By now you've probably heard about Elon Musk's widely publicized proposal to build a tube transit system that can get you from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes.
I was excited to hear about the proposal, as there had been some hype attached to it. Elon Musk is a serious guy - founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Pay-Pal - so when he says he has something big, it makes sense to listen.
The headlines note the following facts:
- SF to LA in 35 minutes
- Cost under $6 billion
- Something that could be built within the next decade
Fantastic right? The future is here!
Problem is, taking a look at the documents that came with the announcement, it seems to be a fantastic joke. Those claims do not appear to be true - his own proposal doesn't even get close to supporting them.
Now before I get into some details on why the proposal is so wrong, let me ask a question:
Was the headline an attempt to derail the California High Speed Rail project instead of an actual proposal for a real project?
Sadly, we live in a world where people read headlines...and then stop. We also live with a media that isn't so great at fact-checking, and letting us know when that scandalous headline was actually not true.
Remember "climategate", when some hackers discovered that the worlds climate scientists had conspired to cook the books, and climate change was fake? That made quite the headlines. When a few months later it turned out no books were actually cooked....well, not so many headlines. For years people refereed to the incident, based on the initial headlines and not the fact-checking.
Or try this; ask around. Were WOMDs found in Iraq? I think you'll find a whole lot of "yes" or "maybe" or "I think so" rather than what happened when the headlines were gone, and none were found. Funny how the memory works sometimes.
The point is, headlines can have a hell of an effect.
What I am wondering, was the announcement of this project the transportation equivalent of "Have you stopped beating your wife?"
That is, once people see the bullet points above, the immediate reaction is STOP THE HIGH SPEED RAIL PROJECT! One CNET article even noted that the proposal came just in time to save us from sinking money into HSR!
Why are we building something that is more expensive, slower and will take more time? That makes no sense! It's madness! Damn the government!
.....except of course, what if the proposal is NOT cheaper, does NOT save as much time, and will NOT be faster to build?
Should we trust that man who claimed that California building the world's slowest bullet train (false) and the world's most expensive rail line (also false) as his inspiration?
Taking a closer look at the proposal, I am going to ignore the whole technical side of things - the pods, the power source, the air pressure....the guy is an engineer (I am not), so I will assume all that stuff is right. After all, that's his area of expertise. He builds cars and spaceships, I assume he can build a pod.
We'll take a look at the other side of things, the infrastructure, political and budgeting side. The side he doesn't have experience in.
This is the PDF
Claim one: The project links San Francisco to LA.
It's the most simple claim of them all. Surprisingly, it's not true.
What do the included maps show?The system consists of capsules that travel between Los Angeles, California and San Francisco, California. The total trip time is approximately half an hour, with capsules departing as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal and carrying 28 people each
For LA, we get this:
Look closely. The line terminates nowhere near LA, but in Sylmar. By conventional rail, you've still got over an hour to go on the Antelope Valley Metrolink Line to reach the city.
What of the other end, in San Francisco?
The smaller map seems to indicate this end does actually serve SF...
With one tiny little problem.
The cost analysis conveniently forget one little detail: The SF bay. A new bridge? A new tunnel? How do you get across it! Who knows - the project team certainly doesn't.
That cost is far from trivial. The brand new eastern span of the Bay Bridge - ie, only half the bay - has now exceeded $6 billion in costs.
How about the Transbay Tube, what BART uses to cross the sea? Built in 1970, it cost the equivalent of over $1 billion today.
So now we're looking at a a system that doesn't actually reach LA, and while the map suggests it reaches SF, the costs don't include it....
And that's not all. Stations are sort of important. The document provides us no indication of the size a system like this needs, but if it were to be built in downtown SF or downtown LA, a good amount of land would be needed just for your basic station services. If you have a pod leaving every 30 seconds, you also need quite the stacking area.
High Speed rail will be pulling into the under-construction Transbay Transit Center - which has a price tag of $4 billion.
Hyperloop? No costs included in proposal. Woops.
Claim two: The project can be built for $6 billion
Within the next few days, you will surely see some reputable websites destroy the pricing estimates for the viaducts and the tunnel as being way too low. For example, the "silver bullet" seems to be that the thing will be built on viaducts. Yeah, well, that was the plan with HSR as well. That's why the cost blew up. Viaducts don't come cheap.
As I noted above, the project also doesn't even attempt to price the connection into LA or SF.
The thing about that.....that's sort of what matters. That's where the high costs are. The big breakthrough of this project is where they claim they save money:
The key advantages of a tube vs. a railway track are that it can be built above the ground on pylons and it can be built in prefabricated sections that are dropped in place and joined with an orbital seam welder. By building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn
Ok, Building in the Central Valley is cheap. We know that. That's why the HSR project will be built there first. It's flat, there's plenty of land, and the ROW is relatively easy to obtain.
Amusingly enough, the California HSR budget for the Central Valley is under $10 billion. Ie, in the same ball-park as this proposal. The reason the HSR project is going to cost $60 billion is because it has to face an uncomfortable truth; actually getting to LA and SF is expensive. Very expensive. That's where there's no free land. That's where you have years of property acquisition. In the shorter term, the plan for HSR is to simply share existing tracks, which the Hyperloop can't do.
So either the budget explodes, or the project doesn't actually serve the main cities. You can't have it both ways.
Is it a big deal?
Claim three: The project gets you from Sf to LA in 35 minutes
What's the big deal if the project terminates in Sylmar and, say, Dublin? Still, 35 minutes is remarkable right? HSR doesn't even come close. 700 miles per hour? WOW!
One little problem...
HSR between downtown LA and downtown SF: 2 hours, 28 minutes
Hyperloop trip between downtown LA and downtown SF:
1 hour from LA to Sylmar via Metrolink
20 minute transfer
35 minutes to Dublin
20 minute transfer
1 hour 10 minutes from Dublin to SF via BART
Total: 3 hours 25 minutes
An entire hour more than traditional HSR! It turns out that stopping at the edge of the metropolitan area, where nobody is actually going, sort of kills your time advantage. You see the same when comparing rail vs air. Sure, planes fly at 550mph....but the airports aren't your destination.
So the big time advantage? Suddenly gone. Unless you pour tens of billions into reaching the downtown destinations. You can't have it both ways.
Claim four: Land isn't an issue
Isn't the hypothetical world great? It's amazing how assumptions always go your way!
Even when the Hyperloop path deviates from the highway, it will cause minimal disruption to farmland roughly comparable to a tree or telephone pole, which farmers deal with all the time. A ground based high speed rail system by comparison needs up to a 100 ft wide swath of dedicated land to build up foundations for both directions, forcing people to travel for several miles just to get to the other side of their property. It is also noisy, with nothing to contain the sound, and needs unsightly protective fencing to prevent animals, people or vehicles from getting on to the track. Risk of derailment is also not to be taken lightly, as demonstrated by several recent fatal train accidents
Assumption 1: HSR doesn't use viaducts so people are forced to travel several miles to cross their property. We know that's false. That's what made HSR pricey. Tunnels and viaducts.
Assumption 2; Property owners don't care if you build your enormous aerial system through their property. We'll look at this in a second.
Assumption 3: Building a support structure every 100 feet does not disrupt farmland. They can't even be serious here.
For assumption 2, the project team made the biggest mistake in the world of infrastructure:
They ignored the NIMBY. (not in my backyard).
Why could we send a man to the moon in a decade, but California has taken decades to not even start building their HSR system?
Because there are no NIMBYs on the moon.
The NIMBY is not a rational creature. The NIMBY does not want to help you. The NIMBY doesn't just want you off their property, they want you out of their city.
To assume that people will willingly grant your line of support columns an easement is an exercise in the absurd. Worse is the assumption that an aerial structure is popular.
Remember Cape Wind? It was a Massachusetts proposal to build an off-shore wind farm. Far away from homes and property, way out in the ocean. It got held up for years and years and years by lawsuit after lawsuit.
You know what the problem was? Views. Aesthetics. People didn't want to look at these things way out in the ocean.
People love their views. Farmers love their views. To assume that an aerial structure is your golden ticket out of years in the courtroom is plain idiocy.
Cape Wind eventually won in court. It still hasn't been built.
Why will HSR cost $60 billion? Because their plan actually acknowledges the NIMBY, the court fees, and the settlement sums.
And again, all this assume they don't even try to actually get into a city. Let's not even get started on the Grapevine. Most of the land there is owned by one giant company - Tejon Ranch. No, they do not want your project running through their land. Just like everybody else.
Claim (assumption?) five: Politics aren't an issue
Let's pretend for a second this is a serious proposal. let's pretend we have a $50 billion project to link Oakland (not quite SF) with North Hollywood (not quite LA). Let's pretend the travel time is equivalent to HSR. Now we have a project that takes the same amount of time, but is cheaper.
What's not to love?
One major problem: It's a point to point system. LA to SF. No other stops. Why is this a problem?
Politics. HSR was initially funded via proposition 1a. If this project were real, it would be funded publicly as well - Musk does't propose to spend a dime. Take a look at the map of support, green being yes of course. It passed with 52.62% support.
Notice something? The counties which votes yes have a stop on the HSR line. Those not served, voted against it. Essentially, "if I can't have it, nobody can!"
The Hyperloop proposal ignores the Central Valley. Goodbye Fresno, Modesto, and Bakersfield votes. You know how HSR loops over LA to serve Palmdale? Goodbye desert vote. You know how HSR continues to Anaheim? Goodbye Disney. How about San Jose? San Diego? Sacramento?
There's a reason HSR stops at every major city, and it isn't just because it makes sense for travel planning: It's politics. You want the vote, you need to serve the people. Good luck skipping most of them.
Claim six: It can be built quickly, within a decade
Perhaps the viaduct system, pods, and stations etc. can be assembled quickly. Not an issue.
What is, is everything that comes before it. For one, it's a new technology. You need to build a test system, and every safety agency needs to get their grubby little hands on it. Add a couple of years. Then you need to get your financing in order. All private money? Yeah right. Add a five more years for public money - triple that depending who's controlling the purse strings. And then you have your land battle. Your property acquisitions. Your court cases. Your injunctions.
Elon Musk, you aren't building some space toys in the middle of the desert. You want to build over, across, and next to people's homes. This isn't the 1960's anymore, you can't urban renewal your way to your goal. HSR began serious planning in the 1980's. It's using proven, off-the-shelf technology. You really think you won't hit the same road-blocks?
So what's going on here? This proposal is so off base it feels as if it was put together during a weekend of drinking.
Is Elon Musk broadcasting an incredible display of optimistic naivete, or is there a much more sinister goal here?
If you follow transit projects, you'll know that a VERY common strategy of opponents is to say they support your idea, just not your implementation.
"Oh we LOVE the idea of transit between x and y. We just don't like that it's expensive and unsightly light rail, we will TOTALLY support the BRT project that is cheaper, can be built faster, and is better for riders!' .....and will not receive popular support, thus killing the project at the ballot box
You see the opposite as well in areas that are more pro-transit ."Oh we LOVE the idea of transit between x and y. We just don't like that it's ground-running light-rail , we will TOTALLY support underground subway that is safer and faster!" ....and will be so expensive the project will be cancelled before the first shovel hits the ground
The goal isn't to build a better system. It's to destroy the process by presenting a false choice.
To me, this seems to be the mother of all false choices.
A remarkably attractive headline by a wildly respected man. What better way to pull support from HSR than by creating an alternative proposal that is better in every way? That's the thing about fiction though, it can be anything you want it to be.
Will the people fall for it? If they do, I guess it's time to put down a deposit for a new Tesla.