Don’t Believe the Hype(rloop)

by Jon Custer

Elon Musk, the proprietor of a nearly-profitable company that makes electric cars for rich people, made news this week by proposing a bold alternative to California’s planned high-speed rail system: the Hyperloop!

What’s truly interesting about the Hyperloop proposal is not the technology — it would zip passenger pods through a metal tube connecting San Francisco to the suburban outskirts of Los Angeles at 760 miles per hour, basically — but the price tag. Musk claims his Hyperloop might cost as little as $6 billion, a massive bargain compared to the $50–60 billion it will take to finish the high-speed rail system that’s breaking ground now. Without this promise of huge cost savings, the Hyperloop would just be another impractical pie-in-the-sky technological fantasy — a Concorde or a maglev train at best, a space elevator at worst.

After Musk’s announcement, the Internet quickly circuited its own high-speed loop of mockery, backlash, and counter-backlash, much of it taking place in locations between San Francisco and LA. But in roughly the time it would take you to clear security at the Hyperloop station, zip down through the Central Valley, and find a cab from Sylmar to wherever you’re going in LA, most media outlets had opted to put aside the early wave of Twitter jokes and take Musk at his word. After all, people used to think electric cars were too expensive to be practical, and he proved them wrong, didn’t he? (Well sort of.)

In Salon, which usually reserves a healthy dose of skepticism for the whims of tech billionaires, Andrew Leonard asked, “would James Watt have perfected his steam engine if Twitter had been around to mock him?” The always-counterinuitive Slate went a step further, exhorting us to Believe the Hyperloop. Among mainstream newspapers, only the number-crunchers at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog seem to have had anything critical to say about Musk’s cost estimates.

So let me be absolutely clear here: Musk’s cost estimates are a complete fantasy at best, and a malicious lie at worst.

As anyone who has been involved in planning so much as a bike trail knows, constructing long stretches of any kind of civil infrastructure anywhere near a major city is expensive. Really expensive. Musk estimates that the string of pylons supporting the Hyperloop — what transit engineers call a viaduct — could be built for about $8 million per mile. That may seem like a lot for just a bunch of pylons, but it’s peanuts in the infrastructure world. Some big projects might lose $8 million if they have to take a couple of days off for weather.

For comparison, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the ballpark cost of building a standard, 4-lane divided highway ranges from $3 million per mile, in a rural area that is not environmentally protected, up to an average of $75 million per mile in an urban area where there are restrictions like the need to buy right-of-way, relocate utilities, or divert traffic. (Which scenario sounds more like California?) Viaducts typically cost more, not less, regardless of what sits on top of them: elevated sections of California’s planned high-speed rail system are predicted to cost $50 to $80 million per mile, almost ten times what Musk thinks it would take to build a mile of Hyperloop. His only counter-argument here is that his system is “lighter” than a conventional train.

There are also technical challenges much more basic than the fancy propulsion systems and pod-based design. The main reason that true high-speed rail has been so difficult to implement in the built-up parts of the U.S. where it would be economically viable, like California and the Northeast corridor, is that trains need long stretches of relatively straight, unimpeded track if they’re going to go fast. The faster the train travels, the more space is needed for turns, braking, and changes in elevation. If the train turns too sharply or brakes too hard, it could derail, or make passengers sick. This makes it very difficult to route high-speed rail tracks around terrain features or areas where land is super-expensive, bumping up the cost.

Musk thinks he could avoid all this by simply running his pylons down the interstate median. This is far from a new idea — many rail systems are built in road medians, which have the advantage of being already owned by the government and usually leading to places where people want to go. The first leg of Florida’s moribund high-speed rail system, for example, was meant to run along the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, mostly in the highway’s median. That project, using well-established existing technologies, would have cost at least $30 million per mile, and perhaps as much as $68 million.

Because it is constrained by the same laws of physics as other high-speed modes of transit, the 760 mph Hyperloop would also need to run mostly in a straight line. A pod inside a tube can’t derail, but ideally it should deliver its passengers alive, conscious, and not covered in puke. Even taking advantage of long, straight stretches of I-5, this would still require blasting through mountains and crossing the San Francisco Bay, all, apparently, at the low low cost of $8 million per mile. If Musk could do that, he would easily put engineering giants like Bechtel and Halliburton out of business.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the basic engineering problems here. As described, the ride would be much more like a rollercoaster than a trip on the PATH train. Thanks to inconveniently located stations, a Hyperloop journey would take about the same amount of time as a conventional high-speed train, and the system would not be able to carry nearly as many people per hour due to the small pods and the long headways they would require to avoid smashing into each other. “The barf ride that is as expensive as California HSR and takes as long door-to-door is also very low-capacity,” says this lengthy takedown in the Pedestrian Observations blog, which also estimates the system would consume more energy per passenger-mile than most alternatives. Keep in mind that we’re still just talking engineering here. The proposal doesn’t even begin to consider the political challenges, like nearby communities demanding extra stations or detours, or how Musk might go about snapping up thousands of parcels of land from Central Valley farmers in the Hyperloop’s path.

Some say Musk has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, he has already done plenty of things people said couldn’t be done: making online payments safe, building the first privately-owned space launch system, and creating electric cars that are a dream to drive if you can afford them. Why wouldn’t he be able to revolutionize public transport, too?

But there is a key difference between the Hyperloop and PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla: those were all new ideas, based on new technology. Not to discount his obvious talents, but Musk succeeded in these ventures because nobody had really tried them seriously before he came along — or because existing players with the right know-how found it more valuable to preserve their revenue streams than to innovate. Neither factor is present in the mass transit world.

Railroads are a proven technology, more than two centuries old, and have already made generations of clever tycoons fabulously wealthy. Bridges and viaducts? Those are Ancient Roman technology. Any civil engineer in the country could tell you what a mile of pylons would cost, and she’d almost certainly underestimate it by half.

Even high-speed rail has been around since 1964, before Elon Musk was born, carrying millions of people cheaply and efficiently to their destinations every day. Buy your TGV tickets in advance, for example, and a trip from Paris to Lyon (about the same distance as San Jose is from the proposed Hyperloop station in Sylmar) will cost you less than €25 — or €10 on the newly launched low-cost OuiGo trains. It’ll still take you two hours, but the train has a bar and WiFi. Plus it actually exists.

Jon Custer lives and works in Washington, D.C. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

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