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Hyperloop, Hyperpolitics: Can Elon Musk’s Idea Bury CA’s Rail Pork Project?

Elon Musk's high-speed train makes more sense than the other boondoggle, but cronyism is in its way.

by
Charlie Martin

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August 21, 2013 - 12:10 am
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Elon Musk seems to be a combination of a Horatio Alger hero with Tom Swift — a self-made billionaire with PayPal, he now is devoting his time and energy and his own money to projects like SpaceX and Tesla Motors that sound like the science fiction of the ’50s. Electric cars? Commercial rockets? Capitalism?

Rockets that take off and land vertically?

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His newest idea, released after some weeks of speculation, is a super-high-speed train concept he calls Hyperloop. The excitement lasted for almost a day before critics started to decry the idea. Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic manages to sum up both attitudes in two paragraphs:

So, two thoughts on the Hyperloop, which I find to be in tension. First, like anyone who has ever read a sci-fi novel or made the sound “pew-pew” with a raygun made from thumb and forefinger, I think is fantastically cool and wonderful. A pod system that shoots you to LA! Amazing! Even the drawings evoke that ’50s can-do futurism. There’s none of that dark ’60s/’70s technoanxiety in this proposal. None.

He’s right here: Musk doesn’t appear to believe in being limited.

Which brings me to thought two: I worry that more fully baked transportation projects might be put on hold in hopes that Musk’s still-fictional idea works out. Musk’s proposal, because of who Musk is, could serve as a poison dart for California’s high-speed rail, and then nothing comes of it, leaving the state with an outdated passenger rail network and no Hyperloop to make up for it.

His point here being that he’s afraid that the existence of a proposal for a financially sound, technically feasible supersonic train will hinder the development of a financially unsound, 130 m.p.h. train system that will cost ten times as much.

Of such worries are modern “futurist” careers made.

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Top Rated Comments   
IIRC (I was a design engineer on the B1B, mainly on the ACES-II ejection seat systems) they were called nuclear flash curtains. Right in the name.

As far as terrain avoidance, flying 50-100 feet off the ground you were always alert to the possibility of the computers failing - but you kept your eyes a couple of ridges forward. Flying at night was flat out scary because you had zero notice that you were going to get turned into paste.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (44)
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It sort of amazes me that this has generated so much interest -- when it has never yet been demonstrated as feasible anywhere!!
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
It sort of amazes me that you think it would get demonstrated as feasible somewhere before it had generated interest.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just going to clarify a few of the design issues mentioned; these are simplified explanations from Musk's proposal.

Size of pod-to-tube ratio. The issue with traveling at these super-fast speeds is building up air pressure in front, and having that air slip between the edge of the vehicle and the tube. Musk's way around this is to place a turbofan at the front of the podcar. This will reduce the air pressure and shock-waves, allowing for a much smaller annulus of empty space.

This turbofan also supplies the air. So the car doesn't have to cart in pressurized air that then has to be cleaned up by the vacuum pumps; the podcar produces its own pressurized air by virtue of its speed. Sort of like a ramjet.

By having a tight(er)-fitting podcar and tube, it is also reasonable to expect that a failure of the air-bearings causing the podcar to fall to the bottom won't be catastrophic. It'll certainly be horrible to go through, but the tube will be thick, as will the bottom of the podcar. You'll just have steel scraping on steel for several hundred feet. There won't be room for the podcar to flip or rotate violently.

Though I do like that passive high-speed maglev suggestion. If it's cheep, perhaps it could double as a fail-safe, letting the car levitate and not start scraping until it reaches much lower speeds. My suggestion of a fail-safe is to have a small container of oil on board, and basically eject it out the bottom to lubricate the podcar if it falls. You'll want the car to go as far as possible before stopping to give podcars behind it time to slow down. And it's easier to clean up a few thousand feet of oil than repair a few hundred feet of tube. I'm sure testing and experimenting will reveal a better fail-safe than either of these though.

34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Apparently there is currently 2.8 million passengers per year flying between the LA basin and the San Francisco Bay area between various airports at three hundred miles per hour. I suppose all that traffic could be funneled between two points in two tubes at eight hundred miles per hour. That means over three hundred passengers shooting the loop every hour around the clock, day in and day out to meet that assumed demand. Seems to me when you take into account accidents (the Concorde) and alternate means of non hypersonic travel, the hyperloop is going to cater to a pretty exclusive group with high unit costs for little benefits for the masses: sort of like the Concorde.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
well, that's roughly a tenth of the traffic Musk's system is able to handle. Maybe it'd be worth reading the report?
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was wondering what the capacity was; looks like a lot of initial over capacity for the market. Maybe it should be the Mexico City to San Francisco Hyperloop with the pork project doing the bullet train to LA? Of course, the nice thing about the Concorde was that when the U.S. closed its airspace to that French and British state consortium, the firm wasn't stuck with a fixed investment, like the chunnel, and could fly alternate routes.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Neither system solves an existing problem. Neither will get me into Anaheim any quicker from Riverside. The Cal-trans right of way given to the toll road between Anaheim and Riverside only benefits those who can afford the toll, not the public that actually owned the right of way. We are further imposed upon at either end of the Toll Lanes as the scramble to get into or out of the Toll lanes to the Diamond lanes (another lofty privilege) causes further congestion. Libertarians love toll roads but I do not see where my gas tax gets cut because I can not afford the toll roads. We need highways and maintenance of existing roads. Stop the Games and Dreamy sci-fi we need real solutions to current problems that were created by Brown in his first era as a Governor.
I think a lot of costs would escalate on this as well, in a vacuum how does one breath? This concept is continually exposed to the San Juquin sun, its hot, yes jets deal with the same thing but they generate their own power in flight. I think there are more than a few issues with any Sci-Fi project. The real biggie is all the steel, concrete, copper, coal (yes coal at the least is needed to make the steel) and rare earth elements that this project would require are equally pursued to be shut down by the same environmental lobby that is so enthused to follow this folly. I think I'll just go watch my copy of "Sky Captain" instead. I like the flying aircraft carrier with Angelina Jolie in command, wow that's entertainment!
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
"we need real solutions to current problems that were created by Brown in his first era as a Governor. "

Ah, yes. THAT little detail. Few remember the damage Moonbeam did to our infrastructure during his first tenure.

California has never recovered from it.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am constantly reminded of it as I sit in stop and not-so-go traffic every freaking day. I also remember him proudly beaming that, to paraphase, there will be no more freeways built on my watch. Stick it in your A$$ moonbat!
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Land rights acquisition costs make this a technologically bad idea. Here's why: buying the land will be the largest single line item expense. It will require the state of federal governments to provide taxpayer dollars making this another Solyndra on a gigantic scale. Those dollars will come with strings attached, whether in the bills or not; this or that legislator will require the Musk's company to use this or that equipment or technology or hire congressman or legislator's brother-in-law's company for something useless. The resulting system will be sub optimal, less safe, less efficient, and unnecessarily expensive. And we taxpayers will have to cough up big bucks to make it happen. As someone who lives outside California, I bitterly resent the very idea that I'll have to pay for something I'll use less often than a ride at Disneyland.

The secondary, or side effect of sucking away even more taxpayer dollars is that the money isn't available for true entrepreneurs who produce even small innovations that everyone can use regardless of where they live. I don't know what those innovations will be, a cheaper cell phone or light bulb, or a smart can opener (we all need one of those ;-), but I won't be buying one if my taxes are high enough.

Musk's talk about building it himself is just another kind of used car sales pitch. For all his talk, he won't without state and federal (that is, my) dollars. It just irritates me that you've been sucked into believing this Solyndra-like scam.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
"goes along existing highways"
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
See "why don't you read the actual report". One of the advantages of this scheme is that it doesn't have the same land acquisition costs.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I read that Musk is prepared to go ahead and build a system whether or not his plan generates political support. What better way to knock the legs out from underneath the Calif project!
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think the issue is how much political opposition he gets.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
All good points. Well, it probably won't happen; if it does, the average speeds with all the 'bent' track and ecological/legal/safety considerations are probably more like 150 mph, or less. Still fast, though. Doubt it happens before Gov. Moonbeam flies off to Venus and CA goes bankrupt.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
That was supposed to be a reply to Mark V. Sorry.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
What really kills me about these political projects is that the backing for them comes from people who are STEM-illiterate -- poli-sci, English, transgendered-ethnic-minority studies majors -- who don't know much about history, geography, the French-they-took, nor even elementary physics.

The issues with California's 'bullet' train (translation 'pop-gun') are numerous and complex. For instance, the Tehachapi Turnaround is a part of the route slated for Moonbeam's lowspeed rail project. Good luck with figuring that one out.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Don't get me started. It is these same morons that run agencies like the EPA and CARB that think the "energy" required to "simply" reduce emmissions by half or double MPG is a linear undertaking. Most physical systems operate on a non-linear, usually exponential basis. Once you've harvested the low hanging fruit the task becomes harder and harder to achieve the desired results - can you say asymptotic? Didn't think so.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Can you say, "eminent domain", "building a ton of new track", and "ruining a town"?


Yeah, I thought you could!

It's a shame, too. Tehachapi is a pretty town, located in a scenic valley, but a boondoggle like this would probably ruin it.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Would the hyperloop cost half as much if it was a one-way only service....hmmm.....
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
You'd end up with everyone in LA going to San Francisco, or eveyone in San Francisco going to LA. Unclear which is to be preferred.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hmmm. Do we get to select who goes? ;-)
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think you'd still have problems with right-of-way land acquisition, even with an elevated line, due to the speeds involved. One of the problems with HSR is even at speeds one-quarter those of Musk's tubes, the curve requirements at the northern and southern ends of any proposed L.A. to S.F. route due to the terrain involved are expected to slow things down considerably, and a dedicated ROW that ignores the highway curves and plows through the region in a direct route would cause costs to rise significantly, nevermind the NIMBYs in the L.A. and S.F. areas who'd be screaming about having 800 mph trains shooting through their neighborhoods (i.e. -- those tubes better be soundproof).

On the other hand, it's California and it's only taxpayer money, so it wouldn't be a shock if state officials and state reps in Washington decide they don't have to choose between HSR and Hyperloop, and can simply appropriate a trillion or so more tax dollars to do both.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you look at the full report, they've considered that -- the really high speed leg is the one that follows I-5; they use a lower speed closer to the ends for just the reasons you mention.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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