Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 May 2021

A proposal for an initial high speed rail network across the US. See item, below.
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Good morning

There was a time they were so common they had their own nickname and even acronym – BSOD.  Happily, few of us remember “the bad old days”, but I’ve been reminded of them recently, including Thursday evening when I had a “Blue Screen of Death” event that froze my computer.  I lost work on seven web pages, yesterday’s Covid diary entry and today’s weekly newsletter, as well as now needing to unscramble the various backups and versions of other programs.  Ugh.

I replaced one of my two memory sticks in the computer a few weeks ago, but now it seems I may have replaced the wrong one, or, much worse, the problem relates to something else.

Anyway, I’m hurrying through the newsletter as a result.  Yesterday’s Covid-19 diary is attached to the bottom of this newsletter, and Sunday’s can be seen on line here.

Also, please remember :  Today – Friday 7 May – is the last day that the Kindle version of my book “The Covid Survival Guide” remains on special for only $1.99 at Amazon.  It goes back up to $8.99 on Saturday, so buy a copy now if you want to take advantage of this great but very short term special.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Numbers Resume Their Upward Climb
  • Travel Insider Touring – More Details
  • Queen Mary Bankrupt Again
  • The World’s First Space Hotel?
  • A Supersonic Plane by 2025?
  • US High Speed Rail?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers Resume Their Upward Climb

Surprisingly, there was no appreciably upwards “blip” for the long weekend last weekend, but there is a definite return to slow but steady rises in numbers every day, as you can see.

Some “experts” are predicting “back to normal” by 4 July.  I can’t see that, myself, not either by extrapolating the line above, or the line in the Covid cases in the Covid diary entry below.  Some “experts” are clearly confusing wishful thinking with accurate forecasting.

Travel Insider Touring – More Details

Things are continuing to look very positive on both sides of the Atlantic at present, and the optimism is being mirrored by hotels filling in Britain in August and September.  The sooner you can confirm your participation in our August and September tours of Wales, Scotland, and/or England, the better!

Britain’s Covid new case numbers have dropped again, on Thursday showing an average of 2,044 new cases a day, down from 2,259 a day last week.  Their death count has dropped dramatically – a week ago it was an already very low 22 cases a day, and now it is a mere 12 a day.  Our own numbers in the US are dropping too, while still much higher than in the UK.

This excellent and continued progress is definitely encouraging the UK to open up and resume international travel, and we hope for a formal update on or before 17 May from the British PM about what form this will take.

The EU is also talking further about opening up for American tourists this summer.  But one thing we’ve learned about the EU – they’re great at talk, but action can sometimes be another thing entirely.  We don’t know what form their opening up will take, or exactly when, and “seeing is believing”.

Meantime we’re progressing our tour planning and details for you.  We lost a bit of work with the Blue Screen of Death on Thursday, but can provide the following at present :

Planning Calendar for Our Aug/Sept Tours in Wales, Scotland, and England

Detailed Information and Pricing for the Wild Wales Tour

Day by Day Itinerary for the Wild Wales Tour (to come in the next couple of days)

Detailed Information and Pricing for the Scotland’s Four Corners Tour

Day by Day Itinerary for the Scotland’s Four Corners Tour (nearly finished)

Detailed Information and Pricing for the Overlooked England Tour

Day by Day Itinerary for the Overlooked England Tour (to come in the next couple of days)

We expect to have the day by day itineraries complete by Sunday.

Queen Mary Bankrupt Again

We missed this when it first was mentioned in January, but want to share this sad news with you now – here are some details.

The operators of the lovely Queen Mary have filed for bankruptcy, being I think the sixth set of operators since the ship re-opened as a hotel, restaurant, exhibit/museum, and convention center in 1971.  All six companies had their ambitious plans and promises end in tears, and the huge cloud hanging over the ship at present is the deferred maintenance the ship is suffering.  A 2017 report suggested it could cost $300 million to bring the ship back to a safe and sustainable condition for the future.  The ship’s owner, the City of Long Beach, disagreed with that estimate, but whatever the number might have been four years ago, it seems probable that, even after some repair work since then, it is probably more now.

This is not the cost of making it all “first class” and fully restored, merely the cost to ensure it doesn’t flood or fall apart, and for some basic/essential repairs and renovations.  That is of course a crazy amount of money, and probably impossible to justify on simple commercial terms.

But the concept of the Queen Mary has always been as a center-piece and focal point of a tourism attraction to draw tourists to Long Beach, where they’d spend money not only on the Queen Mary but elsewhere in the city too, so perhaps the city will front up the money to keep the ship afloat (literally) and operating/open to the public.

I’ve stayed on the ship several times and loved the experience every time.  I even hosted a convention on the ship in the mid/late 1990s, and it was a splendid success because of the novelty/appeal of the destination itself.  I do hope the ship comes back to life yet one more time, with yet one more operator.

The World’s First Space Hotel?

I expressed extreme doubt when this concept was first mentioned in 2019.  Now, two years later, the earlier promise date of opening in 2025 has slipped two years to 2027, which I guess is a polite way of saying that after two years, no progress at all has been made in converting this dream into a reality.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it is a great idea in theory.  But in practice, what would be the cost of building this hotel, of operating it, and, of course, of getting to and from the hotel?  (One source suggests $5 million for a three days stay – it is not clear if that is a price per person, or for two people.)

Suffice it to say that the $300 million cost of renovating the Queen Mary would seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of building and maintaining this hotel.

And the question I’m sure the hotel operators most hopes you’ll not ask.  At a current cost of about $2,000 for every pound of material taken up into space, will they be flying water up to the space hotel, or will you be drinking recycled urine as part of your space experience?

Thinking more about that $2,000/lb shipping cost – I wonder what the difference in price between an 8 ounce and 12 ounce slice of prime rib might be when dining?  Or, to put it another way, a “Double Quarter Pounder” would involve an extra $500 worth of shipping for that second 4 ounce patty added to your burger.

Details here.

On a happier note, it is great to note that Musk’s SpaceX has now managed to successfully launch and retrieve one of their new experimental/test Starships without it exploding.

I’m not sneering when I say that.  Their approach to developing their Starship is very different to the traditional approach, but so far, it seems to be working and actually costing much less and allowing for much faster developing by testing multiple inexpensive rocket shells, each to failure.  Good for them.

A Supersonic Plane by 2025?

Another extremely unlikely claim is that a company in Australia will be flying a supersonic plane in commercial service in 2025; that is the claim being reported here.

It takes Boeing ten years, give or take a year or two (or three) – and usually giving extra time rather than taking it away from the development process – to develop a minor derivative of their current range of subsonic airplanes.  To think that a new company could simultaneously design a supersonic plane, develop the materials for the temperatures and stresses involved, do scale model testing, then operate a series of full-sized planes for further testing, and also coordinate the design and development of supersonic jet engines (that’s probably more complicated than designing the plane itself), get the plane certified, and first production models into airlines and operational, all in the next four years, is about as likely as, well, as likely as a space hotel in 2027.

Other companies looking at new supersonic planes have already been working on their projects for years – for example, Boom was founded in 2014, received funding in 2017 and subsequently, and is projecting its planes may start commercial flights in 2030.  Boom is allowing four years for the flight testing and certification part of their development timeline alone.

So, an Australian (and Ukrainian, according to the linked article above) SST by 2025?  I very much doubt it.

Oh – and back to Boeing for a minute.  Its development of the two new planes to become Air Force One – a pair of 747-8 planes that had already been built – is falling behind schedule, and the company is struggling to still get the two planes enhanced for their Air Force One role in time for the promised 2024 delivery.

Boeing started work on this project in 2015, and in August 2017 it was decided to use two unsold 747-8s in inventory rather than build two new planes.  So, depending on how you time the project (and when it is eventually complete), it could be a seven or longer year project just to convert a couple of planes.  That is another perspective on the unrealistic optimism of a new SST in service in 2025.

US High Speed Rail?

I’m a great fan of high speed rail.  I’d love to see the US develop tens of thousands of miles of high speed track, the same as China.  Yes, I know the US is a very large country, but so too is China.  With trains at 200+ mph, even destinations 1,000 and 2,000 miles away become relatively easy and quick to reach.

It is good that we have the “perfect storm” of a train-loving President and a political goal of investing in national infrastructure.  That seems to make high speed rail a compelling consideration.

Indeed, the good news is that this week President Biden spoke of spending $80 billion on rail investments, and presumably some/most of that would be for high speed rail projects.

California immediately volunteered to spend that on their currently moribund and unofficially abandoned high speed rail project to connect San Francisco with Los Angeles and San Diego.  But in doing so, they highlighted the huge problem with Biden’s plan.

The $80 billion could all go to just that single one project (and it actually needs appreciably more than $80 billion, even before adjusting for the latest round of cost overruns and increases).  The problem is $80 billion is a drop in the bucket in terms of high speed rail costs.

Adding high speed rail service between San Diego and San Francisco would be nice, but that’s not national infrastructure, is it.  It is a small regional line, some 500 miles in length.  Taking it all the way from San Diego to Seattle (and on north to the Canadian border) would start to graze the surface of a decent stretch of high speed rail, but really, any service needs to prioritize the states east of the Mississippi, and to run many thousands of miles in total, ideally making it easy and efficient to travel between all medium and larger sized cities.

That’s an $800+ billion project, not an $80 billion project.

A rail network is just like an air network.  There’s a synergistic multiplier.  Each time you add one more city to either type of network, you get more service on all parts of the network, because the network has become more useful.  An $80 billion “network” isn’t a network, it is a stand-alone oddity.  An $800 billion network starts to get a life of its own, it starts to reach critical mass, and the concept of train travel starts to get more integrated into the general social consciousness.

Spending small amounts of money on rail (and yes, $80 billion sadly is a small amount of money) will bring the same result that we’ve seen every year since Amtrak’s formation in 1971.  It will vanish without trace into a black hole of loss-making operations.

The map at the top of today’s newsletter shows a proposal that was floated a decade or so back for a 17,000 mile high speed rail system.  At a cost of perhaps $100 million per mile, that would total $1.7 trillion dollars.

No, that’s not an impossible amount to spend.  We’ve been spending multiple trillions of dollars on multiple occasions in the last year for Covid bailout purposes.  Why can’t we now spend, let’s say, $2 trillion, building a 21st century equivalent of the interstate highway system.

Oh, and about those 17,000 miles.  It isn’t nearly enough.  To give a comparison, the interstate highway system covers 46,876 miles.  It isn’t necessary to match that mile for mile, but it is important to realize that 17,000 miles is only scratching the surface, as should be obvious.  Look at all the states and cities the 17,000 mile doesn’t service.

Again, to compare, Amtrak currently operates over 21,400 miles of track, and in total, there are 140,000 miles of rail track in use in the country (and plenty more that has been abandoned).  But, hey – let’s get the first 17,000 miles funded and built, then ask President Biden for more money in his second term!

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about billions of dollars on transportation projects, how about the $40 billion given to the airlines in the last year.  This is an interesting summary, which contrasts job losses and subsidies for airlines, live events, restaurants, and hotels.  Guess which of those four industry groups got the most?  And guess which has not received a single penny (other than through generic programs for all companies)?

Talking about China’s high speed rail, they’re also streaking ahead of us in terms of “last mile” transportation services too, rolling out driverless taxis in Beijing.

You know what they say about yawning – it is “contagious”.  So too, apparently, is looking at your phone.

Remember IBM?  That’s a company we don’t often hear about these days, but behind the scenes and their “services company” modern persona, they’re still doing very clever things, as this article explains.

Did you know that Tesla’s entire profitability each year is usually much less than the government subsidies it gets, in the form of “emission credits” that it “earns” from its cars and can then resell on to other companies.  It might be about to find those credits less valuable on the resale market.

And talking of Tesla, here’s yet another futuristic battery technology.  Sometimes I think life would be much easier if all reporters agreed never to write about futuristic battery technology until it was actually due to be released, commercially and impactfully.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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