infrastructure is needed, a Hyperloop line can be built in one-quarter or less the time of traditional high speed rail.
Shorter Travel Times
Hyperloop vehicles can travel two, three, even four times faster than regular high speed rail.
Their projected speeds are even faster than passenger jet planes, and will probably be limited only by a desire to keep speeds below the speed of sound (ie 700 mph or less) and also a need to have increasingly large diameter tubes, proportional to the pod diameter, as their speeds increase. We expect that for economic reasons, Hyperloops will probably seldom run much faster than 600 mph, but this is still faster than passenger jets (which seldom go much above 550 mph in the cruise portion of their flight and are speed restricted to about 250 mph while under 10,000 ft).
This chart compares travel distances and times for private car, high speed rail, passenger jet and Hyperloop.
The convenience of a private car makes it best for distances under about 100 miles, even though it is the slowest. But from about that point, and with increasing benefit for all distances greater, the Hyperloop becomes the clear best choice.
Referring again to the California high speed rail project, instead of 2 ¾ hours to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Hyperloop offers the same journey in about 35 minutes. Wow! Five times faster.
It is harder to compare with scheduled air service. The actual travel time, in the air, is always slightly longer than in a Hyperloop capsule, and then with air travel, more time is required to get to and from airports, to check in, to go through security, to board, to taxi, and everything again in reverse upon arrival. So Hyperloop is always faster than air as well, but not by quite such a huge margin.
Energy Efficient and Lower Operating Cost
By traveling in a reduced atmosphere environment and using mag-lev suspension or riding an air cushion, friction is massively reduced, and the electric power propulsion system may possibly also be used to generate power when the vehicles need to decelerate, reducing still further the energy cost.
The Hyperloop enjoys (relatively) low construction costs, and astonishingly low fuel/energy costs. It also is projected to have lower maintenance costs, due to few moving parts and no contact between the vehicles and the tubes they travel in.
Add to that the short journey times allowing for high utilization factors, and the net result is the fares charged by Hyperloop are expected to be way lower than other means of travel – $35 to go between LA and SF, for example.
More Frequent Service
A traditional train can hold anywhere from 200 – 1000 people; planes typically hold 100 – 400 people. So as to get efficient loadings, they are not scheduled more frequently than is ‘needed’ to allow them to more or less fill for each journey.
But Hyperloop vehicles are expected to be very much smaller – even as small as 20 – 30 people per pod, so they could offer more frequent departures without needing to ‘batch together’ so many people at a time as planes or trains.
The smaller number of people also speeds the time it takes for people to get on and off each pod. There’s no nonsense of taking half an hour to board and the always slow seeming process of getting off at the other end as is the case with an airplane, which inexplicably most western airlines insist on loading/unloading through only one narrow entry/exit door. This process would take five minutes or less with the pods, and there’d be no stress or need to be an ‘early boarder’. Pods could be designed relatively spaciously to allow for plenty of leg room and overhead space for all passengers.
The traveling pods are contained within a tube. They can’t derail or collide with foreign objects.
The tube system is closed and self-contained, and can also be rigorously quality controlled. Laser alignment can detect the slightest shift out of alignment, and something as low tech as a pressure gauge can immediately report on any leaks.
As long as the tube is intact, the system seems safe and secure, and if the tube suffers any sort of stress or failure, it can be readily and instantly detected.
Because the pods are contained within a tube, there need not be wind or rain or snow or other weather type problems impacting on the ability of the pods to travel in their normal fast smooth manner, no matter what the external weather may be. Fog won’t slow them down. Snow on the road or runway is not an issue. And so on.
What is not to like about any of this? Well, there are some other sides to the coin as well.
With so many benefits, why isn’t there a headlong rush to Hyperloop technology? We are spending billions of dollars on semi-high speed rail projects, why not get ten times more value and five times faster travel times by switching those spends to Hyperloops?
The big problem seems to be that the technology is still experimental and unproven, and there are some design challenges that are yet to be fully resolved. But is this a reason to hang back, or to push forward? Every technology was first experimental. And the Hyperloop technology is at a point of working models and well-defined issues; it isn’t just an insubstantial dream.
As for ‘unproven’, that’s a Catch-22 problem that has never been an obstacle in the past. Everything new starts off as unproven. New models of plane, new models of car, everything. But the normal rational response is to move forward and cautiously prove the concept, not to down tools and give up on the project entirely.
Let’s review the challenges that remain unsolved.
The big problem, with the extraordinary speeds the Hyperloop pods will travel at, is the need for the tubing to be as totally straight as possible. Even slight misalignments could result in terrible jerks – not just uncomfortable, but threatening the integrity of the pods and the safety of the people within them.
For example, to avoid severe G-forces, turns will need to be with a very wide radius. Freeways typically have curve radiuses of ¼ mile or thereabouts, a Hyperloop track would need 32 – 50 times greater, ie at least an 8 mile radius and ideally 12 miles or more, depending on speed.
But is this a difficult impossibility? Is it harder to design something with gentle curves than sharp curves? It is true this may require more earthworks rather than closely conforming to the ground topography, but this is not a technological problem, merely one of mapping out the best path and adding some cuttings and some elevated sections as needed. It might add some cost, but it is nothing impossible.
Damage to the Tubes
The need to maintain perfectly aligned tubing causes concerns about what might happen if an earthquake occurred, or if there was some other type of subsidence that moves one of the tube supports? Maybe, if mounted on a freeway median, an accident causes a heavy truck to smash into a pylon and create a dangerous kink in the tubing.
Another concern is maybe terrorists would choose to attack the tube system.
These are indeed potential problems, but none of them need to be reasons to give up on the technology. Real-time monitoring of the tube alignment is a very simple thing to do with lasers and other devices, so that within fractions of a second of any tube alignment problem, the system will alarm and automatically stop pods in the affected section of tube.
Another problem is what would happen if the tube sprung a leak. That would definitely shut down the system until the leak could be patched and the air removed back to the partial vacuum state again. But this would be an inconvenience if/when it occurred, not a life threatening danger. Monitoring the pressure in the tubes is a totally simple and easy thing to do, and as soon as the tube pressure moved out of specification, automatic safety systems would again act to slow down or stop the pods.
Ability to Scale
There are some concerns about whether Hyperloops could scale up in size to fully meet the demands of high density routes that experience very large numbers of people traveling.
We have two suggestions. The first is to do the same thing that trains do. Have larger pods, or connect two or three or more pods together and send them in a combined single movement, just like adding extra carriages to a train.
Instead of having pods carrying 20 – 40 people, have larger pods or double pods carrying 60 or 80 people. If they are dispatched once every 30 seconds, that would be 9600 people per hour – about the same as 50 – 60 737/A320 sized plane loads.
Still not enough? Instead of double pods, go to triple or quadruple pods. The only adjustment needs to be the loading/unloading platform length at each end. This should allow for scaling up to 20,000 people per hour. Assuming 15 hours of operation a day, that allows for 300,000 people every day. The busiest air routes in the world carry less than 25,000 people a day.
The second suggestion – if this is still insufficient, do the same thing they do with freeways. Add another tube. But whereas each freeway lane takes up as much as 15’ of extra width, maybe a third or fourth Hyperloop tube could simply be stacked on top of the current two tubes, requiring no more ground space at all.
And now we are looking at 40,000 people an hour. Where in the world is that not sufficient? And if you can think of somewhere, then let’s add a third tube. Will 60,000 people an hour be enough?
Switching at ‘Intersections’
A regular rail line has junctions, intersections, loops and branches all the time. A regular highway has on and off ramps and interchanges all the time.
The basic concept of a Hyperloop is a one to one system without any branching or switching. With a need for 12 mile curve radiuses, a fork in the tubing would be very lengthy and difficult to engineer.
But this is not a problem. Think of the airlines. Their routes are similar to Hyperloop tubes. They fly from somewhere to somewhere else. Hyperloops can be exactly the same, and instead of having to allow an hour and sometimes wait two or three hours between flights when going through a hub, you’d simply walk from one Hyperloop platform to the next and within maybe five minutes, you’d be on your way again.
Furthermore, there is a solution to building switches into Hyperloop tubes. Simply slow the pods down when approaching a switch.
The enormous speed of the Hyperloop system is such that even if you had to take a slightly roundabout way to get to your destination, with a couple of changes along the way, it would still be faster than a nonstop airline flight.
The ‘Last Mile’ Remains Unsolved
The problem with any long distance transportation system is that there is still the ‘last mile’ to be resolved. Getting between your home or hotel and the airport or train station. These last mile challenges have various solutions – enormous parking lots around airports, shuttle buses, commuter rail into the city center, and rental cars.
What is the point of reducing your travel time between cities from hours to minutes, if all the time you save on the freeway between the two cities is lost while getting to and from transit hubs, and extra costs pile up when you park your car at the airport for several days and take taxis or rent a car at the other end?
For any new transportation system to be fully valuable, it needs to solve this last mile problem. All of these problems would seem to apply equally with Hyperloops of course, although to be positive, the lower cost of the Hyperloop journey, and the shorter Hyperloop travel time goes part way to shifting the balance in its favor.
So the Hyperloop is no worse than other transportation alternatives. And there’s also a solution that is a total game-changer that should be considered.
Amtrak has toyed with the concept of auto-trains where you drive your car onto the train and it travels with you. This is also done for crossing the Channel in car-trains, and of course, car-ferries are a long-standing concept.
A car-plane is possible but would be ridiculously expensive because of all the extra space and weight that would be required. (Air Force One carries its own vehicles inside, but we don’t have the same travel budgets that our President does!)
Driving your car onto a Hyperloop pod is entirely practical. Why not simply drive to the Hyperloop station and directly onto a pod, then for short journeys, simply stay in your car while the pod whisks you to your destination, and for longer journeys, make your way to the passenger compartment. Then at the other end, simply drive your car off the pod and proceed to your final destination.
This also saves you the hassle and cost of a rental car, and allows you to just chuck stuff in your car any which way when preparing for the journey.
Surely this is a complete ‘last mile’ solution for both ends of your journey.
The ‘Second to Last Mile’ is a Problem, Too
By this we refer to bringing Hyperloops into the centers of our cities. The cost of land starts to skyrocket, the further in to a city center you get, which encourages several alternatives. On the other hand, the decision about exactly where to situate a Hyperloop station is far from obvious, because increasingly, both people and businesses are located outside of former city centers. Unlike an airport/airline, any type of rail/road system could have one or two stops within an urban area, giving some flexibility that air travel lacks. But each stop increases the total travel time for people who aren’t getting on/off at that intermediate point, so there are obvious limits to how many stops can be added.
Obviously, building a Hyperloop in a freeway median, or above the freeway, is one approach. The same might be possible above or alongside existing rail tracks. And it is acceptable to have the pods travel the few miles in and out of city terminals at slower speeds, thereby allowing tighter radius curves and following the freeway or rail pathways exactly.
However, there’s another solution as well; one which to date often seems to end up being puzzlingly expensive or overlooked. And the person hinting at it is, again, Elon Musk. He is talking about boring a tunnel from his office to other places to avoid the terrible traffic that otherwise afflicts him around the Los Angeles area, and may have already bought a tunnel boring machine.
Wouldn’t this be perfect for the Hyperloop. At whatever point that land availability becomes a constraint, and whenever rugged/hilly terrain gets in the way, just drill through it.
Not Just for Passengers
Historically, commercial freight has comprised goods that are not time sensitive, and, at least historically, everything was not time sensitive. Ships took freight long distances over time periods spanning weeks, trains or trucks took freight where the ships wouldn’t go over time periods spanning multiple days. UPS with their ‘one week and one day’ ground shipping service from coast to coast was good enough for consumers, and the slower services for commercial freight was something factored into everyone’s planning and expectations.
This has of course changed. ‘Just in time’ manufacturing and a desire to minimize inventories has added pressure for fast reliable commercial shipping. Now when you buy a computer and receive it a week or two later, it may have been built to order somewhere in Asia, after you placed your order, and then air shipped directly to you.
Amazon and first their free standard shipping and then their free second day shipping, and now their same day shipping at modest cost has shifted everyone’s expectations, at both business and consumer levels.
Hyperloop technology offers the low-cost benefits of sea or regular rail freight with the speed benefits of air. Instead of Fedex and their fellow courier companies owning fleets of planes to fly freight from cities in to central sorting points each night, and then quickly flying them back out again a few hours later to their destinations, why not use faster and cheaper Hyperloops?
Talking about planes, let’s look at that some more.
Impact on Air
Most of the world’s busiest air routes are for surprising short journeys rather than long ones, and don’t require crossing bodies of water. Longer flights over oceans (eg US East Coast to UK/Europe, or US West Coast to Asia) carry many fewer people than the shorter high density routes.
Seven, possibly eight of the world’s busiest routes would work well with Hyperloops replacing airplanes. In order from busiest to tenth busiest, they are :
- Seoul – Jeju 280 miles (which includes 50 miles of water off the South Korean coast)
- Sapporo – Tokyo 520 miles
- Fukuoka – Tokyo 550 miles
- Melbourne – Sydney 450 miles
- Taipei – Hong Kong (too much overwater travel)
- Delhi – Mumbai 725 miles
- Ho Chi Minh City – Hanoi 700 miles
- Beijing – Shanghai 670 miles
- Surabaya – Jakarta 400 miles
- Tokyo – Okinawa (too much overwater travel)
No US city pairs made this list, but in case you wondered, the busiest three city pairs in the US are Chicago-New York, Los Angeles-San Francisco and Los Angeles New York. Clearly, all three city pairs would be well served by Hyperloops. The same can be said for flights within Europe.
This will have a major impact on airlines. Eurostar’s service between London and Paris is thought to now have at least an 80% share of people traveling between the cities, because by most measures, it is faster and more pleasant than flying, even though (surprisingly) the Eurostar train is often appreciably more expensive.
Consistently, high speed rail service, when competing against airlines in the ‘sweet spot’ range (journeys under about 500 miles) takes the lion’s share of the market.
Because, with Hyperloops, that travel faster than planes, the sweet spot is unlimited – it starts from about 100 miles when they become better than cars, and then just keeps getting sweeter and sweeter, airlines will see their business models collapse and massively change.
If I was an airline, I’d be redefining my business as ‘moving people and freight quickly, comfortably, and affordably over long distances by all appropriate means’ and building a Hyperloop right now. Seriously. It would be an entirely sensible move forward into the future. Think of this – airlines routinely place orders for many billions of dollars worth of new planes. One large order of airplanes would pay for an entire Hyperloop system between (say) San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Some airlines have bought into high speed rail systems elsewhere in the world. Why not now invest into Hyperloop technology, too?
Where is HyperLoop
So, Hyperloops seem to offer us the lowest cost to develop and the lowest cost to operate, and the shortest travel time, of any transportation solution.
The few remaining issues identified with their development and implementation seem solvable, and the business case for adopting Hyperloop seems unassailable.
Why aren’t governments and private enterprise groups all rushing to build Hyperloops? Most of all, why aren’t we in the US seizing this chance to make America’s transportation system great again, and the best in the world?
We have no answer to that question.
Please return next week for the concluding part of our four-part series, where we look at the Utopian future that Hyperloop and other transportation solutions might offer, and wonder if it truly will be as Utopian, and as achievable, as some people hope for.
And, if you’ve not yet done so, please check out our first two articles in the series, too : Our Three Previous Periods of World Transportation Leadership and Our Missed Opportunity.