Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
High-speed vactrains might be the ticket for a Martian colony. As a practical transit investment for Earth, the technology has a long way to go.
Elon Musk’s Boring Company has gained “verbal approval” from extremely unspecified government leaders to build an underground hyperloop between Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City—if you believe the tweets of the mercurial Tesla and SpaceX CEO. “Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly,” Musk tweeted Thursday, after his initial claim triggered a tidal wave of curiosity.
Such a project would blast travelers from New York to D.C. in 29 minutes, according to Musk, through what would amount to the world’s longest tunnel. It’s not clear who gave Musk a thumb’s up, or in what form. But, besides gaining approval from countless local, state, and federal authorities, a bevy of unresolved issues still float around the Jetsons-esque transportation concept. (Refresher: A hyperloop involves firing bullet-shaped pods of humans and/or freight through frictionless, near-vacuum tubes over long distances, at airplane speeds.)
Captive users of current Northeast Corridor transit options may understandably clamor for near-supersonic tube tickets, laws of physics be damned. Slow down: There are barriers yet to be crossed.
1. The technology is still unproven
Hyperloop One, a start-up working to make Musk’s dream a reality, declared its “Kitty Hawk Moment” earlier this year—a full systems test along the company’s 500-meter track in Nevada. For a few seconds, the start-up successfully deployed all the key, friction-eliminating elements of its pneumatic tube technology in one go.
But that Nevada desert test hit speeds of just 70 mph—a fraction of the 700 mph the system promises. The company has pledged to hit its next benchmark of 250 mph later this year; other hyperloop-builders have promised a fully operational system somewhere in the world by 2020. That timeline seems improbable. The basic concept of a hyperloop may pencil out from a technology standpoint. But in terms of safety, cost, and need, huge questions still loom over the project.
2. It might be totally unfit for human beings
“We’re selling time,” Hyperloop One’s site proclaims, and indeed, the main appeal of a N.Y.-to-D.C. hyperloop is the liberation of precious minutes for Manhattanites rushing to Capitol Hill. But the human risks of hurtling through a pressurized, near-airless tube go far beyond barfing and claustrophobia (which are also very real). Let’s say a section of that thin metal tube became damaged by, say, a bomb blast, and exposed to the atmosphere. The ultra-poweful front of air would instantly turn human cargo into jelly. To be sure, an subterranean hyperloop like the one Musk tweeted about would be safer than above-ground models, but not necessarily impervious to death-by-physics.
3. Freight could work, but what’s the advantage?
If the tube doesn’t work for people, could it work for objects? Sure, stuff might not object to a brief, cramped, nauseating ride. But hyperloop doesn’t address freight’s longest-standing problem. While bidirectional elevators could ferry passengers throughout the four cities to hyperloop stations, there’s no clear solution for carrying shipments to their final destinations. Hyperloop seems to have all the drawbacks of traditional rail freight: To tackle the first and last mile (or several hundred miles), “trucks will still have to queue up to load and unload freight,” Amelia Regan, a professor of transportation systems engineering at the University of California, told Trucks.com in May. The advantage for a shipping company to use hyperloop over a truck could be cost, but…
4. Costs are very, very high
Bringing down the price of a whooshing “vactrain” is the other essential task. Musk has promised that constructing a hyperloop would be far more dollar-efficient than would-be competitors like high-speed rail—with low prices passed onto passengers.
But estimates attached to feasibility studies rival the outlandish costs of California’s beleaguered $68 billion, 800-mile high-speed rail project, which the hyperloop was always supposed to beat. In 2016, according to leaked documents from Hyperloop One obtained by Forbes, “a 107-mile loop around the Bay Area alone—either by tunnel or a mix of tunnel and elevated track—would cost between $9 billion and $13 billion, or between $84 million and $121 million per mile.”
For a project that spans the Northeast Corridor—home of some of the most expensive and densely developed real estate in North America, land acquisition costs (and lawsuits) would surely rule out an above-ground hyperloop model.
Of course, Musk is laying bets on his Boring Company, which aims to reduce current tunneling costs by a factor of 10. It’ll have to. Right now, tunneling even short distances is wildly costly and disruptive; using existing technology, a 200-plus mile subterranean connection would be off-the-charts expensive. For some Northeast Corridor perspective: The Federal Railroad Administration has a plan to replace the two-track Civil-War-era tunnel beneath West Baltimore that has long been a bottleneck for passenger and freight traffic. That replacement tunnel, yet unbuilt, would be 3.6 miles long; it’s expected to cost at least $4.5 billion.
The funding gap for the decaying Northeast Corridor, the rail line that serves 750,000 passengers each day on old-school locomotives between Boston and Washington, D.C., is about $20 billion. Let’s say, generously, that Musk figures out how to tunnel for $100 million per mile. Digging 225 miles of tunnel for a hyperloop between New York and D.C. would be roughly enough to upgrade the entire 457-mile Northeast Corridor. And that’s before the costs of construction.
5. Yeah, but what if this is really all about building Elon’s Musk’s Martian colony?
Hyperloop has a long way to go to prove itself a worthy transit investment for Earth. But here’s the thing people may forget: Musk wants to colonize Mars. Sure, he talks good game about wanting to improve the lives of commuters. But, really: He wants to colonize Mars.
"I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans],” Musk said last year. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out… The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”
Transportation is central to that alternative. Musk has plainly stated that a hyperloop on Mars would be a straighter shot than on Earth, thanks to air pressure differences and the lack of pesky human property owners to burrow beneath. “On Mars you basically just need a track,” he said at a 2016 award ceremony for a Hyperloop design competition. You might be able to just have a road, honestly. [It would] go pretty fast.” He is likely keen on lowering the costs of drilling to bring transit to the Red Planet—which could be the Boring Company’s raison d’être.
"Once that transport system is built," Musk said last year, “there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet."
To be a little conspiratorial: What if these hyperloops on the home planet amount to test-tracks for Mars?
So far, transit wonks have heaped derision on the hyperloop concept for reasons one through four, listed above—plus the fact that cost-efficient, climate-friendly transportation options that don’t turn humans into mush already exist: electric buses, high-speed rail, medium-speed rail. These modes have the benefit of existing networks of infrastructure to support and expand them. And they need all the support they can get.
The Mars angle gets less attention, but it troubles me. Earth is headed for climate catastrophe. Cleaning up transportation, one of the world’s heaviest contributors of greenhouse gases, is among the worthiest challenges for our time. Musk, to his credit, has already served up helpful ideas on this front (see: Tesla, not to mention the company’s acquisition of SolarCity and its role in de-carbonizing the grid). But the man is playing two games at once: problem solving for planetary redemption, and planning for planetary doom. On which would you prefer to bet billions?