Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hyperloop as the Concorde

An article about the Hyperloop recently crossed my Twitter feed. Now, normally I wouldn't really spend much time on this topic, but this article is particularly risible. Why? Because the backers of the project are now favorably comparing it to the Concorde.

No. Seriously:
“It’s similar to what the Concorde did for air transport … This will revolutionize how we transport people from city to city.”
Oh, lordy. Here's what the Concorde did for air transport. It created a very small, niche industry which offered a somewhat faster product than what existed. This product was available only at a huge markup to the main market. It had severely constricted capacity. Development cost 12 times (*) initial estimates (so much so that it is an above-the-fold example in the "cost overrun" Wikipedia article). It received massive government subsidies. And after 30 years of serving a very small market, it was retired from service.

Let me repeat that: the Concorde is no longer in service. It didn't revolutionize how we transport people by air. It first flew in 1976, and last flew in 2003. The 747 first flew in 1969, and continues to transport people by air today. If the Concorde had revolutionized how we transport people from city to city, we'd probably still be using it today. We're not. The jet? It revolutionized travel—before that most everyone crossed long distances of water by boat, and on land by train. The Concorde? We're still flying conventional jets.

And they're crowdsourcing this? Let me just take a flyer here. Elon Musk scribbled some ideas on a napkin (and the Tesla is doing great, at least when it's not catching fire) and now a couple people are crowdsourcing the project, and comparing it to something that, while a technological marvel, was for all intents and purposes, a financial disappointment.

However, unlike the Concorde, I doubt the Hyperloop will ever get off the ground.

(* Note that with the same level of overrun, the Hyperloop would cost $72 billion to construct, which is as much as the High Speed Rail proposal. Except the High Speed Rail system can carry 10 times the passenger load (or more). Remember, the Concorde only had 100 seats. Most everyone else flew—and still flies—on conventional jets.)


  1. On the other hand, the last time a high speed rail line in a similarly developed area to the CA line was built not on an existing right of way was the 270-km Jōetsu line from outside Tokyo to Nigata, and that *also* suffered massive overruns, nearly bankrupting JNR and causing the cancellation of quite a number of related projects.

    I certainly believe that a CA high speed rail line is a better idea than, say, the International Space Station. And I certainly don't believe that we should stop trying to improve rail service because of the promise of some new transportation mode by and for Silicon Valley billionaires. But I have to wonder at the sense in spending $90 billion (and even that number is already 18 months out of date) on a project whose completion date is getting further away as time passes, not closer. There are plenty of more obvious deficiencies in CA's passenger rail system than 60mph of top end speed.

  2. I'm not familiar with this line, but the anchor city on the northern end, Niigata, has a population of 804,000. Which is about 1/10 of the Bay Area and 1/20 of LA.

    1. You are comparing the city of Niigata with a whole metro area, or perhaps to collection of several metro areas. The city to city comparison comes out almost exactly even. The metro area comparison can be cooked any number of ways but any peer comparison will come out about 2-to-1 as that's how much denser the Bay Area is than Niigata Prefecture. It's not terribly hard to imagine that rail use in Japan is at least 2x what it would be in California even if the high speed rail were built.

      That's not the point, though. The point is that in the modern era, large infrastructure projects all go way over budget. Hyperloop is likely to do so, yes, but so is the high speed rail project. We should be looking for alternatives to both. It's more work to find lots of little ways to make transit better, but it's also a lot more cost effective.

    2. Niigata prefecture: 2.3m people
      SF/SJ/Oak CSA: 8m people

      Also, 270km is rather short for a high speed line; the SF-LA line is more than twice the length, with intermediate traffic generators. And while most projects do go over budget, the high speed rail project has been through several iterations and is probably closing much more in on the actual cost. The Hyperloop is pure hyperbole until they detail how they'll acquire right of way and build an elevated structure 400 miles for that price. That's 15 million per mile—less than streetcars (not light rail; lighter-weight streetcars)—it's laughably low.