I’ve made this joke before, but every time I see someone extolling the virtues of the Hyperloop, I have little choice. The Hyperloop—Elon Musk’s (of Paypal and Tesla fame, and SpaceX which may or may not have crashed) futuristic pneumatic tube passenger transport system—is a completely unproven technology, and while the technology may be feasible in isolation, the political and technical realities (and costs) of building the necessary infrastructure are far beyond estimations. It would be hard to build a new two-lane road from San Francisco to LA for $8 billion, let alone an elevated, grade separated technology that has never made it off of paper.
Musk makes a mistake that many non-transportation types do: they assume that because something might be technically feasible, it will be easy to implement. The problem is that you are dealing with people, government and regulation—both the people who use the service and the other people in impacts. Sure, it might be possible to shoot a capsule through a pneumatic tube at a high rate of speed. But trying to do that from one city center to another with people on board is a lot harder.
Some background articles:
2014 information about freelancing engineers working on it.
Early Gizmodo article (2013)
2013 Alpha white paper
An article with several renderings of the Hyperloop (2014)
A blog post wondering if the Hyperloop is a joke
Here are some of the more risible fallacies of the Hyperloop, in no particular order:
The technology is unproven. Completely unproven. There might be some kinks to work out. Kinks cost money. And this will fall under local, state and federal jurisdiction for safety. They’re not just going to permit it sight-unseen.
Musk claims that while the Hyperloop will be faster than an airplane (760 mph, just shy of the speed of sound) airplanes will still be faster for longer trips. Why? Wouldn’t the Hyperloop always be faster?
The cost estimates are completely fantastical. The Gizmodo article has the “total cost” of the plan, of $7.5 billion. That’s a tenth the cost of high speed rail! It’s also completely infeasible. Setting aside the the cost per pod seems to be in the $1 million range (because, sure, the STB won’t require extensive testing for a never-been-tried technology that will drive up costs), let’s tackle some of the issues here:
- I’m not going to argue with the tube construction costs, because obviously Musk has spent a lot of time spec’ing that out. The cost is slated to be $650 million for a 400 mile long tube. The tube is basically a pipeline, and a 2012 report puts pipeline costs at $200,000 per inch of diameter per mile. At that rate, a 400 mile pipeline of this width would cost $7 billion. The Alaska Pipeline, similarly elevated (although not as wide) with negligible land costs, cost $8 billion to build in 1977 for 800 miles—or $31 billion today. Using those two metrics, the cost of the tube would be somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 times this estimation.
- Musk glosses over the supports pretty quickly, but assumes 25,000 twenty-foot-high pylons, for a total cost of $2.5 billion or so. There are some pretty, colorful pictures of the stresses the pylons will incur. There’s nothing about safety measures that will likely be required for each, or security around them, or anything else that might add to the cost.
- Musk wants to build this in the median of I-5. Apparently, undertaking heavy construction in a highway median won’t cause any problems. Just the overtime for CHP to close lanes for this construction would probably run to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
- The capsules. They are slated to cost $1.5 million each. For a high-tech contraption that carries 28 people at speeds reaching 700 mph. A city bus (proven technology) costs $500k (for a generic, diesel bus) to more than $1m for an electric model. And somehow this new thing is going to cost not much more for an order of magnitude higher speed?
- Then stations. The pods would come in to the stations, offload, move to a turntable, get turned around, come back, load, and go on their way. There would also be a seating area for people waiting, and a security area. The total cost is estimated at $125 million per station. Now the capsules will have 14 rows of seating, and since people will sort of be seated at a recline (to allow it to fit in the 7’4″ diameter tube) it will probably require 48″ of pitch (at least) for each row. That’s 56 feet of length for seating, let’s round it up to 100 to have room for luggage, power, safety equipment and aerodynamics. Each station will require room for the the pods to arrive, depart and be spun around, as well as, in theory, maintenance and storage. At a minimum, you need a 100-by-100 foot area for spinning, and another 100 feet square for loading and unloading, plus at least that much for security, seating and the like. If you’re only building two stations, they’re probably going to be downtown. Anyone know of a couple of 40,000 square foot parcels of land available in downtown San Francisco for a cheap price? Land acquisition alone will eat up this cost. Maybe you could build something half the size of the Transbay Transit Center. And maybe the costs would he half as much—but considering the cost of the Transbay is $4.5 billion dollars, that’s still 10 to 20 times Musk’s plan.
- Maintenance, cleaning and the like. In Musk’s fantasy world, the turnaround for a Hyperloop is five minutes. In the real world, you’re actually carrying people. You need to clean the pods and prep them for each trip. You need to be able to deadhead them to a maintenance facility (funny, that wasn’t in the cost prospectus) which often is 20% of a passenger transportation project. It’s completely left out.
- And since you’re carrying people, you would qualify as a common carrier. Guess what? That means you have to comply with ADA regulations. So each of these pods is going to have accommodations for mobility impaired individuals. So add some length and cost for someone in a wheelchair (and carrying their wheelchair). Just because it’s private doesn’t get you out of that. Accessibility adds costs to every other project, why shouldn’t it add cost to this one?
- The cost for tunneling is estimated to be $700 million. The tunneling cost is estimated at $50 million per mile because the cute Hyperloop is so gosh-darned small that tunneling is just really cheap. Except, uh, it’s not. Tunnel boring machines cost a lot of money, and tunnels that cross seismically active areas (uhm, all of California, but especially mountainous areas) cost a lot of money. Building pylons in the Central Valley is easy and cheap. Unfortunately neither San Francisco or LA is in the Central Valley.
- The plan conveniently glosses over just how you get from the East Bay to San Francisco. One of the maps shows a station in Oakland (even though every mention of the Hyperloop is of a station in San Francisco). But let’s assume a station in San Francisco (which, as I pointed out above, is not going to be easy). You have to get across the Bay. Now, someone put out a cute rendering of 20-foot pylons in the Golden Gate (which isn’t even on the route, but no worries). The Golden Gate is 300 feet deep, and requires 220 feet of vertical clearance. While San Francisco Bay is shallower, it’s also wider. The Eastern Half of the Bay Bridge cost $6.4 billion to replace. And, no, I don’t think you’re going to be able to retrofit a Hyperloop tube to the side of the bridge. (Plus, when you get to San Francisco, you’re 200 feet above the street, so you have to somehow run the Hyperloop curving towards downtown. Details.) So you’re looking at building a new, 5-mile-long bridge for the Hyperloop. If that comes in under $2 billion, I’d be shocked. Why not build a tunnel? The Transbay Tunnel only cost $180 million. In 1970. That’s $1 billion today, but likely three or four times as much. That would be half the project’s costs and 1% of the distance. As the bad joke blog post pointed out, the plans only show it operating from Sylmar to Dublin. A high speed link between outlying termini—that’s called an airplane.
- The project budgets $1 billion for permits and land. That’s $2.5 million per mile. This might be fine in the Central Valley (although you have to assume the state will soak them for quite a bit of money to build on state land). But what about the first and last 20 miles in the built-up areas in San Francisco and LA. You can’t just follow freeways, they’re too curvy. Any deviation will require private land takings, and just the litigation will cost more than $2.5 million per mile. Even if you can get the land condemned for the tube, and you fend off the lawsuits of people who don’t want 30-foot-high structures next to their houses, you still have to pay fair market value. Which in California can be quite high.
- Unlike the high speed rail plan, the Hyperloop does not leverage existing infrastructure near cities, where land is high, but rather in the Central Valley, where land costs are orders of magnitude lower. Building something in the Central Valley is easy and cheap. But no one really wants to go from Modesto to Bakersfield at 500 miles an hour.
Overall, the estimates for any costs that I can begin to quantify seem to come in at 5 to 10 percent of the actual costs. This is without factoring in permitting, environmental review, NIMBYism and the like. If it winds up costing 10 times the estimated budget, it is no cheaper than the high speed rail system Musk derides. If it’s 20 times more expensive, it’s double that cost.
Let’s say you somehow keep all the costs in check, there’s then the question of capacity. Not necessarily the capacity to shoot these pods through the tube, who knows what that might be. That’s not where capacity is constrained. It’s constrained at the terminals. Musk says that loading and unloading will all take place in a few minutes. Even if you can send off a capsule every 2 minutes (as advertised) your maximum system capacity is 840 people per hour. Unfortunately, that’s less than the air system capacity (in theory, you could take off a plane every 2 minutes with 100-300 people on board) and certainly less than a high speed rail system, which could run one train per hour with more seats than 30 Hyperloop pods.
Then there’s the issue of maintaining the systems. Above I mentioned that the cost estimate completely neglects to mention a maintenance facility. Well, somewhere along the line—probably in the Central Valley where land is cheap—there will have to be a pod maintenance facility, complete with some way to remove the pods from service and work on them. Apparently, this is free. As for the tube, Musk mentions that if it were to develop a small leak it could be fixed during regular maintenance. Now, remember, the tube is suspended above an active highway. What are the logistics involved in bringing in a crew, blocking a lane or two, and patching leaks? Who cares, Hyperloop!
But there are 100 wicked smart (or, well, hella smart; there’s my Boston bias) people working on it. In their spare time. I don’t want to generalize too much, but I would bet that the 100 people who care enough about this to work on it in their spare time are not a cross-section of the type of people you’d need to, you know, actually build it. It’s probably not completely technically infeasible to create a pneumatic-tube-type system which could launch a capsule at a high rate of speed. But building such a system that carries actual people places where they need to go adds orders of magnitude of complexity.
If I see a Hyperloop in my lifetime (that’s not in Brockway, anyway) I’ll be surprised. But if Musk can build one between Los Angeles and San Francisco for under $10 billion, I’ll be beyond shocked. I’m not worried, since it’s not going to happen. But you can’t spell Hyperloop without Hype.