Elon Musk* of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX fame has finally published details of his Hyperloop (large PDF) idea, a couple of months after Musk described the idea as a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table”. The idea is somewhere between amazing and ridiculous, which means it may or may not be genius. The basic premise is you build an elevated tube with lower pressure inside and shot pods that levitate on an air cushion for friction-less travel. With this technology, top speeds are supposed to reach 760 mph and shortening travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 35 minutes at supposedly a fraction of the cost of high speed rail: $6 billion for Hyper Loop between the cities v $53 billion for HSR. Robert Cruickshank at California High Speed Rail Blog has cautious optimism.

It seems the media is pretty credulous and not great at judging the technical merits of the proposal. I’m not qualified to do so, either, so I’ve outsourced my analysis to those who may know more. The Washington Posts’s Wonkblog argues the Hyperloop is likely more expensive than Elon Musk has assumed:

What’s more, California’s high-speed rail project has had to grapple with the high costs of acquiring more than 1,100 parcels of land, often from farmers resistant to sell. The Hyperloop would try to minimize this problem by propping the whole system up on pylons, shrinking its footprint, but it can’t escape the land problem entirely. As Alexis Madrigal points out, Musk’s proposal seems to assume it’s possible to buy up tens of thousands of acres in California for a mere $1 billion. That’s awfully optimistic.

Note that the California HSR project has paid out nearly $700 million just in legal challenges.

Pedestrian Observations, a urbanism blog written by a mathematician hassome interesting analysis:

The [Hyperloop] that is as expensive as California HSR and takes as long door-to-door is also very low-capacity. The capsules are inexplicably very short, with 28 passengers per capsule. The proposed headway is 30 seconds, for 3,360 passengers per direction per hour. A freeway lane can do better: about 2,000 vehicles, with an average intercity car occupancy of 2. HSR can do 12,000 passengers per direction per hour: 12 trains per hour is possible, and each train can easily fit 1,000 people (the Tokaido Shinkansen tops at 14 tph and 1,323 passengers per train).

Some people even say the Hyperloop is a ploy to sabotage the California HSR project. Musk has himself said:

“When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” Musk wrote in his overview of Hyperloop plans. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

I’m skeptical about the price tag, and a bit worried that it would not be as comfortable as it first appears. But you never know. Musk as innovated in private space travel and electric cars, both areas I would have never guess he would have been successful. Maybe he’s the right person to disrupt intercity travel?

What are your thoughts on the hyperloop?

* Full disclosure: I worked for Musk at PayPal in the early 2000s.

42 Replies to “Loopy Transportation Ideas”

  1. I hope Hyperloop technology is faster than Paypal, and with lower middleman costs. I’ve gotten nothing but bad reviews from friends who used it on their websites. (Nothing personal, Andrew.)

    If Mr. Musk is serious, he should avoid trying to compete with a public project, and pick a different test location. That might not be in the litigious States of America.

    One reason there won’t be public backing for the California Hyperloop is that it doesn’t stop in every legislative district along the way. (Yes, HSR is already suffering from political Greyhound creep.)

    1. I agree. If he wants to test this, then he should do so with a smaller line. L. A. to Las Vegas might make a lot of sense. Then again, it is quite possible that his idea isn’t a bad one, but it would simply cost way more money then he has estimated.

      1. Musk’s civil engineering cost estimates are off by a factor of ten. Civil engineering (bridges, tunnels, and earthmoving) is the dominant term in railway and highway projects.

        The “Hyperloop” will cost at least 10 times what Musk thinks it will cost, because he didn’t look up the numbers.

  2. Pure gadgetbahn. Will never happen and wouldn’t meet his performance specs I’d it was built. S/W people seem to think brick and mortar is easy. It isn’t.

    But hey, at least he didn’t try to bring back the monorail. For that I am grateful.

  3. Many on this blog are fond of using the false excuse of “duplication of service” to eliminate competition to light rail to ensure its success. So I have to ask, wouldn’t this Hyperloop idea be a duplication of air service from LA to SF?

    Also, commercial air travel will get one from LA to SF in 50 minutes. Who are these people need to get there in 30 minutes?

    1. The 50 minute part of the trip is at about the same speed between the two points. SEA to PDX is only a 30 minute flight. It’s the slog to the airport, and an hour or two to get off the ground that’s makes HSR competitive, although I see that TSA is getting more involved in rail travel as their mandate creeps forward.
      At 90 or 120 mph, Amtrak is very competitive with airlines if you count the trip from city center to city center. That fact, plus BNSF reluctance and FRA rules on going faster, say 150+ requires nearly a separate exclusive ROW to do it.
      Thinking longer term, WDDOT should be planning to incrementally to divorce itself from BNSF and identify and capture those corridor segments where higher speeds are possible (Lakewood to Centrilia, via Olympia CBD is the one that comes to mind) where unused and abandoned rail ROW still exists. BNSF has proven itself to think bottom line always (as they should), and it’s transit/HSR that gets kicked in the butt every time. Sounder is a good example of high priced time slots.

      1. I agree, mic, we don’t need super fast high speed rail for a lot of lines to suddenly be competitive. If a train could average 100 MPH to Portland or Vancouver, for example, it would be extremely competitive (especially if the Vancouver train trip would do a border check while the train was in motion). Trains like that, especially if they are electric, are extremely efficient.

    2. Sam, are you sure you meant to post this? You’re agreeing with the article, which seems uncharacteristic for you.

      1. No, it’s Sam’s usual MO. Drawing a ridiculous conclusion from what he thinks is STB groupthink.

      2. aw: Right, but normally he states a contrary opinion to what he thinks is the STB groupthink. It’s surprising to see him agreeing with it.

      3. He always takes whatever position looks the most anti-transit. Note that his reasoning also holds for HSR, and he’s ignoring how much planes pollute.

  4. Musk has an Elephant in the Room problem.

    His batteries don’t work.

    Thus he must distract you with Hyperloop.

    1. They don’t? That’s funny, I’ve seen plenty of the Model Ss on the road, none of them stopped on the side of the road.

    2. I believe John is referencing the rather petty tiff Musk got into with the NYT after their reviewer experienced battery troubles on an Eastern Seaboard test drive.

  5. Musk should try thinking about cargo instead of people. If his HyperLoop is as efficient, practical and safe as he proposes, there likely would be more money in moving cargo than people. Historically, the only transport systems that make money are cargo lines, not people movers.

    On the safety side of things, imagine moving 760mph in a low pressure tube and the pod running 30 seconds ahead of yours has a mechanical breakdown. The control system has less than 30 seconds to realize the problem and affect the solution on your pod and the one behind you…and the one behind it. I would guess that the development costs of the signal and control system will cost billions.

    I know that early proposals for the CAHSR system were also ridiculously underestimated. By the time Musk’s proposal gets a thorough review and more realistic numbers for construction and operations are known, I’m sure that HSR will look like a bargain.

    1. The capacity problem would be even greater for cargo. Cargo shippers make their money by one of two means, either move lots of stuff cheaply but slowly, or charge a lot more and get the stuff there quickly. The low end is handled well by shipping, railroads and LD trucking. The high end is handled adequately by express deliveries and air freight.

      The best way to turn hyperloop into a freight transportation system would be to fill the tubes with a fluid. In other words, a pipeline.

    2. I agree. Cargo makes more sense (at least initially). I also agree that his cost estimates are probably way off. The problem in general isn’t speed (we know how to make things go really fast) but cost. If this was significantly cheaper than rail, then I say go for it. But we won’t even electrify our rail system, which would be way cheaper, and way better for moving freight and people. This article from a while ago, explains the benefits of relatively moderate high speed electrified rail for this country. None of this requires major technical breakthroughs, nor would we come close to the speeds that other trains in Europe and Japan reach, but it would be a huge benefit for this country. But it does require a major investment in infrastructure, which we don’t seem interested in doing.

      1. It’s worth noting that rail has a massive, massive technical advantage over loopy gadgetbahn ideas. Pie-in-the-sky engineers like Musk always fail to actually research what that advantage is.

        Conical wheels on angled rail are passively stabilizing. This is very, very effective. This is why you can have freight trains hundreds of cars long, going at pretty high speeds, and they don’t derail. You cannot do this with any other known system.

        Every gadgetbahn system ignores the value of passive stabilization and requires much, much more work on stabilization, meaning they all end up being more fragile and more expensive. Meanwhile, the passively stabilized two-steel-rail, conical-wheel systems just go faster and faster and faster with longer and longer trains.

        One of the two functioning maglev designs is passively stabilized; it just turned out to be more expensive than it was worth. The other is not passively stabilized, and it’s basically a failure.

    3. What kind of cargo is there which is so time-sensitive that it needs to be moved at near-supersonic speed up the length of California, but which is so unimportant that it’s not worth the cost of existing jet-based same-day fedex service?

  6. The proposed system covers about the same area as the Central Valley portion of CSHRA, which is estimated to cost about $10 billion. The big HSR expense is land acquisition in urban areas. So even ignoring the technical problems, Hyperloop would be about the same price, take about the same amount of time, be uncomfortable, fail to serve intermediate stops, and have much lower capacity. The idea is DOA except as a way to delay HSR.

  7. One of the weaknesses I see is that the system can’t be expanded beyond the 30 second headway, it must be cloned. Let’s hypothesize that it is built and it’s a smashing success. I basically runs the LA to Bay Area air shuttles out of business.

    What happens when demand exceeds that 3,000 passengers per hour per direction?

    Well, you have to build another one, but the original has picked all the low-hanging fruit. The proposal says it will use the median or verge of I-5 wherever it can, diverging only when curve radii on the roadway are too small.

    Maybe you could build on in the median and then two others, one along each verge. So you could postpone capacity glut that way, but eventually you’re going to need to build a greenfield route, and that will be much more expensive.

    And, there’s a significant political hurdle to use of the I-5 right-of-way. Why should one private firm get exclusive access to the public asset which is that ROW? Maybe Musk can grease enough palms in the California Assembly with his billion to get that sort of a sweetheart deal, but some radical leftist or Tea Partier will start screaming and the media will jump on it.

    And finally, another weakness is that the tube would be nearly 400 miles of inviting target for some nutcase with a shoulder fired missile.

  8. Well one way Musk is saving money, is by placing the LA terminus in Sylmar. I’ve lived in LA, I don’t think many folks would consider that more convenient to get to then Burbank or LAX.

    Question: what about following another rail or pipeline right of way?

    1. One of the challenges with high speed rail is that the turns have to have long radii in order for the train to maintain speed. At 120 mph the train needs a turning radius of 2 miles. Doubling the speed roughly doubles the turning radius. The track needs to be far enough in the country that it can be laid out with these parameters in mind. Otherwise the speed of the train has to be reduced to what the track can handle.

      1. Curve radius at a given speed is limited almost entirely by passenger comfort, not by “ability to maintain speed”. Other blogs have noted that Musk forgot this and so the Hyperloop would feel like a roller coaster.

  9. The comments have yielded some interesting observations. Some approach this ‘idea’ with suspicion and hostility. Some point out apparent flaws including capacity and presumed cost. Others are simply cheerleaders.

    But what this is is nothing but an idea. It is not a design blueprint. It is doing its job of getting us to talk. And he is suggesting this is an open source opportunity. In that light, the more appropriate frame for looking at this thing might be, “how can this be made to work?” If there is a capacity deficiency as compared to existing modes of travel what can be done to change that? Build more tubes? Is the marginal cost of adding tubes to an existing guideway less than other modes?

    What is the impact on the use of fossil fuels from the operation of HL versus other modes of travel? Would a system that claims to generate 3 times the energy that it uses be of better benefit to society than on that simply uses energy from the grid in large quantities? Much of the energy in California is still generated by fossil fuels.

    Is there an environmental imperative to reduce the GHG impacts in our transportation?

    I admit that I am inspired by innovation especially that which disrupts. If new technology means we can drastically reduce the impact on our environment is it worth perusing?

    1. It can’t be made to work, due to the heat dissipation problem. If it could be made to work, it would be more expensive than HSR and have lower capacity.;

      End of story. It’s dumb.

      And I say this as an investor in Tesla Motors, which had a *sensible* business plan.

  10. The idea that a system on pylons is less intrusive than a surface system is a bit of a fallacy. As we see with the existing Monorail, the pylons take up an entire traffic lane and the elevated track casts the rest of the street into shadow.

    Any elevated system will have similar impact. The real estate required by the system is greater than the simple sum of its pylon footprints. There is need for maintenance access, evacuation routes, etc. And then the impact of the system on its neighbors depends on the noise it creates, the shadow it casts, etc.

    I’d prefer to see us use the most advanced proven maglev high speed rail technology. The more we can buy components off the shelf and hire companies which already have skill designing and building rail in Europe or Asia the faster we can upgrade to modern rail infrastructure.

    1. The monorail is an ancient design with all-concrete pylons, and it was built when Brutalism was popular. Contemporary pylons like Link’s are about half as wide. Elevated lines do have a significant impact, but not nearly as much as surface lines, where you have to go a block or more out of your way to cross the tracks, and which must have so much clearance on both sides of the tracks, and where texting drivers and suicidal pedestrians get in the way of trains. Surface trains also have an impeded speed limit to lessen the impact of collisions.

      1. The important point is that all elevated lines cost about the same amount; the Hyperloop would cost the same as an elevated HSR line, but would be lower-capacity.

  11. Wouldn’t LAVegas be a better route choice for a pilot line?

    It’s about as slow to get to&from, once you count the crappy traffic. There’s not as many intermediate destinations, either.

  12. But it’s as if Elon Musk has peered into the future!!*

    *(if the future were a 312-foot demonstration tube adjacent to New York City Hall that failed to prove its utility 143 years ago)

    1. Shhush. I’ve heard through high ranking WSDOT senior staffers the DBT is not the final intended use for that project either. Just imagine how many hyperloops could be bundled inside a 55′ dia tunnel. Now we’re talking some real throughput, at 30 sec headways, times how many tubes.
      Finally, Ballard direct to Seatac is in our grasp, and only 120 seconds to get there.

  13. Has anyone objected to Ben’s hijacking this thread for his own fulfillment?
    Andrew started an interesting discussion on a new subject, with the last line asking …”What are your thoughts on the hyperloop?”
    A little over 3 hours later, after about 20 comments, and not one from Ben, he fires off his own comment in the form of a new thread, complete with graphics and headline. That effectively kills this thread, and shifts the discussion to another ‘fireside chat with Ben’. Not only has he disrupted another good read, but he feels compelled to answer nearly every comment with a rebuttal (17 so far).
    This may be off topic from Hyperloops in the narrow sense, but is very related in the fact that the story got stomped out for those of us that have given up meaningful discussion about anything where Ben bangs his point across, until he gets pissed off, then just wholesale deletes entire discussions as [ot].
    On behalf of myself only, I apologize to Andrew.

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