Monday, August 7, 2017

"Hyperloop: More Hype than Hope"

Imagine traveling from Washington DC to New York City in 29 minutes, not by airplane but in a large underground tube, sucked along at up to 700 mph.  That’s Elon Musk’s vision for Hyperloop.  But to me, it’s more hype than loop.

Elon Musk is, as one commentator put it, “the PT Barnum of technology”.  He’s all PR and publicity, hyperbole and exaggeration.   Case in point, Musk’s recent tweet that he’d been given “verbal approval” to build his super-train in the Northeast.

First off, there is no such thing as “verbal approval” in a project this massive requiring hundreds of permits from dozens of state, federal and local agencies, none of which have been filed.

Musk’s green-lighting of his own project probably came from some Trump administration official who said “Cool idea, Elon”, and Musk was off to the races… and Twitter.

What exactly is a Hyperloop?  Good question, as not even a prototype has been built, let alone tested.  But think of it as a big tube with a vacuum inside, hurtling pods along using linear induction motors at up to 760 mph.  Sounds interesting, at least in concept.

But the devil’s in the details, ie the engineering and testing, which is just getting underway in the Nevada desert.  In one trial a test sled was accelerated from 0 to 110 mph in one second, exerting an astronaut-level 2.5 G force. Buckle up, folks.

I can’t wait for the human testing.  Can you imagine a 29 minute, 700 mph ride through an underground tube.  Even if you’re not claustrophobic, what if something goes wrong?  How do you get out? 

We’ve already had horrendous fires in the 31 mile long Chunnel under the English Channel, let alone a 225 mile underground tube between NYC and DC.  And wouldn’t Hyperloop be a tempting target for terrorists?

Clearly, the Hyperloop is decades away from being feasible, not to mention being put into construction mode.  Yet, Musk insists boring can get underway this year and he asks, in his tweets, for his true believers to lobby lawmakers and regulators for the necessary approvals. (PS:  Musk also owns the company that will build the tunnels).

Some estimate an above-ground Hyperloop would cost $200 million a mile to build (not counting the cost of the land).  But using a tunnel boring machine and going underground, who knows the cost or construction time.  Just for the Feds to rebuild the two Civil War-era rail tunnels (3.6 miles) in Baltimore will cost $4.5 billion.

So where’s the money going to come from?  The Trump administration can’t commit to rebuilding the Hudson River Amtrak tunnels, let alone take a flyer on this pipe-dream.

Elon Musk is estimated to be worth over $17 billion, money he earned by starting PayPal.  But he’s been plowing most of his fortune into projects like Tesla and Space X which, admittedly, have been hugely successful, if expensive.

So don’t write Musk off as some faker or phony.  Just be skeptical of his Trump-like over promising and sketchy details.  I’ll believe Hyperloop when I see it.  But I don’t think I’ll be riding it.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media


High Speed Rail Runs Over CT

In China you can travel by high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai (819 miles) in about four hours, averaging over 200 mph.  Take Amtrak from New York to Boston and the 230 mile journey will take at least 3.5 hours (about 65 mph).

Why the difference?  Because the US is a third-world nation when it comes to railroading.  Our railroads’ tracks (rights-of-way) are old and full of curves compared to China’s modern, straight rail roadbeds.

When then US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood toured China’s best-in-class high speed rail (HSR) system a few years ago he marveled at the accomplishment, but noted (paraphrasing here) “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision.”

In China, when the government decided to build HSR, they drew a straight line to determine its path.  Anything and anyone in the way was out of luck.

Not so in the United States, witness the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build HSR between Washington and Boston.  The initial plan was to straighten track in Connecticut, plowing through historic towns like Old Lyme.  Local opposition and the engagement of the state’s elected officials all but killed the plan.

But the FRA’s recent Record of Decision revising its plans delivered only a partial victory for preservationists in our state.  Sure, Old Lyme was saved, but in southwest Connecticut, the FRA still has plans to re-do our cities’ and towns’ landscapes.

Still buried in the 61-page document is a plan to reroute tracks from New Rochelle to Greens Farms on a new path alongside (on top of?) I-95.  This would mean major disruption for everyone from Greenwich to Norwalk, with massive construction right in the heart of those communities.

The details are few:  just a fuzzy map showing the proposed HSR tracks somewhere near the interstate, avoiding our century-old rail bridges and replacing them with highway style elevated structures.

With Governor Malloy still calling for a widening of I-95, where would these new tracks be placed?  The FRA says it doesn’t know.  But drive that sound-barriered highway corridor and you’ll see there isn’t much room for new tracks or highway lanes, let alone both.

Local officials, residents and commuters should all be concerned.  While the balance of the FRA’s plans in the state call for an upgrade of existing tracks, why the need for this invasive new structure in the already crowded highway corridor?  Why not just rebuild the existing tracks?

Better yet, why not re-visit the idea of the “inland route”, sending trains to Boston north through Westchester before heading east along I-84 through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford?  There’s more open space and a better chance to build straight, truly HSR tracks.

That idea was rejected by the state, fearing loss of rail connectivity for coastal business centers such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven, despite Amtrak’s promise to still run Acela service along the coast.

We are not living in China, nor should we allow the FRA to tell us how to live.  Our last hope in opposing this land-grab is the necessary environmental review of the FRA’s plans.
Now would be the time to tell Washington “No”!

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media