Mooted-Monorail Musk-Musings

Monorails look lovely. But are they practical? The Vegas monorail has now been bankrupted twice. This one, in Sydney, went bankrupt in 2013 and has been dismantled.

I’ve been as fierce a critic of Tesla’s extraordinarily overvalued share price as anyone, and I’ve not been shy at criticizing its founder, Elon Musk, either.  He is a curious mix of multi-disciplinary visionary, and can-do ramrod who gets things done in record time, but also immature foolish schoolboy lacking in self-control.

However, there comes a point where the reality of his multiple achievements and successes can not be ignored, and now that he has even sometimes been cited as the richest man in the world, we surely must be at that point.

His commercial entrepreneurship started with a company few of us have heard of or remember now, Zip2, back in 1995, and while he has had challenges as a manager, the companies he has been associated with have, at least as often as any other entrepreneur, prospered and become sector-leaders.

Sure, he has said and done some stupid things, but now and in the future he is more likely to be identified by his successes than his failures.

Perhaps it is time to give the man and his ideas some respect.  These thoughts were sparked by four things this week.


First, for almost a decade, maybe longer (since the launch of the model S in June 2012, perhaps prior to that with the Tesla Roadster), Tesla, a startup with no previous automotive experience, has been the market leader in electric passenger vehicles.  This is all the more astonishing because the Tesla vehicles are not revolutionary in terms of technology – they are evolutionary, and largely based on existing technologies (and even other companies’ batteries).  Surely any other car company could copy and even improve on the Tesla designs and functionality.

Despite the generally non-innovative nature of the Tesla products, neither Detroit nor Europe nor Japan/Asia has been able to catch up, despite all their public claims and posturing about their commitments to electric powered vehicles.  Yes, there are a growing crowd of Tesla-competitors that are coming out, but, as of yet, none of which are the equal of Tesla.

For example, Volkswagen’s new ID.4 vehicle is a fine vehicle, but is lacking in range and has only rear-wheel drive (at least for now) which is surely of less interest to anyone who has to contend with driving in snow/slippery conditions for some of each year.  (Note, to be fair, Tesla is known to sometimes exaggerate its range claims.)

Tesla is now the world’s most valuable car company, and continues to hold a lead, although for sure the lead is slipping, particularly in China against home-grown competitors (unsurprising), and in Europe, where Tesla’s American design parameters are slightly less aligned with what the market wants/needs/will pay for.

Tesla’s success was to challenge and destroy the paradigm that electric vehicles were strange awkward creations not suited for normal people and normal driving.  For the better part of a decade, other car companies have been pretending EVs are irrelevant, while somehow managing to ignore Tesla’s burgeoning success and “buzz” in the marketplace.

SpaceX “Failures”

Second was the latest “failure” of a SpaceX rocket, the fourth in a row.  But I’ve finally come to realize that I’m viewing what he is doing through the wrong perspective – Musk has turned conventional testing methodology around and is happy to have his rockets fail.  The fact the rocket destroyed itself shortly before landing, yet again, is not a failure at all, but a positive step forward on the Musk-style high speed development path.  Why?

Because they are building these prototype rockets in as little as three weeks.  Not three years, not even three months, but an unthinkable “orders of magnitude” improvement rate of one in three weeks.  This is part of the paradigm breaking vision inherent in SpaceX.

If one rocket fails, there might be an extra week of analysis and revisions, and a new test rocket is ready for a new test in a month.  Compare that to the ridiculous posturing and even more ridiculous delays of Virgin Galactic.  When they lost a rocket in 2014, their entire program froze and no further flights occurred for over two years, and the total program delay was even longer.  If VG even have a failure to gain launch approval, that slows down their development and testing for months.

When NASA had the first of their two space shuttle failures (Challenger in 1986), that caused the program to freeze for nearly three years.

The thing is that Musk is happy testing his rockets to failure (admittedly they’re not yet manned), whereas VG and NASA never have been willing to do that.  Testing to failure probably gives much more data, especially about “the edge of the envelope” than does careful testing designed to encourage success.

VG have now been developing the technology to support their sadly pathetic joyrides up into the high atmosphere for 17 years, with a steady accumulation of delays and broken promises and nothing yet substantively achieved.  To be fair, in the early years of the 2000s, their concept was exciting and new, but now it is stale and ordinary, and not even another round of hyperbole and frenetic antics by Sir Richard Branson can hide that the company is being upstaged by other space programs such as this Musk creation.

After NASA’s crowning glory – the “spare no cost” Apollo program, its Space Shuttle program was as extraordinarily a failure of the highest degree as was Apollo a success.  The reality of the Space Shuttle, its turnaround times, and its operating costs was so far short of the extravagant promises made to justify its development that the government lost faith in NASA and private industry saw a huge opportunity to beat NASA at its own game, even without government funding to help them compete.

This culminated in the ultimate ignominy after the early end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, when NASA had to rely on Russian rockets to get astronauts to/from the International Space Station. This lack of national capability was only resolved last year, and not by NASA, but by SpaceX, when for the first time since the Space Shuttle, an American rocket took supplies and astronauts up to the ISS.

One of Musk’s idée fixe notions has long been to establish a human colony on Mars.  The NASA timeframe for this is uncertain and at best decades out.  But will Musk yet again make a fool of both NASA and his naysayers, and achieve this goal?  Currently he is anticipating the first manned flight will land on Mars somewhere between 2024 and 2026, and his girlfriend plans to move there permanently in the mid/late 2030s.

While he’s never been good at meeting promised deadlines, I’ll wager the first men on Mars will be stepping out of a space ship made by SpaceX rather than by NASA.


Few if any of us will have our lives changed by Musk’s Mars plans.  But the third point is one that will have global implications to many of us, and to billions of others, too.  His Starlink satellite internet service promises to revolutionize the availability of high-speed low-latency internet to rural communities.  Fast and fairly priced internet has become close to an essential for many/most (all?) of us, and it has been conspicuously missing in much of rural American (and the same in most other countries too).

Starlink is not a revolutionary concept.  Wireless internet, using satellites to serve remote communities, and deploying multiple lower-orbit satellites instead of a few high-orbit geosynchronous satellites are all concepts that have been well known for a long time, and even implemented selectively and to a limited degree.  But by tying these concepts in with Musk’s low-cost SpaceX launching capabilities, using the latest technology, and thinking outrageously outside the box (not just tens of satellites, but tens of thousands of satellites) Musk is bringing it to market while other companies have been passively watching and waiting.  Yes, there are competitors now springing up, including an Amazon/Bezos company that clearly has the funding (and also associated rocket company too!) to succeed, but it is Musk leading the way, yet again.

Here’s a video report on the positive impact Starlink is already starting to have on rural communities.

I’ve a personal vested interest in this – I want to move out of the Seattle area, but I feel the need to stay somewhere that has fast reliable internet.  Starlink is opening all of our horizons, for everyone seeking to retreat from the craziness of big cities and still to be able to live/work remotely and be well-connected.

Mass Transportation and Monorails

The fourth thing was this article about Los Angeles feeling spendy and looking at ways to relieve the traffic congestion along the I-405 corridor.  Clearly, the city fathers hope to get a generous gift of funding from Joe Biden’s infrastructure development plans, and are looking at concepts currently costed in the region of $10 billion for about 12 – 15 miles of public transit.

The city has gifted $134 million to two companies to further develop proposals – one a Chinese company advocating a monorail service, and the other being a very ordinary rail and partial subway concept being developed by Bechtel.

But neither a Musk-style tunnel nor hyperloop was given any funds to further a proposal.  Why not?  There are doubtless a complexity of reasons, but what struck me was this public condemnation of Musk by an “expert” – someone who has probably never had a “real job” nor been accountable for billion dollar projects in his life.

Long-time L.A. transportation guru Martin Wachs, professor emeritus at UCLA and University of California, Berkeley, and a RAND Corp. researcher, is skeptical but open to the possibility a monorail could work in L.A. He’s less supportive of Musk’s tube-train idea: “He says things like that. I don’t think he’ll deliver.”

It is so easy for “transportation gurus” to criticize from the comfort of their tenured/retired university positions.  But when did we get to the point where Chinese companies are deemed more relevant, reliable, and worthy of our taxpayer dollars than US innovators such as Elon Musk, and his twin visions of inexpensive tunneling and high-speed hyperloops?

Surely Los Angeles in particular would appreciate all that Musk has done and achieved in their immediate area – SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, and Musk lived in the LA area for twenty years before publicly abandoning California and moving to Texas last year.

I do agree that high-speed hyperloops are ill-suited for short-distance commuting – their benefits only start to open up on runs of 100 miles at a time and more – you know, like the over-budget under-funded failure that was and still is California’s old-fashioned low-tech rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco…..

It is a terrible shame that rather than apply American innovation and develop a lower-cost and better solution, using new hyperloop technology, the state was never able to switch from old technology to new, and create a showcase system to impress the world and best service its residents.

Is a Monorail the Answer?

As for the potential of city monorail services, that’s a very unclear scenario.

I noted wryly how the article cited the Sydney monorail, but failed to mention it had closed down as a failure eight years ago.  Predictably, Sydney’s monorail failed to meet passenger number targets (after two years of operation, it was experiencing half the expected passenger numbers), went through several different ownerships, and eventually was closed down in favor of light rail – an option that was proposed but dismissed originally, even though it would have cost less and serviced more people/hour.  Monorails are sexy.  Light rail is boring.  But boring gets the job done, sexiness not so much.

Also mentioned is Las Vegas and its inexplicably twice-bankrupt monorail – surely if any city monorail has a chance of succeeding, it would be in Vegas, with so many people walking the Strip area on foot, and road traffic so terribly jammed.  Of course, the monorail’s location, way back from the Strip rather than situated in the median of the road as had been earlier advocated, was always an inconvenience.  Often it was quicker to directly walk than to go from a set-back casino on the other side of the road to the Strip sidewalk, to cross the Strip at a traffic light or overpass, then to walk all the way to one of the sparse monorail stations, take an expensive ride to another station, then repeat the by-foot journey to where you actually wanted to be.

The other disappointment of the monorail was that its other main use – getting people to and from the Convention Center – failed as often as not due to lack of capacity causing huge jams of people at peak hours and major events.

It is noteworthy that most monorail systems are features of amusement parks.  Perhaps that explains the endless fascination we all have with them – they are slightly unreal, “futuristic”, and associated with fun times.  Only very few are actual extensive urban transportation systems.

Which brings me to the real point of what LA is countenancing.  Their vehicular traffic problems – which extend way beyond a dozen miles of I-405 – can not and will not be solved by non-vehicular solutions.  The people who are driving up and down I-405 currently are not likely to switch to light rail, monorail, subways, or anything else.  They need an integrated way to get from their Point A to their Point B.  If the nearest mass-transit stops, no matter what form it takes, are a mile away from Point A and also a mile away from Point B, how are they going to cover the first and last mile of travel?

That is the problem that must be solved and which none of these alternatives stop to consider.  Only a convenient service that has stations every two or three blocks can replace a private passenger vehicle, and even that is a limited solution when it is too hot, too cold, too wet, or too snowy, or when you need to be transporting heavy/bulky objects (or even just a day’s groceries) with you.

The flipside of the “must have lots of stations and frequent services” requirement is “must have enough people/passengers to at least get some way to covering the operating costs”.  That is even more an Achilles’ Heel for Los Angeles and most other US cities than the paucity of stations.

The low population density of sprawling suburbia, single-family homes with 1/4 acre lots (and essentially equally true for 1/8th acre or even 1/16th acre lots) plus open spaces, parks, and other even lower-density uses mean there is not and never can be enough people to support a high density of stations.  Sure, in the downtown areas with lots of high-rises, there are the population densities, both during the work day of people in offices, and at night with people in their apartments, to support good public transport.  We see that in New York City and many other cities all around the world.  But outside the CBD and any other pools of high density day/night populations, mass transit unavoidably and always fails.

A Musk Solution?

The need to resolve LA’s 405 congestion might be an area where Elon Musk can ride to the rescue.  But not with high-speed hyperloop; instead with his more down to earth (actually, below ground) company, “The Boring Company” – offering low cost tunneling services.

This might be able to reduce congestion, by simply creating “more lanes” of freeway at a lower cost than conventional freeway construction.  Keep in mind that the actual project is simply a way to relieve stress on a dozen miles of freeway, rather than an entire city-wide mass transit system.  Could it be the best solution to a dozen miles of freeway congestion is simply more freeway lanes?  Yes, we know that adding more freeway lanes taps into the pent up demand for more freeway lanes, and causes more congestion in the freeway system as a whole, but the solution to that is not doing nothing, but considering the true problem – the pent up demand for private vehicular transportation in its entirety, rather than just looking at 12 of the 515 freeway miles in Los Angeles County alone.

The huge benefit of adding some extra tunneled lanes is it fits right into the existing infrastructure.  We already have all the “last mile” connecting services for cars, we just need the “bit in the middle” to speedily convey them along the main arterial route.

And because the “last mile” services (cars) are convenient and reasonably quick (unlike walking) they can be more spaced out than would be the case for transportation “solutions” that require people to walk to and from transit stations.  In 30 minutes, a person can drive maybe ten miles on city surface streets, or walk less than one mile (sure, most people walk faster than 2 mph, but remember all the time wasted waiting for pedestrian crossing lights to go green).

Sadly, while rational, this is a very politically incorrect solution – encouraging people to use their cars.  That is probably why LA would rather look at flawed solutions costing an estimated $6 – 10 billion (and almost certainly ending up costing much more), and with impossibly long lead-times for implementation.  The article reports that there won’t even be a selection of which proposal to proceed with until 2025, and as for how long after a 2025 request for proposal date a new system will be finally operational is anyone’s guess but sure to be at least another decade, as hinted at by the proposal’s reference to 2035 operating costs.

The Ideal Solution

So here’s the ideal and also quickest solution.  Have Elon Musk bore a tunnel, and limit its use to only electric vehicles.  That would also make the tunnel easier and cheaper – it wouldn’t need as much ventilation.

You’d still probably end up with more users than a monorail or regular rail line, and would appease the car-haters at the same time.

And, oh yes, that’s a double win to Musk.  A tunnel, and more Tesla sales.

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