Rapidly growing hyperloop industry offers alternative to California high-speed rail

By Marc Joffe
July 26, 2017

Since Elon Musk introduced hyperloop in 2012, several startups have been formed to commercialize the technology. Hyperloop is a 21st century approach to intercity travel in which pods fly through sealed, low pressure tubes at speeds of up to 760mph. Although a large amount of hyperloop research is occurring in California, our state government is ignoring it while pressing ahead with a costly high-speed rail project that is based on mid-20th century technology.

The two largest hyperloop companies are based in Los Angeles County. Hyperloop One has raised $141 million in capital thus far. After some internal friction, the firm appears to be gaining momentum, recently announcing a successful test run at its development facility near Las Vegas. The company reported levitating a pod and accelerating it to a speed of 70mph during a 5.3 second run. Its next goal is to reach a speed of 250mph with a passenger on board.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has raised $30 million. While headquartered in Los Angeles County, the company has remote teams scattered around the world. It is partnering with several foreign governments to conduct hyperloop feasibility studies. HTT has announced agreements with public agencies in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Hyperloop One is also active in the UAE where it is planning to build a link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The third largest hyperloop company – as measured by reported equity funding – is Toronto-based Transpod which has raised $15 million. Transpod’s initial goal is to build a line connecting Toronto with Windsor. The firm recently published a study showing that its system would cost 50% less than a high-speed rail system under consideration by the province. If it succeeds in Ontario, the company hopes to extend service into the United States, with possible destinations including Detroit, Buffalo and ultimately New York City.

Although Elon Musk did not form his own hyperloop company, he has remained a key player in the technology’s development. His rocket company, SpaceX, holds periodic design competition in which university-based teams test their designs in front of judges selected by the company. In a previous article, we profiled HyperXite, a hyperloop design team based at UC Irvine. Other California schools that have hyperloop teams include Sacramento State University and UC Santa Barbara. These three Golden State teams will be competing with 21 others in SpaceX’s second hyperloop competition weekend August 25-27.

Musk has also discussed hyperloop in connection with his latest venture, The Boring Company.  This endeavor aims to lower the cost of tunneling below and between cities. One tunneling project Musk has proposed is an underground link between New York and Washington, DC that could be traversed by hyperloop pods in less than 30 minutes.

There are at least two other players in the commercial hyperloop space. Los Angeles-based Arrivo was recently founded by Brogan BamBrogan, the former CTO of Hyperloop One. Finally, a Dutch team that won the first SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition has formed Hardt Global Mobility with €600,000 in startup capital. One early investor is NS, the main Dutch railway operator.

Hyperloop vs. High Speed Rail

Although hyperloop is not yet a practical transportation alternative, the amount of research and investment going into the technology strongly suggest that it will become viable within a few years. Since we cannot expect California High-Speed Rail service to start until at least 2025, it is reasonable to compare these two alternatives: one or both could play a major role in transporting passengers and cargo between California cities by the middle of this century.

Hyperloop promises to be both faster and cheaper than high-speed rail. The California High-Speed Rail project is supposed to transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes, but actual travel time will be limited due to the cost-saving decision to use existing track at the northern and southern ends of the system. With a maximum speed of 760mph, hyperloop could theoretically cover the required distance in well below one hour.

Elon Musk estimated that a California hyperloop system would cost $6 billion to transport passengers and $7.5 billion for passengers plus cargo. This compares quite favorably to the $64 billion projected for the high-speed rail project.

More recently, Transpod has estimated that a hyperloop system in Ontario would cost CAD 29 million per kilometer, which is equivalent to USD 37 million per mile. Applying this rate to California – an assumption that CEO Sebastien Gendron told me would be a good first approximation – and assuming a total phase one length of 520 miles, a California hyperloop would cost about $19 billion.

Some of Hyperloop’s advantages stem from the system’s lighter weight. Transpod’s analysis assumes that the 28-passenger pods will weigh 10 tons, but this may be conservative. One team at the SpaceX competition estimated that its pods would weigh less than one ton.

While we don’t yet know the weight of future California high-speed rail trains, we can use Amtrak Acela weights as an indication. Acela is currently the highest speed train in North America, operating up to 150 mph. Acela cars weigh about 64 tons each and have 65 seats. A typical Acela train has six passenger cars and two power cars (e.g. locomotives) which weigh over 100 tons each. Two of the six passenger cars have reduced capacity: one serves as a café car and the other contains the first-class cabin. An entire Acela trainset weighs about 586 tons and can carry 304 passengers.

Hyperloop pods weigh less per passenger and much less overall than high-speed rail trains. This confers two important advantages. First, it is more practical and less costly for hyperloop tubes to be elevated. While high-speed rail tracks at ground level necessitate the condemnation of large amounts of farmland, hyperloop tubes can be mounted on pylons. Tractors and agricultural workers can easily move between sections of a farm bisected by elevated hyperloop tubes – making it much less disruptive to Central Valley agriculture.

In urban areas, hyperloop can be more easily grade-separated thereby eliminating the need for railroad crossings. Ground level railroad intersections block traffic and often cause injuries and deaths to drivers and pedestrians. Under the blended system proposed for the San Jose to San Francisco segment of high-speed rail, Caltrain and high-speed rail trains will pass through more than three dozen grade crossings, causing massive inconvenience.

Hyperloop also promises drastically reduced noise pollution. When a train approaches a grade crossing, federal regulations require the engineer to sound its horn twice at a volume of between 96 and 115 decibels. If a city makes expensive grade crossing improvements, it may be able to obtain a quiet zone designation – exempting it from the horn sounding requirement, but engineers still have the option to sound their horns in quiet zones if they see potential danger. In addition to sound from horns, trains also make noise as they pass by. High-speed rail trains operating at maximum speed produce upwards of 100 decibels of sound within a 100-foot radius. By contrast, hyperloop pods operating within a sealed tube are unlikely to generate significant levels of exterior noise.

The much lighter weight of hyperloop also translates into reduced energy use. In his original hyperloop white paper, Elon Musk estimated that the system would consume 50 megajoules of energy for each passenger journey, compared to over 800 MJ per passenger journey for train travel. Musk contends that hyperloop’s energy consumption is low enough that its power could be fully supplied by solar panels mounted on the tubes. By contrast, California high-speed rail would require over 13 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year when fully built out (based on estimates of 21.1 million trainset miles and 63 kwh per trainset mile in HSR’s 2012 business plan).

Further Investigation Needed

Since hyperloop has yet to be implemented, this discussion is admittedly speculative. At the same time, hyperloop has now attracted upwards of $200 million in capital and the attention of many serious engineers. As a result, it is becoming harder to dismiss, as high-speed rail proponents initially did.

Under the circumstances, it would be wise for the state to commission an independent study of hyperloop’s prospects and applicability to California intercity travel. If an independent body determines that hyperloop has a high probability of becoming viable, it could recommend changes to the high-speed rail authority’s business plan that would enable it to leverage this exciting new technology.

You can learn more about hyperloop and its advantages over high-speed rail on Tuesday. October 24 at 6:30pm, when California Policy Center and the Lincoln Network hold a forum on this topic in San Francisco.

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