I Almost Worked for Hyperloop One

I’d been making cryptic remarks about a possible job offer for a month, and a week ago I tweeted when I heard the final no. I didn’t want to say where I was interviewing until after I heard back, either way; now that I have, I’d like to talk more about the process, and what I think it means for transportation criticism in general.


A few weeks after I posted that I’m transitioning to working in transit or transit writing full-time, a recruiter reached out to me. I wouldn’t have applied myself, not out of ideological opposition to working on Hyperloop, but because until that point, I imagined they wouldn’t have wanted me working there anyway. But once the recruiter emailed me, I started the interview process. It went well. The company was familiar with my criticism of the initial concept and of startups’ own attempts to build it (the last link is Hyperloop One, the one before it is a different company). We talked about the technology, about which models I’d use to evaluate it, about various ways the system could be made more convenient.

People who are familiar with the interview process in the tech industry know that it is long and laborious. There are multiple rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved. Programming jobs involve something called whiteboarding, in which the interviewer will ask the interviewee to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard. I’m not a programmer, unless one counts QBASIC as programming, so I didn’t do any whiteboarding, but the same concept of interview meant there were a lot of hard on-the-spot technical questions. (In contrast, when I interviewed at Frontier, there were hard on-the-spot questions about political and social trends.)

Where I got stuck was American immigration policy. In the US, unlike in normal countries like Canada or Singapore or France, the skilled work visa process is based on a hard cap on the number of visas (called H-1B), rather than on a minimum salary requirement or a labor market analysis to make sure there are more jobs than qualified citizens, both of which criteria are easy to meet in tech. The H-1B cap is too tight – it’s oversubscribed by a factor of about 2; earlier this decade there was political consensus in the US elite that it needed to be lifted, but partisan politicking prevented this from happening. By mid-decade, even before Trump, the consensus frayed, thanks in no small part to anti-immigration reform conservatives, especially Reihan Salam (and, within the urbanist sphere, Aaron Renn). Academia and nonprofit research organizations, such as Frontier (or TransitCenter, or RPA), are exempt from the cap. Tech firms aren’t. This imposes a queue for getting a visa; HR at Hyperloop One said it would be a year, I think it would’ve been a year and a half. It took about a month to figure out whether Hyperloop One could work with me as a remote outside contractor, and when they realized they couldn’t, they had to tell me they couldn’t hire me.

My impressions of Hyperloop’s current status

Elon Musk’s original writeup was a scribble. Very little about it was salvageable. Hyperloop One is more serious. I believe that the most quotable criticism I made of the project in 2013 – the “barf ride” line – is being solved. As I said in 2013, I believe it is not too hard to solve the basic problem of curve radii; the problem is that it makes the civil engineering more expensive, by requiring more tunnels and more viaducts.

We didn’t discuss construction costs at the interview. I think of this as a point in the company’s favor, actually; they’d know that my understanding of construction costs is at too high a level, useful for policymakers but not for actual consultants or contractors. A few months ago, before this process started, I read somewhere that the company says Hyperloop would be 2/3 as expensive as conventional high-speed rail per km, up from Musk’s laughable 1/10 estimate. I’m skeptical about 2/3, but I’m willing to say “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “yeah, right.”

The capacity constraints coming from the narrow tube diameter are also a problem that I think the company is capable of solving; the cost of a wider tube is higher, but in far less than linear proportion to the extra capacity provided.

There remain two big classes of hitches, one technical and one economic. The technical hitches involve materials engineering that I don’t understand as well, regarding sway inside the tube, ground subsidence, and construction tolerances. I am channeling other critics here; some of them are experts in the field and I am inclined to trust them. I’ve always taken these issues as a black box for conventional HSR and even 500-600 km/h service (maglev or conventional – the TGV reached 574 km/h in an experiment with a special train with a higher power-to-weight ratio), but at higher speeds, they become more serious.

My default assumption is that it’s still solvable at 1000+ km/h, but requires more delicate engineering, which may drive up construction costs even further. Even in my initial writeup I was implicitly arguing the required delicate engineering was such that it was inappropriate to generalize from the costs of oil pipelines, rather than from those of maglev. But it’s possible that the required materials and safety engineering will lead to much higher construction costs, and it’s possible that more basic research is required before it’s viable.

The economic hitch is, what is Hyperloop for? The technology suffers from tension between two opposing forces. The first force is speed: as a very fast technology, Hyperloop is the most useful for long-distance travel. At the distance of Musk’s original Los Angeles-San Francisco idea, security theater and design compromises about station locations (Sylmar and the East Bay, originally) would eat up the entire travel time advantage over conventional HSR. At longer distance, such as New York-Chicago, Hyperloop would still win on time, just as planes beat HSR on time on corridors in the 1,000 km range today. The second force is that Hyperloop still requires linear infrastructure, so it becomes less cost-effective versus planes as the distance increases.

Hyperloop One is a consulting firm. I was asked at the interview about the technology’s applicability in multiple geographies, and gave my opinions (“this place is a good candidate, that place isn’t”). So the company can’t just up and decide on an initial segment, which should probably be a connection from New York (probably in Jersey City or Hoboken) to either South Florida or Chicago. Complicating things, such an initial segment would require many tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, which is not easy for a startup to do. There’s a real problem with using the tech startup model to develop capital-intensive infrastructure, and it’s possible such vactrain technology will always fall between the conventional HSR and airplane chairs. I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.

On sycophancy

One of the lines I wrote in my initial post is that tech megalomaniacs believe that “people who question [the entrepreneur] and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him.” I recognize the irony in my almost-working for Hyperloop One.

And yet, I think it offers a valuable lesson about what I variously call sycophancy, or a courtier mentality. I mentioned this about the tech press in the first post; the national political press is less sycophantic (since it can be loyal to an opposition party or political faction, and can draw on the opposition for criticism of current leadership). But local political actors in areas without real political opposition can act like royal courtiers at times, unreasonably praising the leader and begging for scraps. I’ve criticized the RPA for this, for example here: Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new airport connector with negative transportation value, and while the area’s transit bloggers all said no, the RPA studied the idea seriously.

The connection with Hyperloop is that I hit the concept pretty hard, and still would’ve been hired but for the US’s broken immigration policy. I don’t know if it’s generalizable to tech. I know it is true in math academia, where if I make a serious criticism of someone’s research program, it’s quite likely we will then write a paper together. For example, my advisor formulated a conjecture he called Dynamical Manin-Mumford; two professors, Rochester’s Tom Tucker and UBC’s Dragos Ghioca, later my own postdoc advisor, found a counterexample, and wrote it up together with my advisor. Nowadays the different researchers in the field are trying to prove different weaker versions of the conjecture that might still be true.

This collaborative aspect is certainly true of transit blogging. I spend a lot of time talking about transit with my biggest critic, who argues my argument about construction costs is spurious and the US is only expensive due to inexperience; I also talk a lot to people who are more nitpickers than critics, like Threestationsquare. I’ve seen the same sentiment at a thinktank whose founder I criticized years ago, and my understanding is that the RPA too is familiar with my writings. But I don’t know if it’s true of government hiring as much – if the MTA, let alone anyone working for Cuomo, is interested in hiring a critic; but then again, MTA hiring has severe problems.

Still, I’d draw a lesson and tell people who write about transportation to be less afraid of being critical. It’s a natural fear; I have it too, when I have criticism for a blogger or Twitter user who I know or consider part of my in-group. But the only result of suppressing criticism is that people who have bad ideas keep promulgating them and either never realize they’re wrong (if they’re honest) or keep acquiring suckers (if they’re dishonest). People who are interested in better transportation recognize this and seek out the critic. Megalomaniacs who are interested in selling themselves suppress and ignore the critic. We know which side Hyperloop One is on; but where is New York’s political system?

The future of my work

I can’t legally work in the US, unless it’s for a cap-exempt institution, which means either a university (that ship sailed five months ago) or a thinktank. Canada is looking unlikely – a consultancy I applied for ended up hiring someone else they felt was more qualified, and Metrolinx isn’t going to hire me. My French is conversational, but not good enough to apply for Keolis’s planning positions here, of which they have plenty, including some I’m otherwise qualified for.

This means I’m going to do transportation writing full-time for the foreseeable future. My plan is to invest in this blog more to make it look nicer (two pieces I’ve recently sent out have decent graphics), and (almost certainly) start a Patreon account in which people who pitch in a few dollars a month can influence what I write about. My intention is to commit to a post every week, not counting personal stuff like this post. I don’t expect this to net me a lot of money, but together with freelancing income, it should be enough to live on in a developed country with universal health care.


  1. Korakys

    I just can’t see how vac-trains could ever be economically viable, even with airport security theatre twice as bad and passengers being fully billed for their climate impacts. Mag-lev is barley managing as it is at the moment, mag-lev in a straight tunnel the whole way seems ludicrous.

    • BruceMcF

      The notion is that with FULL billing for climate impact, there is scope to undercut airlines on cost for the 1,000/1,500 mile route. I don’t think those with the notion have fully integrated how travel demand changes with full billing for climate impacts, though.

      The only way that Hyperloop makes sense even there if it is between two nodes on two distinct well developed HSR networks which is a substantial travel pair in their own right … say NYC to Chicago. They have to be quite large catchments, since most of the trips between points in the intervening territory are likely to be better served by longer conventional HSR, so the focus is trips to the centers themselves and to outlying points.

      By contrast, Maglev would integrate well with widely separated transfer stations along the corridor between the centers, and so collect cross-region trips from inlying parts of the individual regional HSR networks, so it’s hard to see where there’s an economic case for a Hyperloop without a stronger economic case for Maglev.

      • adirondacker12800

        Jet engines will run quite happily on bio diesel. Maybe not the ones in airplanes but they will. Industrial chemists have been fooling around with synthetic fuel for over a century. They’ll tweak something. And then there’s always shoving the hydrogen from the fusion reactor power plants into more or less the same industrial scale processes.

        • Korakys

          There is very little difference between diesel and kerosene (jet fuel). Bio-diesel can eat into food production though, I don’t think it can be a full substitution for air transport. Fusion cannot be miniaturised for aircraft and I don’t think batteries will work either.

          • Ian Mitchell

            I think he meant hydrogen produced from fusion generators, via Fischer–Tropsch process into drop-in petrochemical replacement fuels. I’m assuming the carbon source would be CO2 from the air.
            (This is an expensive process)

            Butanol (which is distinct from biodiesel) is a better bet when it comes to biofuels. The semi-arid-tolerant non-food Jatropha tree may be a potential source.

            I personally think it’s much more likely that people continue to fly on petrochemical-powered planes and pay the carbon costs, as if they were applied equally to all sectors, the ratio between the price of a transcontinental flight in proportion to a steak dinner would likely be where it is today.
            The cost of living in cold/extreme climates will likely increase far more than travel cost does.

            But that’s assuming that we care about GHG emissions, not just social engineering.
            Carbon policy so far is primarily the latter.

            As far as whether all of this will make maglev/hyperloop pencil out- I just don’t think so.
            I think we’ll get airport and route consolidation and regional travel improvements to reduce short-haul flights.

            The emissions per passenger of a sardine-can 787 or A380 are comparable per-mile of a prius on the highway.

          • Michael James

            Reply to: Ian Mitchell 2017/06/11 – 09:57

            I personally think it’s much more likely that people continue to fly on petrochemical-powered planes and pay the carbon costs, as if they were applied equally to all sectors, the ratio between the price of a transcontinental flight in proportion to a steak dinner would likely be where it is today.
            As far as whether all of this will make maglev/hyperloop pencil out- I just don’t think so.
            I think we’ll get airport and route consolidation and regional travel improvements to reduce short-haul flights.
            The emissions per passenger of a sardine-can 787 or A380 are comparable per-mile of a prius on the highway.

            Agree with all that. Aviation contributes less than about 5% of GHG emissions, which might edge towards 10%. Though you could perhaps also factor in all the car-driving to those airports.
            But the reasons to build HSR are that airports are increasingly congested and increasingly hostile to humans. Certain air corridors are also very congested. Anyone, including Americans previously hostile to anything like “public transit”, who have travelled on a true HSR (I don’t mean just crowded British ICE trains etc. or crippled Amtrak), if given the choice between that mode versus flying, and for distances at least up to 500 km (and growing), would make the choice for HSR. Other than all the unbearable hassle at airports, who really enjoys travelling to LAX or JFK or Dulles etc when the time just to travel there, let alone be processed thru all those unbearable security checks etc, when in the same or less time you’d already be at your destination, and in far greater comfort.
            As I have repeatedly said, it will take just one true HSR service to cause mass conversion of enough US travellers to bring a rail revolution.

          • adirondacker12800

            Airplanes get too cold for diesel, it “gels”. I’m sure there is technical solution to that but it’s easier to just use jet fuel/kerosene. If you are really desperate you can extract CO2 from the environment, hydrogen from electricity and more or less make anything that comes out of a petrochemical plant. Make jet fuel. It might be cheaper to pump the CO2 into sequestration and burn fossil jet fuel. Sequestration with excess renewable electricity capacity that will be laying around during mild weather.

            . . the majority of people in Quebec heat their houses with electricity.
            My ground sourced heat pump, when I install a ground sourced heat pump because the boiler started to leak, doesn’t care if the electricity comes from PV panels in my yard, windmills in Rochester or HydroQuebec. Back of the envelope calculation, at the rates I pay for electricity, is that it would be equivalent to 3 buck a gallon Number 2 heating oil.
            In 1965 it was going to be coming from the fusion plant that went online in 1978. In 2017 it’s not going to be coming from a fusion plant, it will cost too much compared to a bigger PV array and some batteries. The PV can be in my yard, over the parking lot a block away, in Buffalo. The windmills can be off the shore of New Jersey. The batteries can be next to my heat pump, in the parking lot a block away or on-shore where the cable comes up. Closest to me makes the most sense, the grid doesn’t have to be enlarged much, if at all. PV, wind and batteries get cheap enough I don’t bother to drill a well for the heat pump…. cheap enough I don’t even bother with a heat pump. The people in Quebec don’t.

          • Ian Mitchell

            Short-haul flying and congested airspaces and airports are all issues in Europe and Japan; customer service and security aren’t significantly different in Europe (I can’t speak to Japan), EWR is much more pleasant to depart or arrive than MAN, FRA and JFK are pretty similar, PHL is much better than LGW.

            Europeans by and large have access to HSR, as do Japanese. Flying hasn’t disappeared. On certain routes (london-paris, madrid-barcelona), air travel has decreased, but by and large more people travel, on every mode, when new options are introduced. The purpose of the bullet train (“New mainline” in japanese) was to add capacity. They did it again with the Chuo- a maglev because the HSR was running low on available capacity.

            Building HSR to reduce airport and corridor congestion isn’t much more reliable than building freeways to reduce traffic congestion. You’re going to find that overall travel increases.

            HSR will be a part of the transportation picture. But like with chinatown buses, I think there will be a stronger effect of increased demand than with substitution of air traffic.

            The best way to reduce congestion (whether it’s planes, trains, or automobiles) is pricing.
            In both airports and on air corridors this means truly competitive allocation of gates and slots.

            That puts upward pressure on number of passengers per aircraft movement- a metric where US airports are preforming poorly.
            The average aircraft movement at ORD, IAH, EWR, or DFW, BOS moves about 90 people. That’s a regional jet.
            Some do worse: Philly is closer to 70.

            The average aircraft movement at LGW moves 150. (That’s a ryanair 737) Heathrow gets in 160.

            Dubai’s number is 185.

            I don’t think we can argue that there’s a lack of capacity on air corridors when we’re flying planes half the size of the ones doing similar duties across the pond, under half the number of people moved per plane moved as Japan.

          • Alon Levy

            I think the security theater in the US is a lot worse than in non-UK Europe. The lines aren’t longer as I recall, but you need to remove more things (they still use metal detectors here and not naked scanners).

      • Alon Levy

        I don’t think what you say about maglev and transfer stations is right. It sounds a lot like the sort of thinking that underlay the Railway Mania – railroad builders thought they’d built straight express lines and have intermediate transfer stations to branches to the cities nearby, and the system ended up flopping because most travel was local. (I’m channeling Andrew Odlyzko’s excellent monograph on the subject.) Even on a vactrain, a New York-Chicago line would do well to have a near-Cleveland stop, and a New York-Miami line would do well to stop at DC (ideally also Philly) and maybe even swerve to hit Charlotte, Atlanta, and Orlando. The Hyperloop One plan is to have spurs, but this has a real capacity cost that I think they’re underestimating.

  2. Stewart Clamen

    You are right about the H1-B queue, as currently constructed. They begin Oct 1 each year, and because they are over-subscribed, your future employer generally needs to file the paperwork for you by the previous Apr 1.

    • Alon Levy

      Yep. The interview process was in March and April. In March I asked them explicitly about the H-1B process and they said it shouldn’t be a problem, but then April 1st came and afterward they realized it was a bigger mess than expected.

  3. Benjamin Turon

    Well I’m sorry you didn’t get the job with Hyperloop One, it would be exciting to be part of a new ground-breaking transport system like the steam engine or jet planes once where, or the Apollo Program, but I still mostly see Hyperloop as either a “pipe dream” or a big scam. I respect Elon Musk because of his past successes and ongoing efforts with SpaceX, but increasingly he seems to be getting loopier ideas. He really should narrow his focus on Telsa/Solar City and SpaceX, perfecting their technology and operations, getting them on to a more stable financially footing.

    Among rail advocates I know there is the sense that these Hyperloop companies in reality exist to raise money to pay big salaries and generous expense accounts to the key inside people and their consultants. Press release with fancy graphics, press interviews, and the occasional PR stunt… uh I mean technology demonstration are required from time to time to keep the money rolling in from investors or government. Northeast Maglev is seen by some as another example, like many of the Beltway consulting firms, political super-pacs, and some veteran charities it’s true purpose of existence is to consume public and private money while producing little to nothing of any value beyond supporting the lifestyles of their board members and top managers. Many of the board members are washed up politicians like former NYS Gov. George Pataki.

    They’re like the “QUANGO” in the “Jobs for the Boys” episode of the BBC comedy “Yes, Minster”, the “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations” set up by the government primarily exist for patronage, to provide income for retired civil servants, political hacks, and others thru part-time government appointments that often require little or no work.

    Jobs for the Boys

    There also is the cynical notion I have often heard voiced that state DOT passenger rail studies primarily exist to employee consultants who donate generously to the campaigns of politicians, there is little or no actual intention of doing anything, which is also why these studies have seemed to have been unimaginative and/or poorly done, because it doesn’t matter in the end. It’s like Maynard Keynes’ quip of the government paying people to endlessly dig and then fill holes to create employment in a depress economy. Studies are commissioned by government for the benefit of consultants, and not vice versa. Thus, you have HSR study after HSR study, and never any HSR!

    Of course, the same was true in the 19th century when railroads were actually built by the private sector, often with generous public support. For every legitimate project, there were countless pipe dreams and con jobs. There may be top people at some of these companies who are seriously working make Hyperloop a viable transport system, and really believe in it, however right now I’m inclined to view them along the lines of the traveling salesman seeing boy’s bands to River City… or monorails to Springfield.

    Monorail Song

    Of course, the above could be applied to Gov. Cuomo’s air train to LaGuardia! “I still think we should fix the signaling on the subway… Sorry Ma… the Governor has spoken!”

  4. Benjamin Turon

    I don’t see what Hyperloop’s big advantages are over a super straight Maglev that doesn’t stop for intermediate stations, in fact that seems to be a big flaw with Hyperloop, from what I have read there can be no intermediate stations, at least not with a great amount of complexity. The “Vac-Train” part is the problem, without air your building a spaceship on Earth’s surface, or uh subsurface. Eliminating the near vacuum would solve a lot of problems, but then what you have is maglev in a tube.

    NYC-Chicago or Bay Area-Seattle would be ideal markets for either Hyperloop or Maglev because there the higher speed makes a big travel time difference over conventional HSR which seem to be largely limited to a commercial top speed of 200-mph, while the Transrapid and SCMaglev have a top commercial speed of 300-mph. The average speed of the Chuo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka is planned to be about 175-mph, so for a greater distance perhaps an average of 200-mph is achievable, especially if you build it entirely underground with virtually no curvature or gradients. For Hyperloop given the grave danger of depressurization building it entirely underground would seem to lower the risk such an accident.

    NYC and Chicago are 790 miles apart by interstate thru Pennsylvania, so a average of 200-mph gets you a travel time of about 3 hrs 58 mins. There is in the press talk of connecting the tech industries in the Bay Area and Seattle with HSR, but given the distance this would seem a better place for maglev or Hyperloop. Its 803 miles from Oakland Intentional to SeaTac International so a 200-mph average speed works out to a travel time of about 4 hrs 01 mins. Of course, Hyperloop promises much higher speeds than existing maglev, but once you take in account topography how much higher would its average speed be compare to maglev? I would like to see a side by side comparison with the Chuo Shinkansen. What would be the average speed of Hyperloop on the alignment to the Chuo Shinkansen? And if it had to straighter with less gradients… how much more would that increase construction cost?

    Back to the question of intermediate stations, for a NYC-Chicago it seems you would want to create a “corridor” with intermediate stations (like the Tokaido Shinkansen) or junctions that serve spurs (like the West Coast Main Line) to serve intermediate cities including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and perhaps Detroit, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Same Bay-Area to Seattle, you would want to serve at least Portland, Oregon! While more complex than conventional HSR’s interlockings, both the Transrapid and SCMaglev can serve intermediate stations and have junctions, as far as I have read with Hyperloop you only have end point terminal stations, to serve multiple destinations you would need multiple tubes.

    For me conventional HSR seems “good enough” for most city pairs up to 500 miles distance, and beyond that maglev makes more commercial sense. The only way such ground transportation systems as maglev or Hyperloop are going to get built is with huge government support, just like HSR, or the Interstate Highway System. Maglev today is a technological proven and commercially available high-speed long-distance ground transportation system, so why consider or invest in Hyperloop which is unproven, untested, and still in the R&D concept stage? Maglev is good enough.

    • BruceMcF

      There is no plural to Hyperloop’s advantage over “no stop Maglev” … assuming it works, it’s lower air resistance, implying lower energy required to move a given mass at a given high speed. That’s it. That’s the (hypothetical) advantage. Vehicle layout, access/egress, through running, network integration … all the other ticks go in the Maglev column.

      • BruceMcF

        (And noting that Maglev in turn is not a lead pipe cinch, and it also looks the most appealing if there are already well developed regional HSR networks to connect together.)

      • adirondacker12800

        What’s the difference between New York to Detroit at an average speed of 175 with conventional-ish HSR versus 250 for very very expensive maglev. . . it looked good in 1963 when it was going to be in production by 1970 and really cheap to build. It wasn’t and it’s not cheap. …. I come up with a little bit over an difference hour if it goes through Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

    • michael.r.james

      Benjamin Turon 2017/05/30 – 21:04

      There also is the cynical notion I have often heard voiced that state DOT passenger rail studies primarily exist to employee consultants who donate generously to the campaigns of politicians, there is little or no actual intention of doing anything, which is also why these studies have seemed to have been unimaginative and/or poorly done, because it doesn’t matter in the end.

      A slight variation of that theory is that it is an attempt to Americanize a maglev HSR (with every iteration the design gets closer and closer to standard maglev), so as to overcome the usual parochial political nonsense. Because all the imported alternatives (ie. of something that actually works), except perhaps the Japanese version, are either German, French or Chinese. That is, it will generate a patriotic surge of wild enthusiasm for good old Yankee ingenuity to build HSR (about 60 years after the rest of the world). Can’t you see that line working a treat on Trump?

      Incidentally Tesla itself might fit your and my descriptions. While it does actually make cars, it doesn’t sell many and of course doesn’t make any money. There remains a good chance that Tesla’s best bet is to be eaten in one mouthful by one of the majors (hint, Toyota has owned a fair chunk of Tesla stock for years, and the S is made in Toyota’s old factory in Fresno). But even that route seems to me less and less likely as time goes by, because most of the majors have their own e-car programs and it is easier for them to err… plug it into various mods of their range, and they already have big research programs, ie. they can both more afford it and ride out the roller-coaster of teething new tech. Tesla’s survival is pretty precarious.
      Also the hype is a bit overdone. Last night on PBS Newshour they had a story on Norway which has the world’s highest per capita e-car penetration (and aims to be 100% electric by 2025), mostly because it is heavily promoted by the government. Of the 100,000 e-vehicles there are a few Teslas but most are other vehicles by other manufacturers. Europe is a much more receptive market for e-vehicles than the US. One of the hot new e-cars in Norway is the Ampera a Opel – LG collaboration (OK, some will claim Opel is just GM but not really; there were reasons why Opel attempted to buy itself out of GM back in 2008; German engineering excellence under the yoke of stodgy Detroit managers is no fun). The cold reality is that the Tesla is nothing revolutionary and it still needs some breakthrough to make it anything other than niche.

        • michael.r.james

          Is the Volt the same as the “Amerpa-e” ? Was LG a partner in the development of the Volt? (I suppose a lithium battery maker had to be but I had never heard of LG in this context with the volt …) It’s just that seeing the Norway plan, it is difficult to understand why they would embrace or allow a hybrid (most hybrids don’t have much better fuel efficiency than similar ICE vehicles; of course I am sure there is a legacy of Priuses or whatever in Norway but that is not the future. On that point I agree with Tesla.). At any rate isn’t its failure in the US proving the point, that Europe is more receptive to e-cars? The PBS news piece claimed so many Norweigians have signed up to buy it that there is now a waiting list of 15 months.

        • michael.r.james

          Alon Levy 2017/05/31 – 11:19

          Yes, and a year ago, it had the same plans, but nothing came of them.

          They have the highest per capita e-vehicles in the world. Alon, you need to take your north-american cap off and put your Scandi-hat back on. Sometimes these absurdly high ideals (universal health care; free education, make half its city commuting by bicycle; maybe even Universal Basic Income) of the Nordics come true. Of course it takes persistence as we all know v1.0 often is imperfect …

          Now, one can make all kinds of arguments about how these teensy little countries with high (oil-derived!) wealth are no model for a serious country the size of the US (or even Australia: the populated part of Norway could fit into the Sydney basin–people & geographical–and it looks like their entire road network is less than a single highway that links any two of our major cities … etc).
          But … nothing?


          To answer my own question in response to dacfrazer: (obviously it is “Ampera”, as in my original post, not Amerpa, and in fact strictly speaking it is “Ampera-e”, the second-gen all-electric version):

          This is Opel’s, and in a couple of years’ time, Vauxhall’s, new electric family car. In mainland Europe, beginning with electric-friendly Norway and followed next by Belgium, Holland and Germany, it replaces the original Ampera, of which so much was expected but which sold in small numbers.

          That 2011 Ampera was a range-extender with a separate petrol engine to power a generator, making the Ampera a viable daily driver with no ‘range anxiety’. This new one is fully electric, but Opel’s engineers claim a class-leading range of 323 miles [520 km] on the existing official tests and 236 miles on the more realistic WLTP (Worldwide harmonised Light-duty vehicles Test Procedure) tests.

          Also, according to this article (and no contradictory info in Volt’s Wiki entry) the Volt remains in production:

          The Ampera-e is built by GM in Orion, Michigan in the US, alongside its very similar Chevrolet Bolt sibling. They share a unique, electric-specific platform and running gear. A facelifted version of the original Chevrolet Volt, the car that morphed into Europe’s first Ampera, continues in US production.

          This review is glowing (yeah, yeah) and says it is very Tesla-like with “a raft of connectivity including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto (one or other supplies the sat-nav) and GM’s OnStar services system. An induction-charging system for the vital smartphone is standard, and the usual suite of safety and parking-assist systems is also present. This is a well-equipped car.” Which is to reinforce my point about Tesla’s competition being tougher than commonly written about (in the US). Tesla may have a niche for the HNW individuals but can a car manufacturer survive on that alone?

          • adirondacker12800

            GM sold Opel/Vauxhall, pending regulatory approval, in March. Groupe PSA a.k.a. Peugeot or Citroen isn’t as interested in selling North American cars as GM was.

          • michael.r.james

            adirondacker12800 2017/06/01 – 00:55

            GM sold Opel/Vauxhall, pending regulatory approval, in March. Groupe PSA a.k.a. Peugeot or Citroen isn’t as interested in selling North American cars as GM was.

            You mean “as Opel was”.
            To be sure, but Opel is still selling those Ampera-e. Presumably until the combined PSA-Opel group comes up with something of their own (or maybe takes it off GM’s hands since they can’t seem to make a success of e-cars in their home-market). I can’t imagine that will be too long. In the interim I doubt Opel are going to suddenly drop selling GM cars (in as much as any small GM car is “American”). BMW has its own (and the e-version of the Mini Cooper), and Merc has theirs and their collab on the Smart with Renault who have their own (and I believe the Autolib plug-in electric hire-cars with their parking/charging stations in Paris are Renaults).

            Yes, here it is:


            After a few weeks of talks, GM and the PSA Group, Peugeot-Citroën, have confirmed that the latter will purchase GM’s European business, including Opel/Vauxhall subsidiary and GM Financial’s European operations.
            As part of the €2.2 billion ($2.3 billion) transaction, GM will get warrants to purchase shares of PSA and the two automakers will collaborate on “the further deployment of electrification technologies”.
            This new collaboration on electric vehicles is interesting, but the lack of information about the Chevy Bolt EV/Ampera E is more worrying.
            Opel’s vehicles are based on GM’s models, but they are manufactured in Europe. The Ampera-E is a different problem since it is not only a rebranded version of the Bolt EV, but it is also built directly by GM at its Orion facility in Michigan.
            Under the agreement, PSA purchased the brands and the manufacturing facilities as well as “intellectual property licenses from GM until its vehicles progressively convert to PSA platforms over the coming years.”
            Things are not as clear for the vehicles that are directly built by GM, like the Bolt EV, which PSA would have to buy from GM and sell it as the Ampera E.

          • adirondacker12800

            Opel is a GM brand just like Buick or Chevrolet or Vauxhall.

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, nothing. They were considering a ban on non-electric cars, which widely made it through the English press and was the basis for my April Fool’s piece last year. The ban did not happen, nor did it happen anywhere else in Europe.

          • michael.r.james

            adirondacker12800 2017/06/01 – 01:41

            Opel is a GM brand just like Buick or Chevrolet or Vauxhall.

            Hmm. I doubt Opel thinks that. It has a much longer pedigree than GM and is responsible for most GM smaller-car engineering and design (in the same way Ford-Europe does for Ford; Americans don’t know how to design efficient small cars though maybe they are better today). This is why Opel staff and management wanted to go independent of GM at the time of the GFC (when GM required a $50 billion US government nationalisation). (Opel includes the brand Vauxhall.)
            Incidentally at some point after the GFC debacle, Opel set up independent sales in Australia, as part of its attempt to create an independent entity (and more of Opel’s range sell better in the Oz market which is more Euro-like than US-like) . For a year or so there was the curious situation of the identical cars for a few models being marketed by three separate companies/badges: Opel, GM-Holden and GM’s Korean partner (I forget, is it Kia or Hyundai?). Couldn’t last and didn’t. Though now the curious thing is that two of these no longer exist in Australia. And who knows maybe we’ll see Opel-badged cars back here again?

          • Oreg

            Most of the cars sold under the Opel brand have been engineered largely by their own design center in Germany. The Ampera and the later GT are the only U.S.-designed exceptions I know of. The other exceptions are from Asia: Japanese and Korean SUVs, and Korean city cars. Those used to be easy to recognize: low quality and ugly, though this might have improved somewhat in recent years.
            There was also an equally limited transfer in the other direction: Saturn VUE and Astra, Cadillac Catera. A long time ago, Buick sold Opels in the U.S.
            Here’s a good write-up: http://jalopnik.com/gm-has-never-known-what-the-hell-to-do-with-opel-1792346132

          • adirondacker12800

            It doesn’t matter what Opel thinks. When your paycheck is drawn on a General Motors checking account you work for General Motors.

      • Alon Levy

        You know the “Norway is banning non-electric cars by 2025” line is fake news, right? Norway was considering it, but decided against it. Same is true of the Netherlands and Germany. They’ll incentivize electric cars, but not ban oil-powered cars.

        • michael.r.james

          How Norway’s government made electric cars irresistible
          Malcolm Brabant, May 29, 2017

          Norway’s vast wealth comes from decades of gas and oil production, yet its citizens are turning their backs on fossil fuels and embracing electric cars like nowhere else. In fact, the Norwegian government is planning to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2025. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the Scandinavian country’s investment in a greener future.

          This is not the same as banning non-electric cars or trucks (except sale of new ones within Norway). 2025 is not very far away but it could happen. Already they have the highest penetration of e-vehicles in the world.

    • Alon Levy

      The planned average speed of the Chuo Shinkansen is 400-something km/h. If you want an average speed of 175 mph, which is about 280 km/h, there exist conventional HSR lines in China that hit that today.

      I think Bay Area-Seattle, without a connection to LA, is a really bad idea. Yes, the Bay Area has Silicon Valley in it. And Los Angeles has Hollywood, a fuckton of manufacturing, and just about every industry that you can think of, including tech (Hyperloop One’s offices are in Downtown LA, and were I to work there, I’d be about the only person in town with neither a car nor a ride-hailing app). It’s really solipsistic if the tech industry is seriously looking at just SF-Seattle.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Sorry, I looked up this info on Wikipedia and JR Central’s website and confused the Tokyo-Osaka travel time with the Tokyo-Nagoya mileage. Its average speed is 265.7 mph for the 177.5 miles which the trains will cover in 40 minutes. I think my math is now correct.

        That means that NYC-Chicago could be done in about 3 hrs 10 mins (average speed 250-mph) and Oakland-Seattle in about 3 hrs 15 mins. As for extending to LA, now your duplicating the CaHSRA’s trunk line and that would seem to be a big problem, which might not be worth it since LA-Seattle would still be about 4.5 hrs by maglev. A transfer to the future CaHSR system, perhaps at San Jose might be a better idea, like you can do at Tokyo Station today between the Bullet Trains of JR East and JR Central/JR West. Seattle to LA could be done perhaps in about 6 hours, which is about as fast as Boston-Washington today on the Acela and far faster than Amtrak today NYC-Buffalo! Extending to Vancouver makes sense, in fact you could start such a future system with a Seattle-Vancouver line, and then extend to Portland, and then the Bay Area to connect to the CaHSR System. If the California HSR project collapses, then you could go to LA.

        Given the speed and travel times of the SGMaglev I don’t really see the benefits of Hyperloop compare to the SGMaglev, assuming at the end of the day its construction costs roughly equal that of the Chou Shinkansen. Plus, I don’t see the vacuum part solved yet, it would be the biggest vacuum chamber ever built by an enormous factor. And no one has told me how you can serve intermediate stations or have junctions while maintaining the vacuum. I have read and watched a lot of videos on how a vacuum failure could be completely catastrophic, far beyond the worse HSR disaster. Even a power failure could kill, how do you rescue people trapped in a vacuum tube hundreds of miles long???

        An almost identical idea went nowhere last decade (Swiss Metro) and vac train R&D goes back to the 1960s. They are discussed in Sen. Claiborne Pell’s 1966 book “Megalopolis Unbound”, one researcher a Joseph Foa of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is mentioned, he studied the idea for years with illustrations and models that look very much like Hyperloop. What’s different now is the name Elon Musk. Without him… there would be no hype about “Hyperloop”. I view Hyperloop as the newest version of Jean Bertin’s “Aérotrain”, its new, its flashy, the brainchild of a brilliant inventor… but at the end of the day its TGV that succeeded. The Chinese could have built a nationwide maglev system, but like the French and the Germans they opted for conventional HSR. That fact shouldn’t be over looked.

        RPI Alumni Magazine: Before Hyperloop There Was Tube Flight

        I attended a lecture on HSR recently at Siena College and at the end during the Q&A of course one student stood up and stated… “Why should we invest in HSR systems when Hyperloop will make all trains obsolete in a few years? Let’s invest in the future and not the past!” I asked the next question, and pulling out a railroad book from the 1968 showed the students the lovely illustrations of trains flying through tubes, curtesy of the General Electric Company, that occur in the last pages. In my experience Hyperloop (and maglev) are often obstacles to investing in high speed or even conventional rail service. I have heard it over and over again. The attitude is… “Let’s not spend money now on rail because in a few years we will have maglev or now Hyperloop. Money on conventional rail is money wasted”.

        • Benjamin Turon

          Sorry Again, that’s “SCMaglev” as in “superconducting maglev”… I seem to have Trump’s Twitter fingers! I am impressed by both the Transrapid and SCMaglev. I’m curious why for Texas Central they went for the conventional Shinkansen and not for the maglev? Instead they are promoting maglev for the Northeast, and that conflicts with plans to make a big investment in the existing NEC, its sort of a one or the other choice, either you proceed with the FRA’s NEC Future plan or with the Northeast Maglev plan with the existing NEC become a commuter railway like the old Tokaido Line in Japan, after the Tokaido Shinkansen. Outside the NEC intercity passenger rail infrastructure is not highly developed, you don’t have the electrified and double tracked railways of France or Germany, so moving to maglev is not necessarily more costly since you will have to build all new infrastructure anyways, just as in Texas with the Texas Central.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/06/01 – 04:16

            Tunneling below a city costs more than tunneling across the mountains. Remember, the most expensive non-Anglosphere rail tunnel ever built is the RER A. Within Japan, the city-mountain cost gradient is especially high, since Shinkansen technology has an innovation that reduces mountain tunneling costs (better pressurization than TGVs + more aerodynamic noses, allowing one twin-track bore where here high-speed tunnels require two bores)

            Is that really true? I mean what is the marginal cost of an extra km of tunnel in a city, versus in the mountains? In other words the city cost includes all the high-costs of set-up for relatively short tunnels. But I can’t see why the actual tunneling should be much different; well except that in mountains the tunneling is usually much tougher (wearing out bore heads more quickly) and special provision must be made to bring fresh air deep into the tunnel (I mean tens of km without access to the atmosphere), high heating issues (and nowhere for the heat to go) plus all those tens of km to cart the spoil. Unless these issues somehow don’t apply to the Chūō Shinkansen route? Seems unlikely.

            Is RER-A a fair comparison: that was 40 years ago and involved exceptionally large tunnels and gigantic caverns for the stations (which is not strictly part of the tunnelling). How does it compare to today’s London CrossRail tunneling? (problem with that is UK costs are always higher no matter the same tech spec).

            while Japanese urban tunneling costs are especially high because urban land is expensive.

            I understand that the supporting infrastructure for the build phase (such the entry & exit points) will be more expensive but otherwise why should the cost of urban land make the tunneling more expensive? Perhaps you are really talking about the stations rather than the tunneling per se? Of course the high cost of city property everywhere is what drives roads and transit underground; and deep tuneling to go below all the services etc.

            But I agree that making one bigger tunnel is cheaper and faster than making two smaller ones.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s Tokyo, not New York. The Oedo Line was built all at once.

            Crossrail is more expensive than the RER A, most likely. Hard to say how much Crossrail costs because it’s not just the tunnels, but my understanding is that nearly the entire cost of the project is the tunnels, which would be around $1 billion per km (RER A: $750 million). Also bear in mind that the only part of the RER A for which I have construction cost data is the central part, from Nation to Auber; I imagine the La Defense-Auber and portal-Nation parts were also expensive, but maybe less so than the central portion, and the greenfield tunnels on the Marne-la-Vallee branch must have cost way less.

            The Shinkansen has one big tunnel, whereas European (and Korean, and Taiwanese) high-speed lines have two almost as big tunnels. HSR tunnel diameters are enormous, to keep a lot of free air around the train. The ratio of the train’s cross-sectional area to the tunnel’s internal area, called the obstruction ratio or blockage ratio, is around 15% here. Japan has slightly bigger tunnels, but they have two tracks, not one.

            Urban tunneling has to deal with building foundations, archeological remains in the oldest cities (M14 had a construction accident involving the catacombs), and station access points. The Chuo Shinkansen has one station in Tokyo, but that one station is a big terminal cavern, costing in the billions; my understanding is that even the outlying stations are around a billion dollars apiece.

          • michael.r.james

            Right, but you’re mixing shallower Metro lines with deep RER tunnels. And actually there are ten big new (RER-like) stations in central London for CrossRail. I am sure they are a very significant part of the cost which makes cost comparisons between the two contexts tricky. It also crosses water and canals etc which is very tricky and requires all kinds of tricks to tunnel through safely.
            I think we can agree tunneling is expensive everywhere though the technology of boring them has advanced a lot (and making bigger-bore tunnels is more efficient as we discussed in a recent post). In some case in cities if it is not deep enough to avoid all those city-issues then that certainly will add to complexity and cost. But tunneling 60 or 80 km through mountain is also extremely challenging for all the reasons I gave. It certainly was the case for the Gotthard Base Tunnel (which is at this point the world record holder, 57 km with a 4 km vertical airshaft/escape elevator in the mid-point) and it is seriously more trouble.
            Of course Chūō Shinkansen has both, with about one third of tunnel (≈100 km) in 3 big-city approaches and the rest in the mountains.

            Oh, and the Japanese maglev has that peculiar long nose to help it get “airborne”. The Siemens Transrapid maglev is permanently levitated and doesn’t need help. I presume that the Japanese train must be a lot heavier because it has to retain wheels for below 150 kmph, which surely means all the usual heavy bogies etc of normal trains since these can’t be little plastic trainer-wheels (at 150 kmph!).

        • adirondacker12800

          Ohio isn’t the Tokiado, Oregon isn’t Ohio and western Pennsylvania, a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, has more cows than people. Where there are cows.

        • michael.r.james

          Benjamin Turon 2017/05/31 – 19:51

          The Chinese could have built a nationwide maglev system, but like the French and the Germans they opted for conventional HSR. That fact shouldn’t be over looked.

          All kinds of reasons but mostly because building conventional HSR is not much different to conventional rail which China was capable of churning out at thousands of kilometres per year. And of course with a vast conventional rail network, interoperability becomes a significant factor–especially as one approaches inner-cities.

          Having said that, China has not given up on MagLev. They have continued R&D, for example they have claimed they have reduced its cost by one third to one half, and they still have various maglev lines on various future(istic) plans. IMO, as there conventional network becomes saturated (ie. probably already happened on many of the big inter-city routes), they may yet build maglev, possibly to link their critical coastal mega-cities. For example the Shanghai-Beijing HSR line is almost all elevated with its own giant bridges, and I’m guessing it could either be duplicated (side-by-side) or maybe double-decked for a maglev. In all these things China is a rather special case: only India compares w.r.t. population pressures (though India is much smaller geographically). Perhaps the most comparable is Japan with its high population in a small geographical and linear concentration: and they are building maglev! In fact for exactly the same reasons, maglev makes sense for the NEC (and unlike these other countries has no easy means of producing a HSR ROW corridor; as I have said before an elevated maglev over the whole mess might be the way to go). The NEC population is today 56 million; there are 230 million air pax. The distances, the population and the super-crowded airways all fit the bill for proper HSR.

          Incidentally you must not assume the cost of Japan’s Chūō Shinkansen is the likely cost of maglev elsewhere. A huge part of their cost is the extraordinary tunneling they are doing–through mountains, not just below a city or the soft-chalk of the English channel etc. This is why I want Alon to do a proper analysis for the NEC (unless it already exists??) which would need to extract and/or merge the Shanghai maglev costs (special again due to expensive elevation on very deep soft alluvial soils) with the Shanghai-Beijing HSR (being mostly elevated).

          • Eric

            India is smaller than China, but its megacities are equally far away from each other. For example Delhi-Mumbai is 1416km, Beijing-Shanghai is 1214km, Shenzhen-Shanghai is 1451km. (all distances from Google Maps road directions)

          • Alon Levy

            The megacities are literally at the four corners of the country, but in between there’s a fuckton of large, growing cities. Delhi-Mumbai is long, but in between there’s Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Surat.

          • Alon Levy

            Tunneling below a city costs more than tunneling across the mountains. Remember, the most expensive non-Anglosphere rail tunnel ever built is the RER A. Within Japan, the city-mountain cost gradient is especially high, since Shinkansen technology has an innovation that reduces mountain tunneling costs (better pressurization than TGVs + more aerodynamic noses, allowing one twin-track bore where here high-speed tunnels require two bores), while Japanese urban tunneling costs are especially high because urban land is expensive. The Shin-Aomori extension, 50% in tunnel, cost maybe $60 million per km in today’s money; urban subways in Japan start at $250 million and go beyond $500 million. The Chuo Shinkansen has to go under the Japanese Alps, but also under the entire urban areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, and JR Central couldn’t find enough space for a cavern at Tokyo Station, hence the decision to serve Shinagawa instead.

            The NEC is about the worst possible geography for faster-than-conventional rail technology. The most expensive parts of it are legacy rail connections to the biggest cities, especially New York. Maglev civil infrastructure costs from Secaucus to Sunnyside are at best going to be the same as the entire cost of civil infrastructure for conventional HSR from Boston to Washington; at worst, they can be much higher, if they’re closer to how much Amtrak things Gateway should cost.

          • Eric

            Similarly, in between Beijing and Shanghai there are also intermediate cities such as Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Tianjin. The human geography is actually pretty similar, if you ignore the sparsely populated western half of China.

          • Benjamin Turon

            The Japanese are building the maglev Chuo Shinkansen I think mostly out of bureaucratic inertia and national pride opposed to a real economic or transportation need. Officially they cite the need to increase transport capacity and provide an alternative route in case of a natural disaster like an earthquake closing the existing Tōkaidō Shinkansen a justification of duplicating the Tōkaidō.

            But consider the fact that Hokuriku Shinkansen is slowly making its way to Kyoto and Osaka from Tokyo via the Sea of Japan, it will once fully completed in the 2030s provide an alternative route. And why maglev? If they had gone with a conventional Shinkansen it could still be much faster than the existing Tōkaidō, but be more flexible because of the inter running you could do, thru Tokyo-Osaka service could be offered even with only the Tokyo-Nagoya segment completed. With maglev you will need to do a cross-platform transfer.

            I watch NHK World every day, the Japanese take great pride in their technological prowess, it’s a deep symbol of the nation, and that I think is the primary motivation driving construction of the SCMaglev Chuo Shinkansen.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/06/01 – 04:16

            The NEC is about the worst possible geography for faster-than-conventional rail technology. The most expensive parts of it are legacy rail connections to the biggest cities, especially New York.

            You keep saying that kind of thing but how it is it really different to conventional HSR, which must have its own ROW right into the heart of those cities it serves. In some cities like Paris tunneling wasn’t required but in London and probably NYC very expensive tunneling is required–but it is required for conventional HSR so the costs are no different (and if anything, smaller tunnels can accommodate maglev, at least the Transrapid kind). The only way it isn’t is if it shares the line with commuter rail or whatever and that is a poorly designed system bound to not be sustainable. And are you saying that the Shanghai-Beijing HSR could not have been replaced with maglev in the technical sense, with very little modification (ie. of route, support structure, and access; I’m pretty sure its ROW is completely exclusive). Incidentally the Shanghai maglev is elevated and its terminal is next to the Metro station and is elevated: how is this any more expensive? The fact that it doesn’t proceed across the river into central Shanghai would have been the exact same issue for conventional HSR: it would have needed new tunnels since neither would be shared with the Metro.

            Either I am too thick to grasp it or you aren’t fully describing the differences.

          • Alon Levy

            No tunneling is required for HSR in New York. Amtrak is claiming it is because of agency imperialism – it wants to take over the Gateway, né ARC, tunnel. But it’s already running 4 tph peak into New York from Jersey, and if it ran long trains, without dedicated power cars or a cafe car, and no legacy trains entering Manhattan at the peak, it would quadruple Acela capacity. If Amtrak can fill 4 long high-speed tph, it’s profitable enough it can fund additional capacity improvements internally.

            I’m not sure whether London really needs the tunnel for HS2. But regardless, HS2 has two other arguments for conventional rail: station approaches in outlying cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and TGV-style service on classical lines beyond the new line, toward Scotland.

            Beijing-Shanghai couldn’t be maglev, because then the entire rest of the PDL network would have to be maglev as well. Beijing-Shanghai isn’t just about Beijing and Shanghai, but also about trains from Beijing to Hangzhou and such. The only line that’s really separate enough it doesn’t need to be technologically compatible is Beijing-Tianjin, which is short enough maglev is less useful than on the longer-distance network.

          • Eric

            “which must have its own ROW right into the heart of those cities it serves”

            Incorrect. HSR can and does use legacy ROW into city centers and train stations. It has to run at legacy speeds there, but if it’s only for a few miles that’s not a problem. Separate tracks are useful to increase frequency, but that is true of low-speed rail is well.

          • Eric

            “But consider the fact that Hokuriku Shinkansen is slowly making its way to Kyoto and Osaka from Tokyo via the Sea of Japan, it will once fully completed in the 2030s provide an alternative route.”

            The Hokuriku Shinkansen will take about 4 hours between Tokyo and Osaka due to its convoluted route. The Tokaido Shinkansen currently takes under 2.5 hours. So the Hokuriku Shinkansen is not a competitive alternative.

          • Eric

            I will admit that new subways in Tokyo (and other cities?) should perhaps be a higher priority than Chuo Shinkansen though.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/06/02 – 05:54

            No tunneling is required for HSR in New York. Amtrak is claiming it is because of agency imperialism – it wants to take over the Gateway, né ARC, tunnel.

            Nevertheless most cities will chose to create dedicated ROW for HSR whether conventional or maglev. And either of your scenarios complies with my proposition. I would also say that any HSR for the NEC would become much more popular than the current Amtrak service and grab a share of those 320 million air pax. Just like the Paris-Lyon TGV that got so popular they were running trains at 3 minute intervals at peak and went to duplex then to double-length duplex to manage the load (and are now building a new line to Lyon via Clermont-Ferrand) as more and more use TGV for longer journeys (to the Cote d’Azur; to Montpellier and on to Barcelona, Madrid & Seville). Other than trains from Paris-Gare d’Lyon there are also trains from CDG and special thru-trains from London to the snowfields in winter and Avignon in summer etc.
            But more than any of that, you still continue to put MagLev into the exact same context as HSR: trying to cut-and-paste it onto existing Amtrak lines etc. That’s partly why it never gets built.

            I’m not sure whether London really needs the tunnel for HS2. But regardless, HS2 has two other arguments for conventional rail: station approaches in outlying cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and TGV-style service on classical lines beyond the new line, toward Scotland.

            I don’t find any of that very convincing. And if they did it for it HS1 … I can’t imagine HS2 having lower traffic. Remember that HS2 is supplemental to the Western Mainline and will serve only the major cities. When it finally begins operation, it will allow upgrading of the old Western Mainline (impossible to do while it is the sole mainline–a source of many complaints today, slow weekend work etc) so it will eventually be near-HSR too, but will serve many more stations. Given how much the Brits will spend on HS2 I reckon they could have gone maglev; afterall it is all new route (because it couldn’t be squeezed into existing ROWs; of course this is also why it is so humungously expensive and so controversial: a whole bunch of new NIMBYs to disturb, even a Rothschild estate or two… ). One complaint is that for all the expense HS2 will only cut relatively modest times off existing trips (in a way they are correct though this ignores the broader benefit that it allows the existing line to be upgraded; HS2 is being built to increase capacity).

            Beijing-Shanghai couldn’t be maglev, because then the entire rest of the PDL network would have to be maglev as well. Beijing-Shanghai isn’t just about Beijing and Shanghai, but also about trains from Beijing to Hangzhou and such.

            You miss my point. Again. For the Beijing-Shanghai line they went to large expense to elevate it over most of its long route. Once you do that, what is the real additional cost of going maglev (I actually don’t think anyone has a clear answer to that, except perhaps a tiny handful of insiders who aren’t public domain). Similar story to UK’s HS2: having decided to build it as an entirely new route what was the marginal cost of going maglev? In the case of the NEC it is a similar question: 50 years of argument about building (conventional) HSR and still zip; and by now costs (esp. Anglophone world) have reached the stratosphere: would the extra cost for maglev not be a significant benefit. Again, I don’t consider interoperability as big an issue as many trainspotters do. HSR’s main function is to link major centres where you change trains or modes for lesser destinations. With maglev you practically cover NYC to DC in less time than it takes to get in from Dulles (or even maybe National). Neither HS2 nor for that matter HS1/Eurostar, nor NEC are going to do anything other fastest route between the major cities. It is the raison d’etre to build HSR, and maglev does it better than anything else. If tinkering with existing NEC route could support true HSR (>300 kmph) then that would be fine, but they have not managed this in 50 years of planning etc.
            In fact it is exactly this scenario for the Chūō Shinkansen. (I also agree with whoever commented that it is also partly a stimulus measure etc; I have made the same comment on earlier articles on this blog.)

            My suggestion re Beijing-Shanghai was not that they should have built maglev instead of conventional HSR–I understand all the interoperability issues however not really the ones you mention: those will almost certainly involve passengers changing trains. Rather, that in a country and coastal region with stupendous population all trains are historically at capacity and this will be true for HSR especially as more Chinese become more prosperous. I was wondering if maglev could be added to the existing route (which would take care of a lot of the expense right there)–hence the musing about whether the existing structure could technically handle a maglev. (eg. it is built for turns at 350 kmph for standard HSR so maglev can probably do its top speed on same radii, etc).

          • Alon Levy

            Actually, no: the last few km into Gare de Lyon here are shared between TGVs and classical lines (including Transilien). And until the Interconnexion Est opened, the TGV ran on classical lines for 30 km into Paris.

            The through-trains you mention wouldn’t be possible if the TGV weren’t compatible with the classical lines, the way the Shinkansen aren’t. The AVEs aren’t, either, so Spain invested in gauge change trains. Current peak traffic on the LGV Sud-Est as of last decade is 10 tph, of which only 4 stop in Paris intra muros and Lyon (either Part-Dieu or the airport) – the rest are things like Paris-Marseille, Paris-Nimes, Paris-Nice, Lille-Lyon, Lille-Marseille, and London-Avignon. Paris-Lyon by itself isn’t a strong enough city pair for HSR; from the start, the LGV Sud-Est was about the entire southeast, with trains continuing south from Part-Dieu to Marseille on classical lines before the newer LGVs opened.

          • michael.r.james

            Reply to Alon Levy 2017/06/02 – 09:59

            I wonder what you believe you are proving by citing those facts? And you kind of prove my point when you say “until the Interconnexion Est opened, the TGV ran on classical lines for 30 km into Paris”. At some point in the history of these always-successful HSRs more of any line’s capacity or ROW gets handed over to the HSR, if not exclusively. (and in the examples you give, Transilien pax change over to RER). As you have said earlier, HS1 and HS2 do have their own exclusive lines into St Pancras …

            Further, I have never made the case that France should have, or should, adopt maglev. I think France being such a big (in Euro terms) country with significant cities at all corners, and such a big legacy rail network of course it made sense to develop conventional HSR (even as there was no alternative at the time). And the distances were amenable to conventional HSR. Interoperability was a real issue. It is the same set of factors that has resulted in the Transrapid being abandoned by Germany–it is a smaller country with large legacy network and can be perfectly well serviced by standard HSR (of course the hope may have been that Transrapid would not be so expensive–even as we still don’t really know its true cost.)

            So, while interoperability is a common issue, it isn’t always the major issue everywhere. I claim this would be the case for HS2–a completely new line that is only to serve the major centres while the old ICE mainline will be then optimised to service a host of smaller ones too (those who criticize HS2 will eat their words and cease their bleating to use that money to make the current services acceptable …). Best of both worlds.
            The same is true for their maglev despite the financial and other reasons for Japan building it. I reckon it is also true for any future NEC HSR line which will have to be essentially a mostly all-new ROW and therefore, like HS2, very expensive …. etc etc. (as per earlier arguments). Given how much it is going to cost, it might even be true for CAHSR. And it is the scenario I propose as a possibility in the future for some lines in China. I really don’t find arguments about the last few kilometres very convincing; indeed it sounds like nit-picking and carping and searching for negative reasons to shoot down an alternative. (Maybe it is even too econo-metric? It certainly seems too backward looking. We learn from history and precedent but should not be trapped by it either.)

          • Alon Levy

            But HS2 isn’t just serving the major cities. The plan is to use classical lines for onward trips beyond Manchester and Leeds, especially to Scotland. I also don’t think they’re planning on dedicated tracks all the way into Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Birmingham, and if they are, they should cut that in order to reduce costs.

            The last few km look like a frivolity, but aren’t. Urban construction costs are high, which also dooms various plans to have multiple urban terminals with their own branches. People here learned to share tracks between different kinds of trains in the most difficult areas. Let’s leave the “we don’t need no compatibility” mentality to the Americans and their constant failures.

          • adirondacker12800

            Gateway is proposed to be able to handle 25 trains an hour. It’s going to be primarily used by NJTransit.

            Gateway’s platforms are too short for 16 car trains. They would have to use the platforms in the center of the existing Penn Station. Somewhere around 2040 there will be enough traffic for ARC Redux and Son of East Side Access under Madison Avenue. 2040 if ARC had been built – it was scheduled to open this year – it may take until 2045 for traffic to reach capacity again. Since it can take over a decade for the environmental studies etc. and a decade to build…. they have to start now. Which means deciding if they are going to get to Boston via Long Island or a reallllllly long tunnel to Danbury. From Rahway.

            Manhattan real estate is selling for around a billion per block. The pricey parts, east of Long Island City and west of the Palisades it could be elevated instead of in a tunnel, it should be mostly financed by property taxes on Manhattan real estate. A fraction of a percent on hundreds of billions of assessment is a tidy sum. Annually.

          • adirondacker12800

            Let’s leave the “we don’t need no compatibility” mentality to the Americans and their constant failures.

            Bay Area Californians, it has something to do with getting the last few years out of old railroad cars and regulations for re-icing refrigerator cars.

            Since something like 1889, when through train service arrived in Halifax, in theory anyway, a train could leave Halifax and go all the way to Vancouver. It still can. Or San Diego. The railroad didn’t get to Miami until the 1890s. Everything east of the Rockies is going to be nominally 10’6″ wide and go to 48″ platforms. Probably 85′ long too.

          • adirondacker12800

            No doubt with unique specifications. . . once they decide on them.

  5. adirondacker12800

    I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.


    …they will run them – the vacuum pumps – with the cheap electricity from the fusion power plants. 5 seconds on Google finds that a cubic meter of air weighs 1.292 kilograms. 3 more seconds disagrees. I don’t care. Two meter diameter for 100 kilometers is a reallly reallly big amount of air to move. I wonder what plans they have for the waste heat.

    There will be a plethora of PRT lines. monorails no doubt, radiating out from the stations. Big flat roof for the personal helicopters. Back in the 30s it was a big flat roof for the personal autogryos. . . if everybody has an autonomous personal helicopter why do you need a PRT system? And this nonsense about putting them downtown, they should be out at the SSTport. Though if there is an SSTport why would you want to take the slow train. Suck the vacuum down a bit more and they could hurtle the trains between NY and LA in half hour… though the calculation says it’s bit over 42 minutes if the tunnel is deep enough that you are falling for the first 21 minutes and rising for the second 21 minutes. Unless it’s to the rocket port…. there are many rocket proposals. New York to Tokyo in 22 minutes seems to be the main claim for most of them. With holographic entertainment systems in the seatbacks. . .

    • Alon Levy

      Evacuating the air and maintaining near-vacuum is the easiest part of a vactrain. The propulsion (Musk’s supposed invention) is also a solved problem, after decades of research on maglev. The hard parts are dealing with sway at high speed, constructing the system to tight enough tolerances, and securing the system from attacks on the tube.

      My silly idea from a few years ago for security involved periodic blast doors, and oxygen tanks scattered all over the tube, which open automatically on both sides of the blast doors in case the system detects a breach. With the air inrush no longer hitting vacuum all the way to the blast door, it will be slowed down, which allows the door to hold.

      • michael.r.james

        The propulsion (Musk’s supposed invention) is also a solved problem, after decades of research on maglev.

        Wasn’t Musk’s original concept to drive the train by air pressure behind and vacuum in front? (of course not his concept at all). Maglev was a later reality-check, by others not Musk? As to “sway at high speed” surely maglev has already solved that issue, at least to 500 kmph. Perhaps you mean up to 1000 kmph?

        • Andrew

          The original concept, was to accelerate hovercraft in a near-vacuum environment, by using magnetic induction. A low friction environment would reduce the amount of power needed. Power would only have to be supplied periodically, to overcome any losses to each vehicles’ inertia.

          I imagine that the final design of that concept would resemble a coilgun.

          • michael.r.james

            Reply to Andrew:
            Yes, but the first concepts only use mag linear accelerators and mag linear decelerators at the beginning and terminus of the closed tube. This would keep the costs low because standard maglev’s costs come from having all of the track essentially as continuous super-magnetic linear motor.

            Reply to adirondacker:
            First, I am not a fan of Hyperloop.
            But surely many of your objections apply to today’s aircraft? It is fairly remarkable just what damage modern aircraft can sustain and keep safe. OTOH they can violently move around without hitting the solid walls of a tube … and have significant time to recover before hitting the ground …
            I have no idea if the concept has been rigorously tested but it was that a loss of vacuum would create its own braking mechanism: the pods would rapidly decelerate due to running into a cushion of air in front and pod behind cannot collide with those in front for the same reason. (Of course it is possible the deceleration might break the necks of all the occupants!)
            Also it wasn’t exactly a vacuum, rather a moving volume of (low pressure) air moved in the direction of travel around a closed loop (with exit/entrance secondary loops at both ends) kept moving by 1. turbines in the end-loop and 2. movement of the accelerated pods themselves (injected at high speed into the loop). This diagram (link below) was considered the best approximation of Musk’s concept (and more or less confirmed by a tweet from Musk himself, see article; ah yes, science & engineering by Tweet–you see the Trump similarities? Have Elon and Donald ever been seen in the same room together? –answer: yes they have, at that tech-heads conference Trump held after he won the election). I also assume a lot of this design mimics the old internal mailer systems in buildings of yore?

            Forget High-Speed Rail: Elon Musk Wants to Build Something Far More Awesome
            By Will Oremus | Posted Monday, July 15, 2013

            These are some of the reasons why, as I mentioned in earlier posts, that the design had evolved ineluctably towards more standard maglev; ie. maglev & drive all along the entire track?
            Then the main technical aspect of the closed tube is to reduce air resistance to reduce heating and vastly improve efficiency to allow that 900 kmph. Remember that the Shanghai MagLev has reduced its speed from the 430 kmph to 300 kmph, solely to reduce electricity consumption; except at peak times (from 9am to 10.45am and from 3pm to 4.45pm) when it still runs them at top speed. MagLev trains could almost certainly do whatever speed you wanted if it wasn’t for this pesky problem with air.

          • adirondacker12800

            AIrplanes are notoriously delicate when when they decelerate abruptly. So are other vehicles. The occupants are even more delicate. It won’t be pretty. Even if the vehicle doesn’t sustain any damage.

      • adirondacker12800

        You’d have to check with a pneumatic engineer. It’s not going to be pretty when it springs a leak. It will spring a leak. It’s not going to be pretty if some debris works it’s way into the tube. Frost, when the conditions are juuuuusssst right.

        • EJ

          I think you’re confused. That’s not a hyperloop tunnel. It’s a tanker truck. It’s not designed to contain a vacuum.

          • adirondacker12800

            Nor is the really cheap pipe they were originally proposing.

  6. Andre Lot

    I think you would be a great fit for Jerret Walker’s (from http://www.humantransit.org) consultancy, since you make similar core arguments on your analyses but with an emphasis of more robust formulations that the econometrician-in-the-making within myself really likes. Have you considering split your writing between what you already do and some niche analytical or simulation essays that expand your arguments in a more quantitative way?

    • Alon Levy

      I talked to him about this as soon as I knew I wasn’t getting an academic position. He’s based in the US and absolutely can’t sponsor visas. (He also is way more bus-oriented than I am, but I can do bus planning, too.)

      • michael.r.james

        Thank goodness. Walker is way too econo-rationalist and the two of you together might be insufferable 🙂
        His bus obsession is pure inflexible econo-rationalism and ignores that most people, including or especially the billions of people who have no choice but to be dependent on them, hate them. I know some car drivers who say they swore off (all kinds of) public transport because of their absolute hatred of using buses as a kid. I understand what they mean and anyone proposing to make buses the sole means, or major means of public transit for big cities, doesn’t get my vote of confidence.

          • Eric

            If a bus and a train carry the same number of riders at the same speed with the same construction/operating costs, he see them as interchangeable. He consistently argues against certain rail projects, like mixed-traffic streetcars, which cost extra money while not providing extra transportation value. The fact that most people prefer trains to buses has little role in his analysis.

          • car(e)-free LA

            Regardless, I don’t think mixed-traffic streetcars should be built. I would rather have 5 bus lines and one subway line (in general) than have 6 streetcar lines. They’re useless.

          • michael.r.james

            I second Eric’s post. In fact I am not sure if Walker isn’t rather less purist and more commercially pragmatic in his outcomes and analyses and recommendations: it is exactly what politicians want to hear as they simply hate spending money on “real” mass transit projects. Those politicians are often either part of the road lobby or are under intense pressure from them for every bit of public dollar to spent on roads, so they have an innate tendency to favour “cheap” buses as the transit option. 100% of the decision makers have zero intention of ever wanting or needing to use those buses they keep trying to impose on their cities. Also the “cheapness” of a bus solution is entirely false because it makes the real solution of a growing big city even more expensive by virtue of delaying such projects for years sometimes decades. But of course politicians don’t care about that–it’s NIMTOO (Not In My Term Of Office) so the cheapest option for the next 4 years is their only horizon.

            car(e)-free LA 2017/06/01 – 23:29
            But that is a false choice, isn’t it? Do you know of any city with tramways but no subway? (Developed world only please.)
            And is your “rather” a personal thing or as a tax-payer whose money is being spent to maximise benefit? As a user, I want subway (Metro) to do the heavy-lifting with trams and buses to act as feeders or “last few kms”. A (big) city with buses only is abominable as would a big city with only trams. A big city needs all types to form an integrated network.

          • Ian Mitchell

            Doesn’t Melbourne, Australia have lots of trams and no subway?

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, but a) it has regional rail tunnels (as does Zurich, which probably has the largest tram network in Europe), and b) it is building a subway.

            However, smaller cities frequently do have trams but no subway or commuter rail tunnels: Gothenburg, Strasbourg, Geneva, Karlsruhe, the Ruhr cities, Bordeaux, Basel.

        • EJ

          Well, i think you’ve got a significant US bias there. America is a country that lacks most formal class signifiers, so the stigma with the bus, especially when a lot of your friends were growing up, was that they were mixing with poor people. If you go to London, people love the buses.

          • Alon Levy

            In London the bus is far more of a class signifier than in New York, because of the different fare systems.

          • Matthew

            It’s true, the British are significantly more enamoured of buses than Americans. But even more in love with trains. And cars more than both.

            I used to find it rather refreshing that attitudes towards buses here were much more positive. But then I discovered that outside of London, those responsible for transport have no clue whatsoever how to operate an effective and reasonable bus service. Maybe it’s the curse of Thatcher. London escaped that fate and has retained and improved its bus service, from what I can see, albeit with its own set of safety issues.

            But outside London, buses are operated in a hopelessly incompetent way. Can you believe most busy city buses only have 1 door, causing congestion inside the bus? Most rely on cash payment, passengers rooting around for change while the driver waits? The ‘competition’ ensures that planning is fragmented. Fare prices are sky high.

            There is not a stigma for riding the bus but because they are incredibly bad, people ditch them as soon as they can.

          • michael.r.james

            Matthew 2017/06/05 – 19:48

            But then I discovered that outside of London, those responsible for transport have no clue whatsoever how to operate an effective and reasonable bus service. Maybe it’s the curse of Thatcher.

            It is exactly a result of Thatcher. Bus services were privatised (outside of London which escaped this lunacy) under Thatcher. When I returned to the UK, to Oxford, in the mid-90s there were at least three separate bus companies operating (not counting the separate long-distance and London services), and it created chaos in the city and all the problems you describe. It also made Cornmarket (the main street that was nominally pedestrianised except for buses) totally awful: filled with a cacophy of buses and their pollution: their was a pollution monitor that was sometimes simply switched off rather than force the authorities into closing the traffic down when it exceeded agreed limits.
            It drove me back to cycling (though the roads & traffic & drivers are terrible) and walking!

            In London, though some bus services are franchised or contracted, they and the red bus network are all controlled and integrated into the overall transit network by TfL, which itself is under political control (as it should be; at the top sits the elected Mayor of London who happens to be Sadiq Khan currently under tweet-bombardment from Trump). Commuters know who to blame if things don’t work or become onerously expensive (well, one step beyond onerous!). I often complain about London transit (particularly the Underground) but just imagine if it was like those provincial bus services! And I assume (but don’t know) that Oyster card operates seamlessly across all these modes and gives the advantages of daily fare capping and reduced fares no matter the journey?

          • Matthew

            The buses in Oxford do still make life miserable for people on foot or cycle, last time I was there last year. Supposedly the system is better organised than it used to be, though.

            Despite being pricey, TfL does fare payment very well. You can use an oyster card or your ordinary contactless debit card or cell phone with NFC tech. Everyone seems to have those nowadays in Britain, unlike the USA which is still stuck on signatures. The nice thing TfL does for contactless payment is they give you all the benefits of capping and you don’t have to do anything special. It’s integrated across all modes except for a few ferries, I think. It even works on national rail services out to a certain distance.

          • michael.r.james

            Matthew 2017/06/06 – 07:22

            Despite being pricey, TfL does fare payment very well. You can use an oyster card or your ordinary contactless debit card or cell phone with NFC tech. Everyone seems to have those nowadays in Britain, unlike the USA which is still stuck on signatures.

            The Oyster card was an adaptation of the Octopus MTR card in Hong Kong that has had universal acceptance and wildly positive reviews. And … shock-horror… the Octopus card was created by an Australian company called ERG but don’t search for it because it went bust. It was contracted to do the same for Sydney’s mess of a system but struggled, for the main reason that the separate empires (trains, bus, tramways, ferries) wouldn’t work together and they couldn’t let go their nit-picking complicated fare structure.

          • Alon Levy

            The problem isn’t fare payment technology; it’s the fare system, with different fares for buses and trains.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2017/06/07 – 13:29

            The problem isn’t fare payment technology; it’s the fare system, with different fares for buses and trains.

            Agreed (I thought that is what I implied.) But also a very British complicated nit-picking zone structure which was doubtless different for the different modes, and each separate bureaucracy inflexible about changing it. I don’t know what it is about the British mind that is so stuck on such fare structures–it is one of the things I hate about the London Underground compared to the Paris Metro or NY Subway with their simple flat fares. (Well ok, as long as you stay intra-muros.)

            It took a new NSW Premier to force a simplification of the zone system to bring a modicum of sense to the system–though I think by then ERG was already suing the government over the mess. The government changed the contract and ended up paying billions. Melbourne has had a similar ridiculous and expensive hugely-long exercise in their Myki system. (BTW, that new Premier was an American-Australian woman, Kristine Keneally who now writes a regular column for The Guardian.)

          • Michael James

            Speaking of smart Travel cards, a City Lab piece on the rollout of the Philadelphia SEPTA card just dropped into my inbox. Here is one of the comments (sounds familiar to Sydneysiders & Melbournies):

            The best way one could describe the rollout of SEPTA Key is that they are doing this like it’s the first time a transit farecard has ever existed in history. Partnering with a company that’s changed ownership three times in the last decade and that’s not expected to last long after this contract. Making last-minute changes to the plan left and right, ignoring entire ridership groups without so much as advance notice. UI/UX straight from the 1990s, designed by committee with outdated software design. Basically the “slow” rollout is really just a big coverup for how unprepared SEPTA really was to take on a project such as this without being so much as informed by a successful city, whether outside the US or within (Chicago) about how to make a fare system work.

      • Eric

        It seems to me most of the good offers you’re getting are in the US, not Europe or Asia. (And unfortunately you can’t take them because of visa issues.) Is this because those places already have plenty of in-house expertise, while in the US, you as a non-professional are already more capable than many of the professionals?

        • Benjamin Turon

          If you read enough American rail studies… its self-evident that a very knowledgeable but non-professional individual would be in some ways more capable then the professionals in the industry, who have little to no idea of who passenger rail services are run overseas, and how they serve as a model of how rail service could be improved in the United States.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/06/01 – 17:15

            There are jobs here, e.g. at Keolis. They’re all in French.

            I don’t mean to irritate but I really find that a bit hard to believe. Of course my experience in France was as a scientist which is a long-established globalised profession. French labs are filled with foreigners (and the English speakers get stuck with the thankless job of proofing the manuscripts of the French!). Still, I would have thought all the big rail groups like Alstom, Siemens etc are fully globalised. Keolis has 56,000 employees in offices in 15 countries around the world and I would be very surprised if their major reports are not all translated into English, if not written in English v.o. They are writing technical and commercial submissions to all these countries around the world. Your French may not be perfect but it is probably better to have people involved in these operations whose English is mother-tongue rather than the other way around. And your other skills are surely in high demand and limited supply. Though they may not even know that they and their reports/subsmissions could benefit from someone like you …

            You seem to have an actual desire, more than need, to work back in the US. But really I think you are well out of it in this era. I’d say don’t give up on Keolis (or Alstom or RATP etc) and perhaps be open to their need (generally English speakers on top of the other skills) in their other offices around the world.

            Sorry if this was too glib; it is unintended. I don’t think it is so easy even for scientists these days. I know I lived through the golden age for science and research. Today its appeal has lost some gloss due to managerialism (and yes econo-rationallism where everything has to meet some pseudo financial metric of benefit, idiot KPIs some manager and government uses as a weapon of control … ).

          • michael.r.james

            I guess you are aware of this that just dropped into my inbox:

            Elon Musk’s Hyperloop: Can this new test track bring subsonic pod travel closer?
            Former members of the successful Delft Hyperloop Team are behind Europe’s first Hyperloop test facility.
            By Tina Amirtha for Benelux | June 2, 2017

            Delft is practically a suburb of Amsterdam. Though with the new HSR (London & Paris to Amsterdam) you could almost commute from Paris! Also:

            These Hyperloop companies are now looking to Europe to support their ideas. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has an “exploratory agreement” with Brno, in the Czech Republic, to create a Hyperloop line to Bratislava. Hyperloop One recently visited government officials in Lithuania and has also been discussing partnerships with the Dutch government.

            Brno is of course dear to the hearts and minds of people like me. ie. geneticists, because it is the home of the famous monastery still with the garden in which Gregor Mendel did his breeding experiments on pea plants.

  7. michael.r.james

    In the previous post I wrote:

    Delft is practically a suburb of Amsterdam. Though with the new HSR (London & Paris to Amsterdam) you could almost commute from Paris!

    I missed my punchline: shoulda written: “… especially if it was maglev ..”
    Paris-Delft is approx. the same as NYC to WashDC, ≈360 km which means a travel time of about 33 minutes by Transrapid maglev!

    BTW, just checked a map and Delft is more like a suburb of Rotterdam or The Hague. Which makes sense because I once did a work-visit across three labs in The Netherlands and was based in nurses quarters in Erasmus medical school.
    Also, about that article on Hyperloop, here is the spin as to why it might work for the Randstad (7.1m people across 8,287 km² about the size of Ile de France):

    Due to its increasingly dense urban populations, the Netherlands may be one of the most logical places to install the Hyperloop. The Randstad area, a region that includes the Netherlands’ four largest cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, is set to grow by about 700,000 people by 2025, according to Statistics Netherlands. Amsterdam will grow by 110,000 people alone.
    Without experimenting with new transportation modes, BAM Infra director Marinus Schimmel said, the country’s roads and air and train systems will eventually hit capacity. For BAM, the Hyperloop is a good investment because its construction costs and building times are similar to those of trains.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s silly. The Netherlands is probably the worst place in Europe for this, precisely because of how dense its urban population is. Randstad is polycentric, and stations in several key cities are required, which means a lot of urban ROW is needed.

      P.S. I like how Hyperloop went from 10% as expensive as conventional rail in 2013 to “its construction costs and building times are similar to those of trains” today. Even the worst cost overrun boondoggle I know of, the Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, took about a decade for the order-of-magnitude cost overrun to unravel.

  8. Benjamin Turon

    With Hyperloop they talk about reaching a “Kitty Hawk” moment but using rail analogy they haven’t even got to the “Richard Trevithick” moment, and there far from the “Stockton & Darlington” moment. They have yet build a full-scale mock of their system, a demonstration test track and vehicles. They haven’t even gotten to the point of development that Alfred Ely Beach got to with his Beach Pneumatic Transit in 1870, the amusement park/world’s fair (think monorail) stage of development. Sure, they built a maglev sled and Musk had that Hyperloop design competition with a short test track but that’s far from the first maglevs built by the Japanese and Germans in the 1970s, or Jean Bertin’s Aérotrain in France which proceeded those maglev efforts by a few years.

    Perhaps this will change (I highly doubt it), but right now it’s kind of hard for a public official to plan a transportation project based on a technology which has yet to be effectively demonstrated in any meaningful way. If they could build ten or twenty miles of track and shoot capsules thru it several hundreds of miles per hour for about a year without it exploding and killing anyone, then it be easier to say this is the real deal, at least as a technologically viable form of transportation. Economics is another matter.

    Their “Kitty Hawk” moment will be when they build a test track and shoot a manned capsule throw it without incident. After that your likely talking about a decade of further refinement before a commercially viable product is available. Look at the history of tracked hovercraft (Aérotrain) and maglev development for an example. Until then it would be foolish to not invest in existing completely proven forms of high speed ground transport technology be it rail or maglev if there is a compelling need today. My worse fear is everyone waiting for Hyperloop, only after a decade or two to see it never actually arrive at the station.

    • michael.r.james

      Quite. But I don’t think anyone is waiting for Hyperloop let alone making plans. This kind of PR-gloss, especially by politicians is merely in the hope of getting some local employment and maybe a bit of indirect hi-tech gloss by the Elon Musk association. The equivalent of taking a selfie with a star.
      But it’s kind of fun watching it develop. As I’ve said all along, if it generates some enthusiasm for HSR in Americans then it is no bad thing; and if it evolves into more standard maglev, even better.

      As to Alon’s comments about the Netherlands, that is all it was about. OTOH:

      Randstad is polycentric, and stations in several key cities are required, which means a lot of urban ROW is needed.

      Because the distances are relatively modest, it is not that silly to think about a maglev that would link them all into one entity. It’s true that their existing rail network is pretty good (when I worked my few months in Rotterdam I went up to Amsterdam most weekends and it was as efficient, or more efficient, as travelling to the exurbs of most large Anglophone cities). If this system gets too congested (I don’t know if that is true; doesn’t seem likely) and they need to update it, putting a maglev loop on top of it all might make sense. Then ROW will not be an issue.

      • Alon Levy

        The problem is that Hyperloop reduced enthusiasm for HSR among California techies. In 2010, HSR was a futuristic technology the US should adopt. By 2014, it was an old technology invented by uncreative Euros and Japs, inferior to American homemade better-faster-cheaper Hyperloop.

        Last decade, there was an Atlanta-based company trying to peddle its own maglev technology. I even had an encounter with some random blogger who was enough of a fan that they deleted my comment on their blog, which gently said “this is unproven technology, but here’s how conventional HSR can work in that context.” That company had none of the track record of Transrapid or JR but kept trying to hoodwink random boosters on the idea that it’s homemade American technology and therefore better.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Hyperloop doesn’t “generates some enthusiasm for HSR in Americans” because Hyperloop was by Elon Musk’s own account conceived in opposition to High Speed Rail, specifically California’s project. It creates the sense of why invest in rail today when it will be (not could be, it’s usually “will be”) obsolete in a short time (if it not already is…) and if we wait a few years we will be able to use the most modern and exciting transport technology since the Wright Brothers. That’s who people think, yes, all of this is PR-gloss but look who is president! Trump is all empty promises but he still got elected.

        Look, the TGV had to face off against the Aerotrain and maglev has popped up to bedevil other HSR proposals. I have attended public meetings on rail where some earnest college professor stands up and says we should invest in maglev instead of high speed rail… which of course in America usually means improving the existing Amtrak corridor service. Look at Gov. Larry Hogan who went all googly for maglev after taking ride on the SCMaglev in Japan, he now backs Northeast Maglev instead of the pragmatic idea of investing in the existing NEC. In the 1980s investments in New York State’s Amtrak service stopped after making big progress in the 1970s, because in part then Gov. Mario Cuomo thought maglev would be available in a few years, so why make further investments in rail?

        In recent years Hyperloop has replaced maglev as the golden alternative to and reason we should not invest in conventional rail. I have heard it with my own ears, it confuses people and ultimately turns them off. Getting them to support rail after flirtation with maglev or Hyperloop is possible of course, but it just makes the job of a rail advocate that much harder. It’s just one more thing you have to deal with, to smack down, to discredit. Its shiny object, and perhaps some are correct that Musk intended it primarily as a distraction, perhaps also to boost is ego, look how smart and clever I am compared to those stupid politicians and bureaucrats with their old fashion high speed train.

        As for Hyperloop evolving into standard maglev… we already have two fully developed versions of maglev that took more than my life time to develop (about 4 decades), so why do we need another? For most distances rail works just fine, it now goes commercially 200 mph on some lines. If you need to go even faster than there is maglev. I don’t see the need for Hyperloop.

        • michael.r.james

          Do California Techies really think in such politically charged terms? They’re fairly neutral on both tech and politics as far as I can tell. They are mostly “progressives”, with a focus on what works. Perhaps Peter Thiel excepted (but he is not really a techie). And when you say “California(n)” of course you mean the best talent from all over the world. Oops, no intention to be so immodest but that I suppose that includes me even with my so brief stint at UCSF. We recognise and accept whatever is the best technology wherever it comes from, sometimes adding and improving it or adapting it to some other application. Take the Human Genome Project (for which reason I was at UCSF) and DNA sequencing tech. Two people won Nobel prizes for it (from the 70s) for two very different technologies one from Harvard (Walter Gilbert) but only Cambridge’s (UK, Fred Sanger, his second Nobel was for dideoxy-sequencing) became the standard, it being far superior plus being semi-automatable. In fact the first phase of automation came from CalTech that spun it out into the company Applied Biosciences Inc. (ABI was formed by a bunch of techies then working in HP at Palo Alto when the technology was previewed to them as potential investors but HP decided to pass. These guys came to a different judgment and left HP to form the start-up.) About the time the HGP was finishing, an entirely new technology had been devised based on tech created by another Cambridge Brit (Ed Southern; though not precisely the thing for which he too won a Nobel) and commercialised by Illumina (San Diego). The next major iteration was developed by then British company Solexa based on inventions by another two Cambridge biochemists and bought by Illumina about a decade ago. Today Illumina can do the equivalent of sequencing your genome for $4,000. Stupendous when you think when the HGP completed the first human genome sequence it cost about $1 billion (some say $3 bn but that is not quite correct). So, Illumina is nominally an American company (and to be sure most of the wealth accumulates to Americans or at least to whoever owns its NASDAQ-listed shares; Swiss Roche tried to buy Illumina for about $7 billion but failed) but using the world’s technology (mostly British as it happens) and run by talent from all over the world.

          Now I know I don’t have to tell you guys that that is the way all advanced tech develops, and how it comes to market in products and applications. My point about Hyperloop and its evolution into a maglev train was never that they would reinvent the technology but would simply buy it or license it (or do some kind of merger with some kind of spinout from Siemens-ThyssenKrupp etc) or, heck, even more or less steal it the way the Chinese have. American shareholders of Hyperloop One (or Two or X) won’t care and American taxpayers (who will be subsidising it as per usual) probably won’t even know. And who knows, Hyperloop may even add a few (minor) tricks of their own (probably picked up from that Dutch offshoot?).

          As to the worry that these things become another “reason we should not invest in conventional rail”, I’m not convinced. Besides which, your smack-down of maglev is also unconvincing. Just because Hyperloop seems so vastly unrealistic is not a good enough reason to swat away maglev as if it were the same. Do you have any idea the level of incredulity and hostility that the HGP faced in its early days? Why not do a proper, even econo-metric, analysis of a maglev NEC? It is odd to me that you have just dismissed it out of hand. But make it based on best-case scenario not the worst-case which is what you always do on these pages. Assume it can be made “American” in the usual way (buying it or bringing in the foreign engineers like Braun to make those rockets, or Sergei Brin’s parents).

  9. Adam

    If you want to talk construction costs, look no further than page 11 of this presentation on the second phase of the Los Angeles Purple line subway extension.

    AT&T needs two years to pull and splice cables for their utility relocation, and six months of construction before that.

    By contrast moving water or gas mains takes 4-5 months, pulling and splicing power cables takes a year


    If you want to figure out why costs are so high, ATT taking two years to pull cables for ONE STATION BOX (not for the entire 4.16 km extension) seems like a good place to start.

  10. EJ

    In general, don’t assume the way things work in academia carries over to private industry. There are a lot of differences and I’ve seen people who come out of academia make unnecessary problems for themselves because they fail to appreciate this.

    That said I don’t think being critical of a technology or an institution, so long as your criticisms are well-reasoned and polite, significantly reduces your chances of working with that institution later. Steve Hymon comes to mind as somebody who, while he was a reporter for the LA Times, was often critical of Metro, and now he works for them.

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