Saturday, 17 August 2013

There's No Hyperloop in HS2. [£80Bn update]

Elon Musk played the media perfectly, with coy comments about at high speed rail alternative to the proposed LA to San Francisco project, building the intrigue with hints before finally releasing a comprehensive looking 57 page PDF with design and root schematics, costings and explanations. He certainly succeeded in grabbing my attention, and I think everyone should take his proposals very serious, however amazing they may seem; i.e. "Don't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."

He makes his PayPal co-founder, Peter Theil (via Confinity), look like a bit of a looser (especially after those losses at Clarium Capital the other year). Musk stuck to creating companies engineering new solutions:
Musk: robot, alien or superhero?
  • SpaceX in 2002, the first private company to supply the ISS, delivering a $1.6Bn spacecraft project on time and budget. 
  • Tesla in 2003, which makes all electric, domestic use cars that accelerate faster than Ferraris, now expanding rapidly into commodity price ranges.
  • And SolarCity in 2006 (technically founded by his cousin from Musk's idea) which is "the largest provider of solar power systems in the United States", with Musk as the largest shareholder he stands to be an *extremely* rich person from this investment alone, given how solar PV is set continue growing exponentially in efficiency and scale over the next couple decades.
I mean, who IS this guy?! A visitor from some technologically advanced, alien civilisation? Or our future? Or JUST genius of a Tony Stark level competence?

So when musk says he can send millions of people per year, safely down partially evacuated tubes at 700mph, solar PV powered, electric turbine trains, riding only cushions of air, for far less than the expected budget of the unimaginatively planned rolling route... you'd best believe him!!

Concept Summary and Review:

What I like most about the proposed system is the subtle, down to earth logic of the design compromises materials specifications, etc:
  • A simple, solid metal tube (using existing welding technology) no silly levitation magnets. Expertise for this kind of construction is probably abundant from oil, gas and other pipeline engineering.
  • Tubes suspended above ground on reinforced concrete pillars - which actually reduces cost (of land needed) and increases dynamic stability, by allowing flex zones (essential when building on the San Andreas Fault Line).
  • No need for tilting trains or sloped embankments, when the train can just slide up the inside of the tube to find it's own level.
  • These tubes are only low pressure (not fanciful near vacuum), thus allowing use of existing industrial pumping systems and only requiring airliner level expertise for capsule constuction (as opposed to space engineers... who he does have, as it happens... but they're probably far too busy planning humanity's first interstellar voyage, or something).
  • I even love his use of the top shelf engineering word term "dodgy", in reference to "...going through transonic buffet in a tube...". Yeah, cos *that* would be crazy...
Page 25 of said document; the diagram best covering most of the physical structure.
I'm a little disappointed that he considers the trans-continental options prohibitive compared to hypersonic aircraft. So no sub 60 minute train trips coast to coast, let alone intercontinental tubes. And my main worries with his proposal are:
  • Lining up the train's rails into the groves of the tube's induction motors, in a fail-safe manner, feels fiddly. 
  • Ticket cost seem destined to be way above the $20 he envisages; I can see TSA imposing on costs (and travel times/desirability).
  • And how resistant to (high velocity) bullets do you think 0.9" steel is?
  • Would building much of the route in the middle of highways make the external infrastructure more or less secure? (Inconvenient lorry crashes and such.)
  • I've no idea about air-bearings, in general, but I bet they're far more established and reliable than one might imagine. 
  • Potential problems with condensation inside the tubes?; If there's been some inbound atmospheric leakage, and the outside temperature then plumets... Or external condensation, causing duability issues?... I'm just reaching here.
The biggest problem, of course, is finding someone else with the balls to head this up and actually pull it off (presuming the main man doesn't somehow time slice himself still further, as he kind of hints he might). If the existing, underwhelming, high speed rail project is already as far advanced in political momentum as the UK's "HS2", then there'll be no stopping it's grim march to fruition.

Wouldn't it be amazing to have a (UK) government prepared to take a punt on Hyperloop (with the proviso that someone of Musk's stature oversees it). It would be something so bold that even the NIBYs might be given pause to feel national pride (before decrying it regardless), quite aside from the fact that it would be silent (in comparison 200mph metal on metal action) and helpfully straddle minor roads, if not buried underground (given our geologically stable locale).

But there really is zero hope for anything so imaginative, when the UK government already rejected the seemingly superior "UK Ultraspeed" plans in 2007, after only £2M of private money on a feasibility study (Wikipedia). It feels terribly like the reluctant office worker clinging to horrendously outdated Microsoft software, or the fact that AOL shares are currently outperforming Google's, on the weight of legacy dial up accounts.

It's not even like the 300mph maglev option was an unproven entity, since it would simply use the existing German "Transrapid" system, with 18.6 miles worth successfully deployed in China since 2004. Costing them $1.2Bn, it would still be cheaper than HS2 with UK construction. Andrew Marr says that it "Makes a British Intercity train look like a horse and cart." And this is old technology now, just look at how dated this clip with Chris Barrie looks:

Gliding through the countryside at 500kmh on one of these would have been quite spectacular. The view might almost make up for it's relative dawdle: however "Beautiful [the] landscape... displayed in the [hyperloop's] cabin", you'd still be stuck in an oversized drainpipe.

My Proposals and Musings for Hyperloop:

There's a real compromise to get where you want to go at 10x the national speed limit, you end up having to traverse an opaque Faraday cylinder. No reason there can't be comms wired in there, but I can't imagine an easy way to do that; trickier than internet on a plane, even: there'd have to be special built proprietary hardware, to deal with the physical constraints, unique EM environment and even the Doppler shifting could be a real issue.

Toilet facilities are presumably non-existent in the claustrophobic, passengers only version, so much as a heart attack victim would just have to wait patiently in their bucket seat until they get to the other end, emergency bowl movements would have to hold their peace... Perhaps seating units should be modular, quick release and easy clean... You do strongly get the feeling that Elon would really like you to choose the deluxe version, for just that little bit more, with all the extras (including room for a Tesla; but not explosion-powered Chelsea tractors, of course).

Personally, I would have gone for a 3 tube design, for maintenance related redundancy and balancing tidal commuter flow (with only 30 minutes needed for downtime during the turnaround, twice per day). I'm sure his closed, driver-less, system would be perfectly reliable though, making such contingencies pure extravagance.
Space fountain (Wikipedia).

Some speculation, from before the big reveal, got me to thinking again about launch loops and space fountains: The immense kinetic energy stored in the fast moving loop of magnetic projectiles can also be recovered, they can act as vast electricity grid balancers. In theory the technology for building one of these up to space has been around for a while now (unlike the material science required for a tensile space elevator). The flow of projectiles can provide a source of energy and momentum for capsules traversing a fountain too.

Given that musk is already in deep with solar generation and practical space flight, and explicitly lists Aurther C. as a childhood inspiration, I'd say that if he can swing getting people to ride a Hyperloop, a vertical version will be just one giant stride away...

[UPDATE - 2013-08-19]

In Saturday night's breaking news was an independent estimate (the highest yet) that HS2 will actually cost at least £80Bn. This was still stirring up articles and radio babble today. Obviously HS2 minister CEO, Alison Munro, came straight back with with an emphatic: "OooOOOHHH no it won't!".

The IEA report (By Dr Richard Wellings) seems to spend most of it's effort plumbing the depths of the 'political economics' that could lead to such an horrendous project getting this far: Vote buying in marginal seats verses diffuse national opposition verses the strong local oppositions that will likely to continue needing to be appeased with expensive modifications. Also the exaggerated leverage of the special interest parties (local councils and infrastructure contractors) in lobbying decision makers (i.e. the inherent flaw of our *representative* democracy trappings).

Of the £80Bn figure, only £50Bn is for the construction itself, a modest overrun compared to HS1's 11 fold increase of £1Bn to £1Bn (inflation adjusted) with an ongoing £110M/year in subsidies to compensate the private operator for low passenger numbers. (You know the score: carefully slicking out just enough space for a beautifully integrated rail system in your horrendously congested SimCity, and then realising most of the buggers'd still rather drive...) The remaining £30Bn is down to inevitable subsidy requests to fund local facilities and connections to link in to the new service. But the 'true' cost, the opportunity cost, comes from having to sacrifice many smaller, high return projects (schemes with cost/benefits above that of simply cutting taxes by £80Bn). That would probably total in the region of £320Bn.... 

The author appears to be of a somewhat libertarian persuasion (unlike our Conservative PM?), with far more confidence in the free market, calling for "...removal of regulatory barriers.." to allow private finance to provide "...economically rational transport investment...". Sounds far too logical to possibly happen. 

At this point I'm starting to think that the best thing might be U-turn cancellation, even if that's not until a change of government at the next election, when £1Bn will have already been ploughed into planning. Reading the report makes the term "white elephant" sound too polite; with historical hindsight, it might be likened more to massive coastal highways built by corrupt dictators of poor nations, saddling them with pointless, unpayable national debt. If it's already doomed, I wonder who has the best information and ability to profiteer from the sudden resurgence in house prices along the route (down "... by as much as 40 per cent.") when axing is announced?

I mean, if we wanted a flashy infrastructure project worthy of an equivalent UK taxpayer expense of £3000 per household, why not a monorail?! Ogdenville and North Haverbrook already got their's "...and, by gum, it put them on the map!" I mean, aside from having to go buy the technology from Zee Germans, and having to admit that Europe exists...
Transrapid Maglev (left). HS2 train design unknown (right).
Well, having done a little more reading, I'll now tell you what's wrong:

Although the external noise significantly reduced (better for those stuck in houses just over 60 meter mark for compensation) the sound profile is apparently more irritating and the raised rail is going to be a lot more obvious eyesore; less in keeping with English rail heritage, more like the ludicrously impractical transport infrastructure depicted in the "Total Recall" remake. But it would naturally bridge existing roads, and might be able to insinuate itself a little more intimately into urban centres.

Top: Shanghai maglev. Below: German crash.
The modern 'ICE' (wheeled) trains reportedly have a smoother ride than this maglev implementation, which uses a suspension system with a buffer zone smaller and cheaper than the earthquake resistant, superconducting, speed record holding (but not yet implemented) Japanese SCMaglev system. While Trans-rapid can accelerate up to full speed (and stop) in 5km of track (verses 15-20km) and there is no driver on board to cause crashes, the test track already claimed the lives of 23 passengers in a crash when the 'train dispatchers' negligently failed to use "an electronic blocking system"

What's more there is no commercial maglev implementation in Germany itself; several planned projects using the system were scrapped, over past decades. Even with the Chinese government's unique prerogative to simply evict and bulldoze their route, they still foreshortened it and failed to follow through on a second planned line...

So, maybe HS2's not the worst option by that far, it might even help make space on existing networks for my frieght (something I've not discussed at all). If it survives to fruition it'll just be a expensive disappointment, in a couple of decades time, by when driver-less electric cars will have reshaped transport beyond recognition)... But if plans do collapse soon, and the UK is shopping for high speed public transport systems in a decade or so, maybe the hyperloop will be there waiting. 

Maybe we'll be spoilt for choice, if the Chinese come good where all other dreamers have so far failed to produce: their vactrain (travelling at up to 1000kph, in an airless tube) is slated for a 10 year development cycle, with a demonstration model " two or three years...". Although, that was back in August 2010, so either we're just about to hear some very impressive news... or the Chinese industrial complex managed to write a cheque even they couldn't cash. I think they'll get there eventually, and sweep the rest of Europe, Asia, the Middle East (and the rest of the world?) into their long distance network (and industrial orbit), when they do.

But perhaps we should be throwing money at an entirely smaller type of transport tubes... For just £20Bn we could lay down fibre to every house in the UK. Then we'd already be cosily plugged in at home, to BTL virtual reality, with no need to clickety-clack anywhere!
From "recombu".


  1. Anonymous08:04

    If you would like the UK government to consider Hyperloop as an alternative to HS2, sign the petition:

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