By Noel T. Braymer
It is curious that many of the same media outlets that love to run negative stories on High Speed Rail, particularly about California’s High Speed Rail project, also love to run stores about the latest so called advancements in developing the “Hyperloop”. The Hyperloop is a proposal to run vehicles in tubes at a near vacuum at speeds near the speed of sound. This has been promoted by Elon Musk as an alternative to High Speed Rail. So far his proposal would run up I-5 from Sylmar to Oakland. It would also bypass Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and other cities to be served by High Speed Rail. Most of what is said in the media about both High Speed Rail and Hyperloop shows the media’s love for sensationalism, lack of research and ignorance so common in the media today.
The latest media stunt was the “testing” of a “prototype Hyperloop ” vehicle on May 11th in Nevada by a company called Hyperloop One. What happened was the reinvention of the rocket sled from the 1940’s using a linear induction motor. Rocket sled were used after World War II to test people and machines accelerating at high speeds. Basically they were long , straight railroad tracks with a sled on top of the rails on pads, not wheels with rockets attached at the back. Linear induction motors have been around for at least 100 years. They are basically a regular electric motor, only the part of the motor that creates a magnetic field is placed in the road instead of in the motor. In the vehicle, instead of using the magnetic field to spin a magnet on an axle connected to a wheel, a magnet is pulled by the magnetic field below the body of the vehicle. This is much lighter than a normal electric motor but is less energy efficient. But it allows for fast acceleration. Linear induction motors have been used on roller coaster rides and is proposed for aircraft carrier catapults.
Well, what happened on May 11th is this linear induction sled went 900 meters, about a half mile in 1.1 seconds. That’s zero to 100 mph in 1 second which produced 2.5 g’s. In other words a person who weighs 150 pounds would feel like they weighed 375 pounds at 2.5 g’s. Fighter pilots have to train and be in good health as well as wear a g-suit not to pass out when withstanding g forces up to 8 g’s. While 2.5 g’s might seem cool to a teenager who loves thrill rides, it hardly seem the way for a family to travel to visit the grandparents. Most of the pictures in the media of this “test” were of when this sled ran into a pile of sand which was used as a brake. This caused a large plume of sand which made for great photos, but is unlikely practical for a transportation service.
What is lost in all this Hyperloop hype, is how will this service work? So far no testing has been done in a vacuum tube. It takes a great deal of energy for pumps to create a near vacuum and strong materials so the tube will not implode. Plus there are the problems keeping seals airtight on such a long tube. How tight a turn can a vehicle in tube going 700 plus miles per hour make? How much land is needed to build a Hyperloop tube with long gentle curves on elevated structures as proposed for Hyperloop? There are no answers for these questions and it will take lots of time and money before passengers can be allowed to ride something like the Hyperloop in safety.
What is generally ignored by Hyperloop hype, are the questions of access and infrastructure funding. The Hyperloop is competing more with airlines than High Speed Rail. If you look at any commercial airport, it is connected by roads, and often with rail service. To use any form of transportation, you need access, with connections to origins and destinations. Airports need roads, usually freeways to carry passengers, employees, supplies, take out the trash and so on. Where you put a Hyperloop station is central to ridership. If you do the cheap thing, you have stations at Sylmar and Oakland. How do people get to and from there to where they want to go in out of the way cheap Hyperloop stations? One solution is to run auto ferries on the Hyperloop so people could drive to come and go to where they want. But that does nothing to relieve traffic in either the Bay Area or Metro Los Angeles.
The other solution would be to put Hyperloop stations at Los Angeles Union Station and the San Jose Diridon Station. Both these terminals have great connection around their regions. But this will greatly increase the costs of the Hyperloop. Anybody can build transportation cheaply in the middle of nowhere. But that is not where people want to go or where they are. Good luck building a tube in a straight line above ground between Los Angeles and San Jose. Trying to build anything in any neighborhood will bring out opposition. The same problems that beset planning for California High Speed Rail or the recently built Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, will also happen to any attempt to build a Hyperloop in most places around the world. You might be able to build something like this underground. But construction costs would be prohibitive.
Critical to any form of transportation is infrastructure. It is also where most of the costs are. Airlines don’t own infrastructure. The infrastructure for flying is at the airports, the air traffic control system, the agencies responsible for security as well as local transportation to the airports. The airlines pay fees for some of these services, and air passengers pay user fees for flying. But much of the full cost of the infrastructure of air travel come from the general fund of the Federal Budget. Government grants are also available to build and improve airports. Most transportation services around the world except rail service in this country has much of its infrastructure “subsidized” in this manner. Who or what is going to subsidize the infrastructure of Hyperloop?