Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hyperloop Test Costs

It's been nearly a year since I posted on the HYPErloop, but since I've revisiting old topics this weekend, here's a quick update. The Boston Globe, as part of their rail day (infrastructure day?) had a column from the president of one of the groups building the Hyperloop (supposedly) who is not named Lyle Lanley. It's going to be great, kids! They're breaking ground on the test track soon!

Now, when we last left off, the whole of the Hyperloop was going to cost $7.5 billion from San Francisco to Los Angeles—a cost of $18 million per mile. That includes everything, apparently, stations, vehicles, maintenance facilities, land acquisition, the whole lot. So the expected cost of the test facility (free land, rural, pancake flat, no stations, etc) would be a lot less than that right?

Wrong. The five mile text track will cost $150 million, or $30 million per mile. It is slated to be built in Quay Valley, a fanciful solar-powered city in the middle of the Central Valley (with stifling summer heat and pollution, to say nothing of the scenery), so the land acquisition costs are, in all likelihood, zero. It's pancake flat there with nothing to go over or under, so there's another zero item on the budget. And still, a test track is going to cost more per mile than the overall project is slated to cost.

As it happens, it will also cost significantly more than parallel stretches of the actually-feasible California High Speed Rail track costs. The 65-mile phase 2-3, which happens to run in the neighborhood of the yet-unbuilt Quay Valley, came in well below the expected budget: $1.2 billion. That's $18 million per mile, barely half what the cost of the Hyperloop's test track will cost on a per-mile. That includes three dozen grade separations, by the way, and it's a firm number; as a design-build contract the bidder will be responsible for (most) cost overruns. And when complete, it will actually be able to carry people somewhere useful (by 2018 it will speed existing Amtrak trips along the same corridor where empty Hyperloop pods may be going around in costly circles)

I'm reminded of an early Seinfeld episode in which Kramer wants to rebuild his apartment with levels. Kramer proposes his plan—on Youtube here—and Jerry's reaction is that it will not happen ("I know that you can't, and I'm positive that you won't!"). Kramer proposes a bet, to which Jerry agrees. The script takes it from there:
MORTY: … So, how are your levels coming along?
KRAMER: Oh, well … I decided I'm not gonna do it.
JERRY: (Sarcastically) Really? What a shock.

JERRY: So, when do I get my dinner?
KRAMER: There's no dinner. The bet's off. I'm not gonna do it.
JERRY: Yes. I know you're not gonna do it. That's why I bet.
KRAMER: There's not bet if I'm not doing it.
JERRY: That's the bet! That you're not doing it!
KRAMER: Yeah, well, I could do it. I don't want to do it.
JERRY: We didn't bet on if you wanted to. We bet on if it would be done.
KRAMER: And it could be done.
JERRY: Well, of course it could be done! Anything could be done! But it only is done if it's done. Show me the levels! The bet is the levels.
KRAMER: But I don't want the levels!
JERRY: That's the bet!
That's about how I feel about the Hyperloop. Could it be done? Of course it could be done! Anything could be done! But it's only done if it's done.

And an over-budget test track is not going to inspire a lot of confidence.


  1. Actually, I don't think the hype-loop can even be done. At least, not to a point where you'd trust lives to it.

  2. Ari, sorry about the late response here.

    Don't test tracks normally cost more? You're doing everything for the first time after all.

    1. Oh, if the rest of the track was being built on free land in a flat desert, then I would expect that, yes, the test track would cost more. But the rest of the track is necessarily going to have to be build on not-free land, with changes in elevation and curvature necessitating a very specific right-of-way. And in any urban environment, forget about it. Also, the proposed speeds for the non-test track are a lot higher than the test track, so there are probably more safety considerations.

      If there was flat, open desert all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles and there was a free right of way with plenty of room, then, sure, it would be cheap. Of course, it would probably have high speed rail (proven technology that already works) because that, too, would be cheap. Expect costs to increase by an order of magnitude. For instance, the Lackawanna Cutoff (new tracks, ballast, etc) is $5m/mile on an existing ROW (i.e. flat desert), add $5m/mile for overhead, and that's $10 million per mile; $4 billion from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That is probably the base cost of a mile of track on a flat, straight piece of land (the $18m/mile figure includes a grade crossing every two miles; and those aren't free). Of course, there are grade separations, tunnels, stations, land acquisition, seismic issues, etc that cost more.