Is Your Local Government Falling for the Hyperloop Fantasy?

Hyperloop One has 500 meters of "test track" it would like to sell you. Photo: Hyperloop One
Hyperloop One has 500 meters of "test track" it would like to sell you. Photo: Hyperloop One

There are no functional, real-world examples of a Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s long-distance transport concept that involves shooting people through vacuum-sealed tubes in pods that travel at up to 760 mph. Anyone who believes it’s a viable endeavor is basically taking it on faith.

“Hyperloop One” — the $130 million startup promoting the idea — has built a short 500-meter test track in the desert outside of Las Vegas but has yet to construct a pod to go with the tube, much less tested the technology on humans.

And yet a surprising number of government agencies are treating the Hyperloop as a serious proposition.

The company invited local governments and organizations to team up and plan a national network for the Hyperloop in what it calls its “Global Challenge” — and transportation agencies responded. High-level executives including Colorado DOT Director Shailen Bhatt traveled to DC for the company’s U.S. launch event, reports The Verge.

These officials’ willingness to participate confers more legitimacy on Hyperloop One, which recently boasted:

Several [applications] come with the support of governors, mayors, Congressional representatives, and regional planning commissions. The Nevada and one of the Colorado proposals are officially sponsored by their state Department of Transportation. The DOTs of Florida and Texas are a partner to their Challenge proposal.

Another willing partner is the regional planning organization for Columbus, Ohio — MORPC — which submitted an application and was chosen by Hyperloop One as one of 35 metro area “finalists.”

In its pitch, Hyperloop One promises to vacuum tube people from Columbus to Chicago in 29 minutes, one link in a network connecting other mid-sized cities at warp speeds.

MORPC’s application [PDF] affirms not only that the agency is willing to devote staff resources to Hyperloop development, but that it will also help bring in private capital:

MORPC is ready to provide support in land use, population, and transportation forecasting; overall project coordination; and financing and operations technical assistance…

MORPC will work with partners across the Midwest region to identify and engage private sector partners in an effort to attract investment in both the study and development of a Hyperloop corridor.

Hyperloop One even sells the technology as a solution to high housing prices, by enabling, for instance, “breadwinners to build a career in Boulder’s thriving tech hubs while commuting from Greeley, where median home prices are 60% lower.” It is a promise to enable sprawl so central cities can relax and avoid the difficult politics of creating more walkable development and inclusive housing policies.

Four years ago, mathematician and transit analyst Alon Levy wrote an epic takedown about the viability of Hyperloop technology. Levy evaluated Musk’s white paper [PDF] detailing how the Hyperloop would connect L.A. to San Francisco in about 30 minutes, and he found major problems. Musk’s cost estimates for engineering and land acquisition are inexplicably low — by a factor of 10 compared with current market norms, he said. (Whether people will be comfortable under to that type of propulsion is a whole other question. Levy says the Hyperloop would be a “barf ride.”)

America has the means to reduce traffic and connect people to where they want to go in less time — but solving these problems entails politically difficult choices to shift travel away from cars and highways. Any high-tech solution that promises a shortcut around these thorny problems is probably too good to be true. Like “personal rapid transit” or the Chinese “straddling bus” — the Hyperloop could end up taking credulous believers for a ride.

96 thoughts on Is Your Local Government Falling for the Hyperloop Fantasy?

  1. Hyperloop has some issues but the advantages of a vacuum (or even a near-vacuum) are necessary once mag-lev reaches certain speeds. So the network and switching issues can and will be worked through.

  2. Thank you for summing that up concisely.
    Maybe the question to ask is Why?
    Musk is also enamored of giant bore tunnel tech for highways.

  3. This is good discussion. I’m not a fan of subways, but when and where necessary, they’re cost effective and patronized. There are Portland MAX subways on several drawing boards, but not prioritized yet as necessary for central city. The least expensive design is 1.5 mile, 3 stations. It separates
    Blue/Red/Green lines from Yellow/Orange left on Steel Bridge; eliminates crossovers and increases speeds. Downtown stops reduced from 10 to 6,
    5 minutes less on crosstown travel. Spurs Rose Quarter development.

  4. Spent the years 2000-2005 promoting a monorail expansion plan for Seattle.
    6 miles of single-track, 6 cars running every 5 minutes between 14 stations.
    Cost estimate: $500 million based on rejected 14-mile ‘double-track’ system estimates. The “Circulator Monorail” never got a formal public review…

  5. The geniuses who created BART used a broad gauge because it was oh so clever at the time.

    The Hyperloop can’t network for the exact same reason BART trains can’t .

    Myopic Whiz Bang Techno ideas from the pages of Popular Mechanics is simply not the answer.

    let’s just do the straightforward stuff first – like electrifying The Surfliner & Caltrain to achieve a 50MPH door to door speed.

    Once we have a Bulgarian level of regional rail service tied to real TOD and protected bike lanes for last mile challenge then and only then is it possible to start worrying about supersonic pneumatic trains if the future

  6. One thing is all the engineering, but the price is not possible either. Demand would skyrocket, making the prices high.

  7. One thing people never ask seem to ask is, how do you bring to a STOP a train that is traveling at tremendous speeds in a vacuum tube? An airplane stops by descending through lower altitudes where the air is thicker and slows the plane. But there is no thicker air to help stop a 700mph train in the Hyperloop tube that has no air in it to help slow the train. You could use friction brakes, but at those speeds the brakes would probably melt from the extreme heat and friction created.

  8. Cars are the dominant travel mode presenting a severe impediment, not only to other modes – mass transit, walking, bicycling – but to driving as well without routine traffic jams and accidents.

    The global economy likewise dominates the lesser though no less fundamental economies – local, regional, state and national. The question to answer about the comparison is how globalization can be reduced much the way most motorists want fewer cars on the road. They both dominate unsustainably.

  9. Hyperloop is utterly pretentious. Perhaps to move freight short distances any test track can be set up somewhere. Einstein professed roughly: the faster one travels toward the speed of light, the slower time passes. Faster then is slower and slower is faster. If you want to go faster, go slower. If you don’t want to go slower, do not go faster. Translation:
    Go slower and enjoy the ride.

  10. even the Munich – Augsburg “commuter” trains run at 240 or so.

    but that’s because European is failing


  11. That is also the reason for musk dipping his toes in the tunneling business. Realistically these things would need to be underground in order to achieve the long straight right-of-ways and extremely long curves needed to maintain that high speed.

  12. If he could find lower cost ways to build underground, then the applications are going to go way beyond his Hyperloop. If we could get the cost of building new subways in the US to under $100 million per mile, you’ll see them spring up like weeds in every population center. That alone will do more for day-to-day transportation than a Hyperloop.

  13. If nothing else you could have rockets or jets to provide a backwards thrust in case of emergency.

  14. Key point: “Hyperloop” contains *every single cost of a standard High Speed Rail system*.

    *Plus* the vaccuum tube. *And* expensive switches (which is what did in monorails, by the way).

    And all the proposals so far have *lower capacity* than a standard High Speed Rail system.

    There’s just nothing to like about this idea, financially speaking. If he manages to cut the costs… all those cost improvements can be applied to ordinary HSR and give a bigger bang for your buck

  15. Fundamentally, anything you can do with “hyperloop” you can do cheaper and better with an normal train.

    Worth noting — Tesla’s *automobiles* are basically using the same drivetrain as an electric train (IGBT, AC induction motor)

  16. Ah. Well, that dooms it economically. The *entire advantage* of trains, economically, is that they are *huge* vehicles (dozens of cars, each 80 feet long, etc.) and as such can carry enormous numbers of people (or freight!) per hour at very low cost.

    So Hyperloop will be more expensive to operate and lower capacity, unless they make the trains just as big. It’s a junk idea.

    Musk did put precisely $0.00 into it, so I think he knows it’s not a real idea…

    Some have suggested Hyperloop would work on Mars, where *the partial vaccum is available for free*. That might work.

  17. Yeah, it’s totally political. That route (the “water level route” from NY to Chicago) has very fast track and used to be operated faster than it is now. But it’s currently operated for slow freight because the US government hates passenger rail.

  18. Well, it does stop a lot, and that route is *super* twisty. They’re speeding the LOSSAN route up a little but they’re planning an inland bypass for HSR (can’t run a straight route through expensive coastal real estate).

  19. All true other than the speed. HSR tops out at commercial speeds of ~400kph. Maglev might be 100kph higher but that’s still less than half the supposed speed of the Hyperloop. I still think the Hyperloop is a bad idea for two reasons. One, it only makes sense to build something which has the size and capacity of a regular train. Two, if you’re going to bother with the whole vacuum tube thing then might as well aim for much higher speeds and much longer distances between stops. HSR can comfortably fill any travel up to at least 500 miles. Above that maybe some people want to go faster. Now they fly. If we had vacuum tube maglev with stations spaced 500 miles apart or further, they could take that instead. Since there’s no friction, your speeds are basically limited by how fast you can comfortably accelerate and decelerate. On the shortest possible 500 mile trip, if you accelerate/decelerate at maybe 0.15g (comfortable for both seated and standing passengers) you get up to ~2400 mph in 250 miles and then you need the next 250 miles to slow down. The entire trip time for the 500 miles is about 24.4 minutes. A system like this could serve all the major population centers, meaning few people will actually need to travel 500 miles by HSR to a maglev station. Most will travel less than half that, perhaps 1 hour, on HSR.

    This type of system really shines over intercontinental distances. At the same acceleration rate, NYC to LA would take about 55 minutes and you would reach a peak speed of 5400 mph. I guess there would probably be some ultimate physical limit on the top speeds you could attain but most of the literature suggests 4000+ mph is within reason.

    The open question is how much demand would there be for this type of hyperfast travel at various price points. Obviously if the ticket price were the same as an airline ticket there would be lots of demand. The question then becomes could we build a system like this such that it can at least break even charging airline ticket prices? My guess is not with current technology. Maybe down the road if most of the infrastructure can be built with robotic labor it might be possible.

  20. The solution is the German developed maglev.

    It can actually stop at stations along the route.

    Easy to evacuate. Does not derail. Very safe.

    Track made of concrete (does not expand).

    No vacuum. No seals and expanding pipes.

    Finished developed, tested and certified OK.

    Has been in commercial operation for years.

  21. EMS Transrapid please, why won’t you consider EDS? Japanese SCMaglev on Chuo Shinkansen is taking shape on a full-length maglev HSR system, will be in commercial operation in 10 years.

  22. German vs. Japanese high speed ground transportaion system

    The Japanese system (SCMaglev) has some advantages…
    – More resistant against eartquakes (clearance train/track)
    – The aerodynamics causes less noise in and out of tunnel

    The German system (Transrapid) has som advantages…
    – Better climb gradient and curve radius than SCMaglev
    These properties give better terrain adaptation
    – Naturally elevated above ground (elements & pillars)
    – Electromagnets are protected underneath the track
    – Lower construction costs than the Japanese system
    – Transrapid only needs magnets, and not wheels
    – Lower construction time. Not much groundwork
    – May contain fiber- and/or high voltages cables
    – Snow is blown away by the wind or maglev
    – Lower operational costs than SCMaglev

    Both have the same commercial top speed which is 500 km/h

  23. We need density around subway stations because people need to travel between their ultimate starting points/destinations and the stations, not because subways cost a lot to build. If someone needs a car to take them from their home to the station, then you’ve already forced them to take a different form of transportation, you’re already having to build more roads and parking lots, and you’ve already put them in a position where they must have a car, and therefore might as well make full use of it.

  24. You do it the same way you bring it to a start – that’s either electromagnetic induction drives (which could even enable a kind of regenerative braking) or some sort of jet or rocket propulsion.

    There are plenty of real technical issues with hyperloop (particularly getting a right-of-way that would enable people to travel at high speeds without reaching high g-forces) but braking is no additional problem beyond the initial acceleration.

  25. Yes, but the hyperloop is supposed to be one third or less the cost of high speed rail. How is it possible to keep costs so incredibly low when you’re using maglev which is very expensive. Maglev tech is many times the cost of conventional HSR, and you’re adding tubes and vacuum tech on top of that. Do you think lining inside of the tubes with magnets will be cheap? The cost of this thing will be off the charts, which is why it is sheer fantasy.

  26. That’s exactly right. There’s all sorts of real problems that make hyperloop uneconomical and maybe even impossible. There’s no need to make up fake problems about braking too.

    (Also, they’re not planning on using maglev – they’re planning on using the little bit of air that does remain in the near vacuum to create a hovercraft-type effect.)

  27. Braking is a real problem, when doing so would be cost-prohibitive. The ‘little bit of air’ isn’t nearly enough to suspend the pods in the tube. No maglev? Again without costly electromagnets, which have to be kept electrofied further raising costs, how does it stop? The whole idea just gets sillier by the minute. 😀

  28. Braking is the same problem as propulsion for them. It’s not an additional problem. They will have electromagnets for drive (and braking), but I don’t think they’re meant to do the suspension.

    Maintaining the near-vacuum is a huge issue for them. Whether that little bit of air is enough to suspend the pods when they’re moving at high speed is not something I have the technical background to criticize them on. As far as I know, none of the criticisms have focused on that issue.

  29. As soon as the lobbyists turn their attention and focus on disrupting any plans for Hyperloop corridors, this could become the 21st century’s version of the National City Lines case. However, this time with airlines and their manufacturers joining the components from this case-automotive manufacturers, oil, tire, and construction industries.

    This hyped Hyperloop concept is as wrong today as the proposed multi-billion dollar cost for a MagLev between Washington, DC-Baltimore, MD. Our current political class cannot even appreciate the need to fully fund Amtrak’s responsibility to maintain the infrastructure of the Northeast Corridor, including Penn Station; to fund their mandate for Positive Train Control; to facilitate equipment acquisition for Amtrak and commuter lines to increase frequencies and expand routes; to allow Caltrain to electrify their commuter line from San Francisoc-San Jose to meet increased traffic demands.

    Yet, we’re to believe the same politicos will understand and get behind the private Hyperloop? How soon will the attacks begin against Hyperloop re federal backed loans, the probability of tax-supported operating costs, etc? (Note how high speed rail was denied access to such federally backed loans.) What about the NIMBYs that disfavor any impact on their serene environment, let alone the vibration from Hyperloop?

    If you believe in the feasibility of Hyperloop, I have a bridge to sell you-the Portal Bridge in NJ.

  30. Einstein’s theories of relativity don’t have a significant bearing on travel until one is moving several orders of magnitude faster than any currently feasible means of transport.

  31. I don’t think the US government “hates” passenger rail, but the powers that be don’t want to spend money on it, including not wanting to pay the price of bringing railroads outside of the corridors up to 90-110 mph standards. Rebuilding and maintaining rail lines that mostly carry freight trains, for which 79 mph is adequate, is not cheap.

  32. Translation: Go slower and enjoy the ride. Einstein was smart enough to have made that sort of observation. Transit system planners make distinctions between too fast and too slow. The fastest routes have fewer stops. Passengers who would have boarded a train or bus on those routes if a station was built, don’t have the option. Their travel times are slower. Therefore, faster is slower for those people.

  33. A cylindrical vessel with distributed pressure from outside and pressure from inside are two different things. A tube under vacuum need to be designed against buckling failure under a worst-case amount of deformation from a perfect circular section caused by stresses and bending moments from the supports and foundation settlement (if above ground on piers) or anisotropic earth pressures if underground. This means somewhat thicker walls and far greater cost.
    The whole hyperloop concept, once all the structural engineering and safety challenges are addressed would be wildly expensive compared to the most expensive high speed rail or even maglev.
    (disclosure I’m a civil engineer)

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