27 November 2015

Is Elon Musk’s vacuum tube a viable alternative to High Speed 2?


In his Spending Review on Wednesday, Chancellor George Osborne increased the capital budget for transport investment by 50% to £61bn. Some of this will be earmarked for High Speed 2, a multi-decade rail project that will connect London to Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

The estimated cost of HS2 has steadily increased, and has risen by £8bn this year alone to £42.6bn. At £78.5m per kilometre of track, HS2 is one of the most expensive rail projects of its kind in the European Union. In 2013, the Sunday Times reported that some Treasury insiders expect the figure to be closer to £75bn. The discovery this week that 46 members of HS2’s 626-strong staff are paid more than the British Prime Minister (£150,000) did little to help the idea that this costly project is generating value for money.

This all begs the question of whether there is a more exciting alternative aside from boosting capacity to existing lines and fitting existing rolling stock with WiFi. It is clear that the British economy remains too unbalanced. There needs to be a counterweight to London, or at the very least the ability to move between British cities quickly and inexpensively. There are obvious benefits to urban agglomeration and quality of life from reducing the temporal distances between places.

This is where Elon Musk, the superentreprenuer behind PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, comes in. He wants the private sector to be more than the vanguard of the next generation of mobile apps and websites. He wants it to start solving the big structural issues around energy, transportation and space exploration, and he thinks Hyperloop – described as a cross between Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table – could be a viable alternative to high speed rail.

Hyperloop uses a low-pressured tube and the magnetic force of linear induction motors to transport capsules at speeds of up to 760 mph. The pods move along a cushion of air, distributed from the front of each capsule by a compressor fan to the sides to handle choke points that occur as pressure reaches the so-called Kantowitz Limit. This is the key innovation that has some scientists excited about Hyperloop’s prospects, and why Fortune 500 firm Aecom and German-based Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum teamed up with the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies this August to develop the system.

Hyperloop is Musk’s answer to California’s High Speed Rail programme connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco in just over two and a half hours. That project is estimated to cost $68.4bn.

According to a Hyperloop specification document published in 2013 by SpaceX on the originally proposed $7.5bn line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, each capsule will be designed to carry up to 28 people and will depart every thirty seconds. HTT estimate that with 7.4 million passengers a year, revenue from advertisements placed along the tube, the use of solar power and a 20-year capital amortisation period, tickets could be as low as $20. That would be the equivalent of travelling from London to Edinburgh for £14. Elon Musk wants Hyperloop to be entirely open-source from design to finance.

Numerous doubts, however, have been building up. Hyperloop is not immune to the same sort of fundamental issues facing long-distance rail projects. Topography has to be dealt with, land still has to be acquired, vested interests have to be fought or assuaged, and contingencies for unforeseen issues have to be provided for. Budgeting for tunnels and bridges was the main reason why £8bn had to be added to the expected cost of HS2 this year. In the face of all of these obstacles, Hyperloop’s $7.5bn estimate for the LA-SF route begins to look comically naive.

There are then difficulties in maintaining near-vacuum conditions across climates, and scepticism over whether capsules travelling at nearly 800mph can be kept just 30 seconds apart. Alon Levy has described Hyperloop as a “terrifying barf ride” subjecting passengers to violent levels of G-force under intense levels of acceleration and deceleration. Making the journeys more comfortable would mean big cuts to passenger flows and increases in ticket prices. If you add the airport style security that would be needed, safety measures and the out of town termini, Hyperloop’s advantage over conventional high speed rail diminishes rather rapidly.

However, James Acklam, a transport expert at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, says that despite the “significant engineering challenge” of building vacuum tubes over long distances, the hyperloop project is one whose time has come, but also warns that it will be “very much more expensive than traditional high speed rail”. Ernst Frankel, who experimented with vacuum tube transportation in the 1990s with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also thinks this technology will eventually win the day, but it didn’t work for him in the 1990s because costs were too high and he couldn’t sell his prototype to Amtrak.

Luckily, newer technologies have come on stream since. American engineer David Ostel has been working on evacuated tube transportation for the last decade, and has developed systems that combine a low-pressure tube with maglev technology, offering speeds of up to 4,000mph, which would cut the time it would take to reach China from the US to just two hours.

There are reports that Elon Musk simply licensed the patents for the technology which underpins Hyperloop from Ostel, adding to the engineer’s list of 60 developers, 12 of which are based in China. It is down to these developers to work out how to resolve the engineering issues, bring down both up-front and operational costs, and deal with the energy requirements.

Despite being semi-detached from Hyperloop, Musk has staked a sizeable part of his reputation on this project and he’s going ahead with it. A $6bn test track, which will take two years to build, is being set up in the Quay Valley in King’s Country, California.

We’ll know by 2018 whether vacuum tube transportation has a shot.  By then, construction work on HS2 will be well underway, and Britain may start to rue being the last industrial country to make a massive multi billion pound bet on an essentially 19th century technology.

Zac Tate is Deputy Editor of CapX