Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is Probably as Good an Idea as High-Speed Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 18th, 2013

Week in Review

We transport heavy freight over land by train.  And transport people over land by plane.  Have you ever wondered why we do this?  Especially you train enthusiasts who would love to travel by train more often?  Here’s why.  Cost.  Railroads are incredibly expensive to build, maintain and operate.  Because there is rail infrastructure from point A to point B.  And at their terminus points.    Whereas planes fly through the air between point A and point B.  Without the need for infrastructure.  Except at their terminus points.  Making railroading far more expensive than flying.

If planes are so much cheaper to operate than trains then why don’t we use planes to transport all our freight?  Here’s why.  Price.  Trains charge by the ton of freight they transport.  And they can carry a lot of tons.  An enormous amount of tons.  Which makes the per-ton price relatively inexpensive.  A plane can carry nowhere near the amount of freight a train can carry.  It’s not even close.  Which makes the per-ton price to ship by plane very, very expensive.  So only high priority freight that has to be somewhere fast will travel by plane.  Heavy bulk items all travel by train.

We may be having an obesity problem but in the grand scheme of things people are very light.  But take up a lot of volume for their given weight.  The space their body physically occupies.  And the greater space around them containing the air they must breathe.  That holds the food and drink they must consume.  And the toilets they need to relieve themselves.  Now let’s look at a 747-400 with 450 passengers on board.  Let’s say the average weight of everyone comes to 195 pounds.  So the total flying weight of the people comes to 87,750 pounds.  Assuming flying costs for one trip at $125,000 that comes to $1.42 per pound.  If we add 15% for overhead and profit we get a $1.64 per-pound ticket price.  So a 275-pound man must pay $451 to fly.  While a 120-pound woman must pay $197 to fly.  Of course we don’t charge people by the pound to fly.  At least, not yet.  No, we charge per person.  So the per-person price is $224, where the lighter people subsidize the price of the heavier people.

The 747-400 is one of the most successful airplanes in the world because it can pack so many people on board.  Reducing the per-person cost.  Now let’s look at that same cost being distributed over only 28 passengers.  When we do the per-person cost comes to $4,464.  Adding 15% for overhead and markup brings the per-person price to $5,134.  A price so high that few people could afford to pay for it.  Or would choose to pay for it.  And this is why we transport people by plane.  That can carry a lot of people.  And we transport heavy freight by train.  That can carry a lot of tons.  And why this idea will probably not work (see Elon Musk Is Dead Wrong About The Cost Of The Hyperloop: In Reality It Would Be $100 Billion by Jim Edwards posted 8/16/2013 on Business Insider).

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s plan for a space-age Hyperloop transport system between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost only $7.5 billion, he said in the plans he published recently…

But the New York Times did us all a favor by calculating the true cost of the Hyperloop: It’s going to be ~$100 billion…

The Hyperloop is a pressurized tube system in which passenger cars zoom around on an air cushion, at up to 800 miles an hour.

There is no greater infrastructure cost between point A and point B than there is for high-speed rail.  Because these rails have to be dedicated rails.  With no grade crossings.  All other traffic either tunnels underneath or bridges overhead.  These tracks are electrified.  Adding more infrastructure than just the tracks.  All of which has to be maintained to exacting standards to allow high-speed trains to travel safely.  Which is why high-speed rail is the most costly form of transportation.  Why there are no private high-speed rail lines as only taxpayer subsidies can pay for these.  And for all these costs these trains just don’t transport a lot of people.  Making high-speed rail the most inefficient way to transport people.

The Hyperloop will be more costly than high-speed rail as this is an elevated tube system of exacting standards.  Requiring great costs to build, maintain and operate.  While transporting so few people per trip (28 per capsule).  Not to mention high-speed travel is very dangerous.  Unless it is up in the air separated by miles of open air.  But on the ground?  When a high-speed train crashes it is pretty catastrophic.  And it can tear up the infrastructure it travels on.  Shutting the line down.  So traveling 800 miles an hour inside a narrow tube is probably not the safest thing to do.

Of course the biggest fear in a system like this is some politician will pass legislation to build it.  Because of all the taxpayer-subsidized union jobs it will create.  As they are constantly trying to build high-speed rail for the same reasons.  For the politics.  Not because it’s a good idea.  For any idea requiring taxpayer subsidies is rarely a good idea.

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High-Speed Train crashes in Spain because things moving at High Speeds on the Ground can be Very Dangerous

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 27th, 2013

Week in Review

Trains are heavy.  Getting a train moving is one thing.  But getting it to stop is another.  Because heavy things moving fast have a lot of kinetic energy.  The energy of something in motion.  In classical mechanics we calculate the kinetic energy by multiplying one half of the mass times the velocity squared.  That last part is really important.  The velocity part.  For as the speed increases the kinetic energy increases by a far greater amount.  For example, a train increasing speed from 30 kilometers per hour (18 mph) to 190 kilometers per hour (114 mph) increases its speed by 533%.  But because we square the velocity the kinetic energy increases by 3,911%.   Making high-speed rail more dangerous than regular rail.  Because of the great amounts of kinetic energy involved.

Airplanes are very heavy.  They travel at great speeds.  And have great amounts of kinetic energy.  Which is why plane crashes or so horrific.  Anything with that amount of kinetic energy suddenly stopping dissipates that energy in great heat, noise and the explosion of solid parts.  But plane crashes, thankfully, are rare.  For when they are travelling at those great speeds they’re up in the air thousands of feet (or more) away from anything they can hit.  And if there is a malfunction they can fall safely though the sky (with enough altitude) until the pilots can recover the aircraft.  For airplanes have the best friend to high speed objects.  A lot of empty space all around them.  Not so with high-speed rail (see Driver in custody after 80 killed in Spain train crash by Teresa Medrano and Tracy Rucinski posted 7/25/2013 on Reuters).

The driver of a Spanish train that derailed, killing at least 80 people, was under police guard in hospital on Thursday after the dramatic accident which an official source said was caused by excessive speed.

The eight-carriage train came off the tracks, hit a wall and caught fire just outside the pilgrimage destination Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on Wednesday night. It was one of Europe’s worst rail disasters…

Video footage from a security camera showed the train, with 247 people on board, hurtling into a concrete wall at the side of the track as carriages jack-knifed and the engine overturned…

El Pais newspaper said the driver told the railway station by radio after being trapped in his cabin that the train entered the bend at 190 kilometers per hour (120 mph). An official source said the speed limit on that stretch of twin track, laid in 2011, was 80 kph…

Investigators were trying to find out why the train was going so fast and why security devices to keep speed within permitted limits had not slowed the train…

Spain’s rail safety record is better than the European average, ranking 18th out of 27 countries in terms of railway deaths per kilometers traveled, the European Railway Agency said. There were 218 train accidents in Spain between 2008-2011, well below the EU average of 426 for the same period.

There are no rails to derail from in the air.  And no concrete walls to crash into.  Air travel requires no infrastructure between terminal points.  High-speed rail travel requires a very expensive, a very precise and a highly maintained infrastructure between terminal points.  As well as precise controls to keep the train from exceeding safe speeds.  Planes do, too.  But when you have thousands of feet of nothingness all around you there is time to make adjustments before something catastrophic happens.  Like derailing when speeding through a curve too fast.

Air travel is safer than high-speed rail travel.  Which is why when a plane crashes it’s big news.  Because it happens so rarely these days.  Thanks to good aircraft designs.  Good pilots.  And having thousands of feet of nothingness all around you when flying at speeds close to 950 kph (570 mph).  Unlike having a concrete wall just a few feet away from a train traveling at high speeds.

High-speed rail may work in France and Japan.  The only two rail lines to pay for themselves are in these countries.  But every other passenger rail line in the world needs a government subsidy.  Because the costs of a rail infrastructure are just so great.  Making high-speed rail more of a source of union jobs than an efficient means of transportation.  Which is why they are a fixture in countries with liberal governments.  Who subsidize the high cost of these union jobs with taxpayer money.  In exchange for votes in the next election.

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The Obama Administration Proposes an Ambitious and Costly High-Speed Rail Plan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 9th, 2011

Nowadays Passenger Trains Yield the Right-of-Way to Freight Trains

I remember traveling by train with my family some 20-30 years ago.  My mom loved train travel.  She lived in the golden age of rail.  Has lots of fond memories.  But these are different times.  Even 20-30 years ago.  I remember on that trip we came to a stop on a siding.  Sat there for about a half hour.  Maybe 45 minutes.  I was starting to think there was a problem with the train.  Then a freight rumbled by on the main line.  After it passed, we started moving again.

Now if you understand railroading, you know how significant this is.  Back in the golden age, before planes and the interstate highway system, it would have been the other way around.  Passenger trains got the priority because they made more money.  Back then, freight trains pulled onto sidings.  But today, though heavily subsidized, passenger trains don’t make money.  Freight trains do.  They can pay for themselves.  And make a profit.  Therefore, passenger trains take to the sidings to get out of the way of profitable freight trains.

Freight trains make money because they can move a lot of freight cheaper and faster than other means of transportation.  Passenger trains, on the other hand, are neither the fastest nor the cheapest.  Planes are faster.  Cars are cheaper.  And this is why most passenger rail, including high-speed rail, don’t make money.  Even with huge government subsidies.  Not the same for planes or cars.  One way or another, we pay our own way with these faster and cheaper alternatives.

A Public Works Project that doesn’t End

Despite this, the Obama administration is proposing to spend billions on high-speed rail.  And it’s an ambitious plan (see GOP critic calls Joe Biden’s $53 billion high-speed rail plan ‘insanity’ by Daniel B. Wood posted 2/8/2011 on Yahoo! News).

According to the plan laid out Tuesday by Biden, the first step of the six-year plan would be to invest $8 billion to develop or improve three types of interconnected corridors:

Core express corridors would form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125 to 250 m.p.h or higher.

Regional corridors would lay the foundation for future high-speed service, with trains traveling between 90 to 125 m.p.h.

Emerging corridors would provide travelers with access to the larger national high-speed network and travel at as much as 90 m.p.h.

During times when oil prices soar, air and truck transportation costs soar.  But not rail transportation.  Why?  Because the massive rail infrastructure costs are greater than their fuel costs.  Unlike with planes and trucks.  Trains have to buy land (or right-of-ways).  Grade the land.  Build tunnels.  Bridges.  Lay track.  Switches.  Install communication systems to control those switches.  And more.  And they have to do this everywhere a train will travel. 

Planes fly between airports.  And trucks drive on roads paid for by fuel taxes.  They don’t have the infrastructure costs railroads do.  So volatile fuel costs impact them far greater than they do the railroads.  So the plan Biden laid out won’t be cheap.  It will be very, very expensive.  And take a long time to build.  It will be a public works project that doesn’t end.

But building high-speed rail is no easy process, says Leslie McCarthy, a high-speed rail expert at Villanova University’s College of Engineering. “Whether or not a bill would or should pass is the easiest part of all this,” she says. “The bigger part of the question is purchasing the land, getting right of ways, zoning issues, environmental impact assessments, laying dedicated tracks in a reasonable amount of time.”

She says the typical US highway project can be held up anywhere from three to five years at the low end to 12 to 20 years at the high end. “Legislators and the public aren’t aware of the number of federal, state, and local laws that agencies have to comply with that can’t be gotten around,” she adds.

The plan will employ a lot of people to build these railroads.  And they will have jobs for a long time.  But it will cost us a fortune in taxes.  Will the investment pay off?  When completed, will these railroads make money? 

In fact, the very thing that makes the Northeast so attractive for high-speed rail – its population density – could also make it the most difficult place to build. “There is so much population in the Northeast corridor that I don’t know if there is even enough room for the dedicated tracks needed for high-speed rail,” says Professor McCarthy. “And if the distances you are going are not sufficient to make efficient use of the high speeds, what’s the point..?”

Critics agree. Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“Both of these are the perfect distance for high-speed rail, connect cities over flat terrain with huge populations that have great public transportation to get riders to the railway,” he says, dismissing French claims that other lines make money. He says they calculate costs in ways which ignore capital costs.

Well, with only two high-speed rail lines actually paying for themselves, I guess the answer is ‘no’.  The proposed high-speed rail project will just be a sinkhole for tax money. 

High-Speed Rail:  Huge Expense with Little Benefit

All right.  So the proposed high-speed rail will never pay for itself.  And it will become a permanent sinkhole for our tax dollars.  But it will at least get cars off the road, right?  Reduce our carbon footprint?  Make the earth a greener place?  Or at least take us to our destinations faster?  Probably not (see Obama’s High-Speed Sale by Ernest Istook posted 2/8/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

The “high speed” adjective invokes thoughts of bullet trains speeding at 150 mph, 200 mph or more.  The reality of Obama’s plan is—at best—the 85 mph that is the average speed of America’s fastest train, the Amtrak-run Acela.

When Obama claims his trains would reach 100 mph and more, he’s talking about peak speed reached only for short stretches, not the average.

I’ve actually traveled on Amtrak.  Not the Acela.  But we did reach speeds in excess of 60 miles an hour.  For a short period of time.  In the middle of farm country.  In a metropolitan city, for about 20 minutes or so, we crawled.  The track was so bad that speed limits were reduced.  To prevent further trains from derailing. 

City to city high-speed travel in excess of 150 mph will require new, dedicated track between point A and point B.  Until you have that you’ll never ‘average’ anything close to those high speeds.  And that will require a grand, bold and expensive plan of railroad building.  The question is, knowing that such a railroad will never pay for itself and may never move people faster (unless you build terminals outside of cities where you’ll be able to build these dedicated lines and bus people to and from these terminals), will we at least save the planet?

An exhaustive Department of Energy analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes, “intercity auto trips tend to be relatively efficient highway trips with higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates — on average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips. Additionally, if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat12 — making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

The lack of energy or pollution savings leaves us with the key problem:  Huge expense with little benefit.

So we spend a fortune for what?  Surely there must be a better way.

Rail travelers don’t pay their own way as drivers must do.  Obama’s plan would increase the rail subsidies, which already are heavily subsidized with tax money–often by hundreds of dollars a trip for each passenger–whereas the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that drivers receive no subsidy:  Drivers buy the roads through fuel taxes, and also must pay for their own car, gas, insurance and repairs.

Well, there appears to be a better way.  Cars.  And we already have them.  So wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient to stick with what we already have and works?

Big Infrastructure brings in Big Federal Money

Yeah, well, that’s not how politics work.  Politicians run for reelection based on how much money they’ve brought home to their districts.  And big infrastructure brings home big federal money (see High Speed Funding in President’s Budget Means More Waste of Taxpayer Dollars by Kathryn Nix posted 2/9/2011 on Heritage’s The Foundry).

Heritage’s Ronald Utt writes that a high-speed rail program would create “perpetual massive government subsidies and larger budget deficits” and “additional burdens imposed on hard-pressed state governments, which will be required to match the perpetual federal subsidies to build the system.”

And bringing home federal money to their districts will be the only benefit of high-speed rail.

Despite its cost, high-speed rail will be ineffective at achieving its goals, if Europe’s experiences are any indicator. High-speed rail is expected to reduce auto and air travel, but in Europe, the trend is actually the opposite: Despite huge government subsidies, travelers are opting more and more to take non-subsidized and less expensive forms of travel.

Per capita spending on rail alone in six European countries was comparable to the United States’ entire transportation budget, yet, says Utt, “these countries received a poor return on their money given that more than 90 percent of passengers in these countries chose other travel modes—mostly auto—despite the subsidies.” Moreover, Utt cites the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s finding that reducing travel time between major East Coast cities by 30 minutes would cost $14 billion but only reduce auto transportation by less than 1 percent.

Can you say boondoggle?

Passenger Rail cannot Subsist without Taxpayer Subsidies

High-speed rail will never pay for itself, it will require perpetual government subsidies, it will not reduce our energy consumption or reduce our carbon footprint.  All it will do is increase deficit spending at the federal and state levels. 

There’s a reason why government subsidizes passenger rail service in the United States.  Because the railroad companies know there is no money in it.  They can make money moving freight.  But not people.  So they move freight.  And let people fly or drive their cars when they want to travel.  Or let the government pay for those passenger trains the way only government can.  With our tax dollars.

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