California’s Transportation Future Is Not A Series of Tubes

Sep 25th, 2012 | Posted by

One of the more annoying talking points used by high speed rail critics is that HSR will somehow be “obsolete” by the time it’s built. The latest claim: that “some sort of tube” will move people from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in just 30 minutes.

It’s not just something out of Futurama – it’s also out of Elon Musk’s brain. Joe Mathews reports:

The biggest problem with California’s high-speed rail project may not be that it’s estimated to cost $70 billion — money the state doesn’t have. The biggest problem may be that, by the time it’s built in 20 years or so, high-speed rail may be obsolete.

So suggests one of California’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, Elon Musk, in an interview with the magazine Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Musk, best known for the private firm SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla, takes a shot at high-speed rail by way of declaring that he’s working on an alternative — a new, solar-powered technology that would get people from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in just 30 minutes.

If he pulls it off, it would be faster than planes, and five time faster than the high-speed rail project, which, according to current projections, would require nearly 3 hours for the same journey….

Musk, as is well known, is a big-thinking visionary whose companies have had trouble turning technologies into real products and advances. So skepticism about this scheme is highly warranted.

But it’s a reminder that the world changes fast, and technology is advancing. And a state that bets tens of billions of dollars on a technology — high-speed rail — that is already old could be making a historically bad bet. And not just because of all the money required.

I’ll play along and take this idea seriously for a moment. How exactly can you move a human being some 450 miles in 30 minutes through a tube? That’s a 900 mile per hour speed, or Mach 1.18. Are they moved in some sort of pod or on their own? How much does this infrastructure cost? How do you power such a system?

The fastest maglev speed recorded is 361 mph, well short of the 900 mph this tube idea would require. Supersonic aerial transport has been tried, namely with the Concorde, but the operating costs were too high and it proved to be extremely difficult to get permission to operate it over land (which is why it primarily served a trans-Atlantic route). I suppose there might be some way to hit 900 mph in a tube but I have no idea what that would be.

I’m not trying to harsh on Elon Musk’s idea, but this is not particularly realistic. Sure, there’s been a lot of technological innovation over the last 20 years, but it’s led to the iPhone, not to a series of transportation tubes.

I don’t quite know why, but a lot of people find it hard to accept that it’s high speed rail which is on the cutting edge of transportation technology. It’s energy efficient, usually makes an operating profit, and is a good use of space with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. Steel wheel high speed trains have shown innovation and technological advances, with France testing a ultra high speed train in 2007 at 356 mph.

Any number of investments we’re making today could be rendered obsolete by some massive leap forward in technology. But it’s hard to see where that comes from in transportation. High speed rail meets all the challenges we’re likely to see over the next decades. It’s a proven success around the world. And it’s proven adaptable and expandable, able to keep up with new technologies.

California should continue to invest in innovation and bold new ideas. It also needs to invest in sensible, functional, proven solutions that work well around the world. Maybe tubes will be the basis of transportation someday. But for as far as I can see, high speed rail is where California’s transportation future lies.

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  1. Mike
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 08:46
    #1

    As anyone who has purchased an electronic device in the past 20 years knows, there’s always a better technology around the corner. But that doesn’t argue against purchasing an asset now that will return value over its lifetime. Such assets–whether a computer or a high speed rail system–can continue to return value to their owners, even when other “better” technologies appear on the market. Waiting for the best and perfect technology is a fools game. Especially when that technology is as far off and as speculative as a high speed pod-tube.

  2. Tim
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 08:55
    #2

    If this technology does indeed become a reality in “~20 years”, thank god we have saved the perfect corridor for it… The highway 5 “racetrack”. I doubt you would be able to have many stops on a 900 mph hour system (with only 400 or so miles between sf and la, you would be mostly accelerating and decelerating for this short trip), so bypassing everyone but downtown sf and la would be preferable. The cahsr could then serve everyone else more efficiently as both a feeder and a way to complete ones journey. Would hate to be in this thing during an earthquake or vacuum leak…

  3. Winston
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 09:02
    #3

    This is almost certainly an attempt to revisit the idea of evacuated tube transport. Basically you build a maglev vehicle and put it in a big pipe. The idea has been around for about a century and it’s just about the most capital intensive way of moving people you can imagine. You have just about all the same constraints you have when building a HSR system (ones we’ve discussed ad nauseum here) but instead of laying tracks, you’re laying maglev tracks in a pipe. The advantage of this is that you can build really, really, really fast trains (or pods if you don’t mind limiting your capacity or building a lot more infrastructure). In fact my favorite ETT proposal was to build a maglev tunnel through the antarctic ice sheet (tunneling through ice is cheaper than through rock) that would accelerate vehicles to a high enough velocity that when they exited the tube they would be at escape velocity and would end up in space, thus lowering the cost to put something in orbit.

    VBobier Reply:

    Ice moves constantly, that’s why the marker for the South Pole always has to be relocated, since a moving ice sheet covers the south pole…

  4. BeWise
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 09:04
    #4

    Robert, I strongly have to disagree with you on this one. Given Elon’s record of successfully rolling out two what-were-thought-to-be-impossible entrepreneurial ideas, I would not underestimate him on this one either. Besides, he’s not putting the state, or the taxpayer for the matter, at risk with this endeavor. If he wants to form a team to design, finance and build a new tube system, let him.

    BeWise Reply:

    Oh yeah, and he says his project will be $6 billion. The difference between this and the CAHSR project being that when it comes to cost-overruns, he’ll have his own skin in the game. Which means he’ll need to avoid cost overruns as much as possible, unlike our friends at the Sacramento PB office.

    Winston Reply:

    This is the kind of optimism that every visionary who attempts to address transportation problems comes in with. What always happens is that when you actually start to build the thing the costs start to snowball. Now CAHSRA hasn’t done a great job with cost control because they have far too small of a staff. However, some of the costs reflect the difference between the system that exists in one’s mind and what can actually exist on the ground once you start considering other people’s rights and so on.

    BeWise Reply:

    Yeah, well I think Elon has had experience with this, having founded a rocketship company (Space X) and an electric car company (Tesla). He had to go through an extensive trial-and-error period for both startups that took years.

    Peter Reply:

    But neither project involved massive engineering challenges (they both just had to apply existing engineering knowledge to relatively minor projects in terms of scale) or major infrastructure investments.

    StevieB Reply:

    Tesla created much excitement for electric car enthusiasts but the company has been on the verge of bankruptcy and may fold in the next six months. The Tesla Model S electric sedan sells at a loss to the company. Musk projects selling 20,000 cars next year and that electric vehicles would represent half of new car sales in 2020. Both predictions are wildly optimistic and far exceed those of outside analysts.

    BeWise Reply:

    They already have a backorder of 13,000 reservations . . .

    datacruncher Reply:

    Tesla reservations consist of a fully refundable $5,000 deposit. The question is how many of those 13,000 will pay the remaining cost and how many will ask for the $5,000 back. I’ve already seen some holders of low-numbered production line spots attempting to sell their reservations.

    BeWise Reply:

    Only time will tell.

    StevieB Reply:

    Tesla has delivered almost no cars to customers.

    As of Sept. 23, Tesla had produced 255 luxury sedans, and had delivered 132 to customers. It said it produced 77 cars in the week ending Sept. 23 but needs to ramp up to 400 cars per week before the end of 2012.

    Tesla had planned to make 5,000 cars this year but it looks like they will only produce about 3,500. Tesla will have to pick up the pace if it is to pay back the $465 million federal loan on time.

    joe Reply:

    tesla’s okay. I don’t think that proves or disproves his Tube concept.

    Tesla bought the NUMI Plant and auto manufacturing equipment for steal (55M?) Since GM/Toyota closed the Fremont Auto plant during a gut of automotive capacity he was very lucky to start up at that time. They have very experienced workers too and tax credits to keep those jobs.

    I doubt the TUBEs project would find a closed tubes manufacturing facility with fire sale equipment.

    Clem Reply:

    The Tesla factory is just a few hundred feet up the road from the Solyndra factory… Just sayin’

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    The Tesla factory is just a few hundred feet up the road from the Solyndra factory

    If only there were some sort of viable use for a very large disused industrial site between Fremont and San Jose.

    Never mind, though. PB put paid to that.

    joe Reply:

    The Tesla factory is just a few hundred feet up the road from the Solyndra factory… Just sayin’

    a republican talking point.

    The Tesla factory is just a few hundred feet up the road from the Solyndra factory

    If only there were some sort of viable use for a very large disused industrial site between Fremont and San Jose.

    Never mind, though. PB put paid to that.

    Solyndra is a GOP talking point – just say’n.

    PB didn’t stop anything.

    Tear down a factory, destroy valuable equipment and abandon world class labor that built world class reliable automobiles. NUMNI produced some of Toyota/GM’s most reliable cars.

    Tesla jumped at an opportunity.

    Peter Reply:

    The Tesla factory is just a few hundred feet up the road from the Solyndra factory… Just sayin’

    So is the former GM factory, so what? Oh wait, it’s the same factory!

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    I’m not underestimating him, although I do see serious challenges to realizing his vision.

    My point is that his idea, while interesting, doesn’t mean HSR is a bad idea. These days, HSR is as essential to a state as a canal, bridges over the bay, solar panels, broadband, and the other must-have pieces of a 21st century infrastructure. HSR isn’t some pie in the sky gee whiz idea, it’s common sense.

    joe Reply:

    Musk’s vision is an 80K car. Anyone here order one?

    Or space planes that supersonic transport people across continents. If you have an elevator for your car, you’re the demographic for the tube or space plane.

    His SpaceX venture uses mass production, yes good old mass production, to keep costs low – Not high tech magic.

    A Merlin engine is a liquid fuel engine aka Apollo era. One engine makes a Falcon 1 Rocket. 9 merlin engines for a Falcon 9 and 27 in 3×9 configuration for the heavy lift rocket SpaceX proposes.

    His cost savings is due to using a proven design, mass produce engines for different configurations and refine the design. Smart but more like Henry Ford smart, with mass producing, not like High tech smart. Space cargo.

    Clem Reply:

    His cost savings are due to insourcing everything, to employing lots of very young folks at 50 hours per week, and only then to mass production methods.

    jonathan Reply:

    Fifty? they only have to work *fifty* hours??

    One can find discussion of “big dumb boosters” and economy of scale, and — most important!ly! — building and qualifying rockets like _aircraft_, not _munitions_, long before Musk got nto the game.
    See usenet sci.space.tech posts from oh, 20 years ago now, by Henry Specner and others. (Google bought Henry’s utzoo backup tapes, so it’s all available online.)

    joe Reply:

    Nothing high tech Clem.

    As for youthful workers working long hours… that’s the Silicon Valley since I rolled into town in ’91. Google’s been described to me as, “working 16 hour days with 25 year olds”, by another one of my imaginary friends.

    SpaceX uses the SAME engine on all their rockets and designs. They learn from each launch and refine the engine design: Less wear, less complex and more throttle-able power. We’ll see what kind of launch reliability this produces.

    No Tubes.

    Emma Reply:

    You gotta be kidding. The only reason why Musk’s two companies are still alive is the government itself. Tesla was going down the toilet until they got a huge $400 million government loan which they yet have to pay off. SpaceX got on a contract with NASA. In other words, if McCain had won in 2008, Elon Musk would probably sleeping in the streets right now.

    DanM Reply:

    SpaceX is profitable with or without NASA business. Take a look at their launch manifset (they post it online) — they’ve won almost every commercial launch contract that’s gone to bid in the past few years.

    YESONHSR Reply:

    We cant even get HSR built…this pie in the sky dream is for one one those old popular mechanics mags!

    Chad Reply:

    Thought to be impossible? By who?

    He made his fortune on the internet, and now mostly fiddles with SpaceX and Tesla, which are hardly revolutionary technology or ideas.

  5. John Nachtigall
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 10:07
    #5

    he is no more unrealistic then thinking that the final phased HSR plan will acheive 2:40 running times between SF and LA or 30 minutes between SF and SJ.

    God bless the dreamers

    Alex M. Reply:

    HSR will do 2:40 from SF to LA. It’s the law.

    Clem Reply:

    It’s not just a lie. It’s the law.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    HSR will only do 2:40 if Moonbeam and Co. pass a new definition of a minute. The track infastructure proposed and the current Federal Laws in place (Safety laws by the way) won’t allow for that kind of speed.

    Winston Reply:

    Just because a law is for “safety” doesn’t mean it makes anything safer. It will be interesting to see how the HSRA navigates the FRA’s insane regulations.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Insane requirements add costs. Either the “requirements” your own rent-seeking consultants pull out of orifice, or those that are heinously imposed upon you by mean external agencies or interest groups.

    Added costs are good. Very, very very good.

    So what is the problem?

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    I will tell you how they will navigate them…they will obey the, like everyone else because they are the law and they exist for a reason…in this case a good reason which is safety

    joe Reply:

    These regulations get reviewed and updated. They are regulations, I do not think FRA regulations are legislated. The executive branch runs the FRA and they are invested with powers to regulate.

    Pretend this is the EPA or USDA. You know, regulations that cost jobs.

    jimsf Reply:

    the route only requires an average speed of about 165 to make the time in rough numbers since i dont have the exact numbers 450 miles sf to la via pacheco and tehachapi an expess train averaging 165mph allowing 125 in uban and 220 in rural areas…would make the 2:40 time

    Alon Levy Reply:

    125 in urban areas? Who died and fixed San Bruno?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Just like they didn’t go 170 in Elizabeth last night they can not go 125 in San Bruno. Whether or not that makes it improbable they can make San Francisco to San Jose in 30 minutes is a different question.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    what exactly is improbable about it. It is simple math. Distance…speed…acceleration and deceleration. You know more about the details than I do adirondacker and you know that it can’t make those times on the blended system. Hell, it was going to be hard on a dedicated system with 2 tracks because of the curves and the mountain crossings picked. Be honest

    jonathan Reply:

    Died? Nuked from orbit, more like it!

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Keep in mind though, that would mean blowing the train at 220mph through Fresno, Hanford, and Bakersfield stations. That’s not a small detail, but I wouldn’t elect for a I-5 alignment even if additional infrastructure is needed to bypass Central Valley cities by having an “inner line” through the aforementioned stations.

    Jay Taylor Reply:

    TBH Running through stations at high speed isn’t a big problem.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bkoz8aEUssQ

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_OdcYMf2_8

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    That station includes a four-track alignment. I believe the current station designs in the Central Valley only have two-tracks. If you have an “inner line” as the video demonstrates, it’s no big deal.

  6. Peter
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 10:53
    #6

    If he wants to waste his money on this, fine with me, but holding up CAHSR, a realistic project, for this literal pipedream is stupid.

    BeWise Reply:

    He’s not holding up the current project. If anything CAHSR is holding itself up. You peole actually kinda surprise me. Why shouldn’t we encourage those with a vision to dream big? Why shouldn’t we be routing those who seek to develop new technologies an push innovation even furthur? It’ll take years to develop. But wouldn’t it be better to start now rather than never? I, for one, admire Elon for seeking to solve a problem when he sees one.

    Peter Reply:

    I didn’t mean to say he was holding up the project. But some people ARE trying to hold it up, often based on flimsy pretenses, such as this one.

  7. trentbridge
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 11:04
    #7

    Well the conservatives were right!

    “Californians are going down the tubes!”

    VBobier Reply:

    Thank You, Dr Zoidberg…

  8. ericmarseille
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 11:13
    #8

    So he has reinvented the Swissmetro…Big deal.

    Advantages : higher speed, and (what maglev buffs regularly forget) the requiered energy doesn’t shoot to the stars from 360 km/h up

    Disadvantages :staggering costs in construction and maintenance : maybe the total US defence budget will do, after all ; claustrophobia (you’re not naïve enough to believe they’ll be windows and all, aren’t you?), risks of extreme accidents, just imagine a device ensuring a emergency stop in case of recompression in the tube, say, from 900km/h to 0 in 10 seconds! you’ll have to pick them up with a tea spoon! super vulnerable to terrorism and earthquakes…Impossible to integrate in the network ; two stations, no more, no less, if not all the timely advantage is gone into smoke ; in case of breakdown the whole line is blocked (two tubes are out of the question, too costly even for good old USA), etc.etc.etc.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    from 900km/h to 0 in 10 seconds!

    … at least it would be quick. There wouldn’t be any survivors.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    I saw a Star Trek documentary once where they explained that they “invented” the inertial dampners to account for the fact that 0 to lightspeed would cause everyone on the ship to die instantly. Maybe he has a similar idea.

    :-)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    I always thought that had to do with their artificial gravity field being hauled along with them at the same acceleration rate. Inertia tugging you one way the artificial gravity pulling you the other way…. and yet when the photon torpedo strikes they all fall down like bowling pins. Odd.

    Ant6n Reply:

    According to wikipedia, a person can handle 5G before loosing consciousness. let’s assume people sitting facing backwards, being pushed into their seat for an emergency stop – very uncomfortable, but very survivable. Now, 5g (50m/s^2) will give you 1118mph after 10 seconds.

    You should attack ideas, if you must, based on them being crazy, not based on bad physics.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    interestingly enough they don’t design public transport based on the edge of human endurance. The “average” human can handle 5G before losing consciousness. What do you think the “average” 80 year old can handle. or the “average” toddler.

    Are you going to place restrictions on who can ride…will I need a Dr permit?

    They are designing mass transit not rollercoasters. You have to design well below the upper tollerance limit to allow for the general population.

    ant6n Reply:

    They design _accidents_ to be survivable with a high chance, otherwise cars wouldn’t go more than 100mph. Normal operation wouldn’t be at those accelerations/decelerations. This is also an order of magnitude estimate – using almost 1800km/h, rather than 900km/h. If you select lower speed and more leeway to decelerate, it’s not so bad.
    I also specifically mentioned sitting in a seat facing backward, so even doing 3G like that should be more survivable for your 80-year-old grandma than making a full stop in a car being jerked forward (for a vactrain you would probably have seatbelts and be required to always sit in your seat – just like in a car).

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Are you serious…you would design to a 3G acceleration and deceleration rate? It does not matter what way your seat is facing, unless it rotates to accommodate for acceleration and deceleration there will be a point where you are getting jerked out of the seat

    It is an interesting question, but I doubt they would design general public transport above 1G to reduce discomfort. I have been on airplanes where a really bitchy passenger complained about the deceleration of a plane after landing which was about .3G. 10 times that and the complaints are just going to roll in

    ant6n Reply:

    again, the topic is emergency brakes. geesh

    BrianR Reply:

    I imagine the extreme acceleration / deceleration in these tubes will cause some people to have heart attacks and make others “vacate their bowels” with unpleasant explosiveness. Take all that and be stuck in a sun-baked claustrophobic tube for 30 minutes. Sounds likes pure hell! I would gladly spend 3 hours on HSR instead or even 6 hours driving. The “tube option” might appeal to that segment of the population that already enjoys skydiving and bunging jumping and likes to sprinkle words like “extreme” into their vocabulary but that is not for me.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    To my shame, when I tried to do the same math, I got 250 m/s / 10 s = 25 m/s^2, and because of a brainfart I decided it was 25 G (lethal) rather than 2.5 G (uncomfortable).

    It’s still ways off my most embarrassing order of magnitude error, though.

    ant6n Reply:

    I use google to do conversions like that, like this.

  9. JJJ
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 11:54
    #9

    Speaking of speeds, Acela was tested to a personal best of 170mph last night.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4gpZiUyy-U&t=1m43s

    No where near the French speeds obviously, but still nice to see. Watch the 135mph run on that same video to note the impressive difference.

    Peter Reply:

    Do they normally run with both pantographs up? Or was this simply to have more power available for the test?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    There’s no power bus.
    The FRA (America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals) wouldn’t allow such a thing.
    It’s two entirely separate top-and-tail locomotives, with a handful of seats sandwiched between them.
    If a pantograph is down, there’s a dead locomotive.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    I’m almost afraid to ask why in the world it was prohibited…

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Why would you need one under the train when there’s one over the train?

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    A high-voltage power line through the train could enable it to run with one pantograph for both power cars. That would be useful if you had a damaged pantograph, and would also allow the pans to run with reduced sparking from wire bounce, which affects the pans behind the first one. At the same time, though, a high voltage power line makes some people nervous, although it has been used in some places, including some electric locomotives and MU cars in the US, though usually at lower voltages than what the Acela runs on.

    Did find some specs on the Acela; one of the interesting things is that the power cars were designed to be used with trainsets with up to 10 revenue cars (HEP capacity, 1-10-1 configuration). Reportedly one of the reasons the Acela is configured as it is was due to our friend, the FRA. Seems the original intent was one power car and one control trailer sandwiching some coaches, like the Swedish X-2000, but the FRA didn’t trust having just a control trailer leading, so Amtrak had to buy a bunch of extra locomotives. This means the Acelas have been way overpowered for the normal six-car trains that have been running until now. Those extra coaches that are supposed to be ordered will go a long way to “right-sizing” the trains.

    http://www.trainweb.org/tgvpages/acela.html

    Some other material on TGV and TGV-inspired equipment sets.

    http://www.trainweb.org/tgvpages/indextrainset.html

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    not that they take Acelas ( or trains set in general these days ) apart but it’s cheaper and easier to use the power line over the train than it is to have one under the train. Hundreds of feet of high voltage cable with a fiddly connector every 85 feet when there one just 20 feet away?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    And yet high-speed EMUs do not run with one pan per car.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    If I’m reading the UIC classifications on Wikipedia correctly trailer cars don’t need pantographs.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    …or one pan per motor car. At higher-than-Acela speeds, pan noise is significant enough that it’s best to minimize the number of pans up at any given moment.

    But as you can see here the Pendolino has just one pan for the entire train, despite having several independent motor cars and a top speed of 250 km/h.

    jonathan Reply:

    well, sometimes they _do_ have close to one panto per car; but that’s because west-European pantograph standards are a big mess: two main widths (due catenary zig-zag patterns) of 1450mm and
    1950mm, and several materials: carbon, copper, metalized carbon, copper+steel (FS)…

    Hm. After reading CHSRA TM 3.2.3, http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/assets/0/152/301/92cc3241-8a9a-46a8-ac7d-e3bd7f327496.pdf, I see that CHSRA’s plan for shared-track corridors is to have contact wire at 5.300m ATOR. That’s 400mm higher than dedicated HSR track segments, to allow clearance for AAR Plate F. Seems like CHSRA’s consultants are doing a reasonable job on that score.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Alon, not just noise but contact dynamics.

    The up force of the first panto sets up travelling waves in the catenary with train velocity and wire tension and design damping dependencies that you could investigate if you truly cared.

    The great the distance from the leading to the trailing pantograph (if any), the better the contact of the latter, and the less the danger of damage to it or to the overhead. (Separately, at very high (non-commerical) speeds, there’s even risk of the train velocity matching the wave’s, hence extra-tensioned overhead for super speed tests/stunts.)

    Coupled sets of trains (without common power bus) at high speed typically have operating rules requiring use of the front-most and rear-most pantographs in the set for this reason. (Likewise pairs of more closely coupled electric locomotives at more more modest speed, though there are other issues.)

    swing hanger Reply:

    @Alon- likewise the JRE E5 10 car trainset (two driving trailer cars, the remainder motor cars), two pans per trainset, of which one is up during operation.

    Clem Reply:

    If you’ve stood inside a TGV, at any time since 1981, your head was within a meter of a live 25 kV power cable that runs on the roof.

    Nice find Mr Lubic, that website was authored by yours truly in the stone age of the internet. Good content never dies…

    bleh Reply:

    There’s three reasons why more than one pantograph is a terrible idea:

    1. It’s terrible aerodynamically. The pantograph on an ICE3 is responsible for roughly a third of form drag (as opposed to skin friction) for the whole train.

    2. It’s the single loudest part on a HST. Japan’s tough noise laws lead to two main differences with the rest of the world. Extremely long noses (mostly due to tight tunnels) and ridiculously elaborate pantograph assemblies. That should tell you something.

    3. The pantograph causes oscillations in the catenary. So every pantograph after the first one makes it that much harder to ensure uninterrupted contact and to avoid arcing (a maintenance nightmare). So you need more and more wire tension (itself a maintenance nightmare).

    Peter Reply:

    Wow, if they start running at 160 mph, that’s nearly 5 mph faster than the ICE 1s were running in 1991. Hooray!

    jonathan Reply:

    yes, but still slower than the 280km/hr the ICE-1 sent to the US as ICE Amtrak was running back in Germany in 1995.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    If I remember correctly 173 mph on that track when they ran the tests.

  10. Emma
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 15:09
    #10

    Has anybody posted this yet?
    http://www.engadget.com/2012/09/25/california-governor-brown-signs-bill-clearing-use-of-driverless-cars/

    “California Governor Jerry Brown has signed bill SB1298 into law, formalizing the legal permissions and safety standards needed to let automated vehicles cruise on state-owned roads. [...]
    Brown visited Google’s Mountain View headquarters to put ink to paper, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin oversaw the signing with his Google Glass eyewear on full display. ”

    The video of the signing ceremony is set to private right now for whatever reason. But, there you go. Once I did the mass on what if the state subsidized jetpacks. Let’s just say, HSR is still cheaper… But, it was worth the thought.

  11. BMF from San Diego
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 17:30
    #11

    The Tube idea seems so stupid that it doesn’t deserve a blog post. It’s more deserving of attention from the Cartoon Network.

    joe Reply:

    Agreed.

    More interesting is the Tesla built solar Super-charging Stations for a Pacheco Alignment. One in Gilroy – then Harris Ranch. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/images/tesla-superchargers-map.jpg

    Also

    Google cars
    http://www.mercurynews.com/cars/ci_21630490/googles-sergey-brin-joins-california-gov-jerry-brown

    FYI They will never use the software google is building on commercial automobiles – they lack the culture to write and collect evidence they have safety critical software. It just can’t cost effectively be shown to be safe – my guess and uninformed opinion about the google code.

    I do think they’ll patent what they prototype and use those patents to recover their investment.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    You’d think so, but this idea has gotten a ton of coverage online in the last 48 hours.

  12. John Burrows
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 21:03
    #12

    Looks like Mr Musk is going to have his hands full with Tesla for a while. Today was not a good day for Tesla— Production is running well below projections, they are having some liquidity problems, and their stock dropped 10%.

  13. swing hanger
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 21:09
    #13

    HSR isn’t obsolete, it’s current North American passenger railway practice that is. Since most Americans only know “clang clang ring the bell at every crossing monster locomotive pulling 40 year old design rolling stock with three conductors” operations, no wonder they think HSR is obsolete- after all it also runs on rails, right?

    If the man want to promote his invention, build a demo line and prove it can be a revenue earner, and then he can be taken seriously.

  14. James Leno
    Sep 25th, 2012 at 22:06
    #14

    If he can get VacTrain, or HyperLoop, or whatever it’s called up and running, more power to him. But it still won’t be High Speed Rail. I’m assuming that it will be some variant of MagLev technology. MagLev, although it’s faster, is far less versatile.

    To switch a HSR train to another track takes several hundred feet. Maglev track switches take up miles. So things common to HSR like overtakes and intermediate stops need an inordinate amount of resources. Then add the complexity of doing all that in a vacuum, and feasibility goes out the window.

    From the way it sounds, it’s an on-demand out-and-back type of transport. On-demand means it’s not high capacity. Out-and-back means that it only travels between two places. If it’s workable, I’m all for it. But it shouldn’t take precedence over an already proven and mature technology.

    bleh Reply:

    > Maglev track switches take up miles.

    In Japan even the miles are smaller. Much smaller:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Py8Puv_QiMQ&feature=related

    Turns out German miles, too, look suspiciously short:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=WNwxKW3J2aE#t=363s

    Peter Reply:

    I love the suggestion in the German video of essentially having track-sharing between conventional HSR and maglev.

  15. D. P. Lubic
    Sep 26th, 2012 at 04:40
    #15
  16. Loren Petrich
    Sep 26th, 2012 at 08:54
    #16

    I’ll believe it when I see it. More seriously, I’d like to see a working prototype of it. There were already working prototypes of electric cars and rockets, but there aren’t any working prototypes of this high-speed tube system.

    Trains carrying 240 people each 30 minutes are equivalent to carrying 1 person every 7.5 seconds. That’s cutting it very close for a high-speed evacuated maglev system.

    The great-circle distance between SF and LA is about 550 km, and for 30 min travel time, that’s 1100 km/h or 306 m/s. At 1 g acceleration, it will take about 31 s to accelerate to that speed over a distance of 4.7 km. However, individual-person pods would have a spacing of only about 0.28 km. So this pod system risks pileups.

    There’s also the problem of track switches — how will those be implemented here? I think that they will be necessary for stops along the way — will it be possible to travel full speed into one?

    For SF – LA along I-5, it ought to have stops at San Jose and the San Fernando Valley — at least.

  17. Reedman
    Sep 26th, 2012 at 13:57
    #17

    Musk is a physicist and engineer. I suspect he is hinting at one of standard college calculus problems that has a somewhat surprising answer.

    Drill a straight tube through ideal earth (billiard ball smooth and uniform) between any two points on the surface. Evacuate the tube to remove air resistance (frictionless analysis). Drop an object in the tube. It will take 42 minutes for the object to reach the other end. It doesn’t matter whether the tube connects your house and your neighbors’ house, or New York and Jakarta, the time to “fall through” is 42 minutes. It turns out the general answer doesn’t depend on the radius of the earth, only the average density and the gravitational constant.

    Matthew Reply:

    …as well as the ability to create frictionless, dragless, tangent tubes. What other wonders of the meaningless exercise world can Musk conjure up?

    Perhaps he can render all of our transportation needs moot by compressing the Earth into a sphere of Schwarzchild radius.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    There’s plenty of company trying to reinvent travel, including travel by car. This turned up among the associated clips with the German maglev video linked above.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2F7u0HXQTE&feature=related

    How much would it cost to build that thing?

    Some other fun stuff:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSJXvQu4hjw&feature=related

    Short playlist on “next generation trains” (segments from the Discovery channel):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEEBjMu-m14&feature=bf_prev&list=PL6FB6D55E8E490E8A

    I wish I could understand the fascination with “gadgetbahns,” but I’m not a psychologist.

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