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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.

History

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.

Hyperloop Freight is a Joke

As the ongoing attempt to build a Hyperloop tube in California is crashing due to entirely foreseen technical problems, the company trying to raise capital for the project, Hyperloop One, is looking at other possibilities in order to save face. A few come from other passenger routes: Stockholm-Helsinki is one option, and another is the Dubai-Abu Dhabi, which looks like it may happen thanks to the regime’s indifference to financial prudence. Those plans aren’t any better or worse than the original idea to build it in California. But as part of their refusal to admit failure, the planners are trying to branch into express freight service. Hyperloop freight is especially egregious, in a way that’s interesting not only as a way of pointing out that tech entrepreneurs don’t always know what they’re doing, but also because of its implications for freight service on conventional high-speed rail.

First, let’s go back to my most quoted line on Hyperloop. In 2013 I called it a barf ride, because the plan would subject passengers to high acceleration forces, about 5 m/s^2 (conventional rail tops at 1.5 m/s^2, and a plane takes off at 3-4 m/s^2). This is actually worse for freight than for passengers, which is why the speed limits on curves are lower for freight trains than for passenger trains: as always, see Martin Lindahl’s thesis for relevant European standards. Freight does not barf, but it does shift, potentially dangerously; air freight is packed tightly in small pellets. Existing freight trains are also almost invariably heavier than passenger trains, and the heavier axle loads make high cant deficiency more difficult, as the added weight pounds the outer rail.

Another potential problem is cant. Normally, canting the tracks provides free sideways acceleration: provided the cant can be maintained, no component of the train or tracks feels the extra force. Cant deficiency, in contrast, is always felt by the tracks and the frame of the train; tilting reduces the force felt in the interior of the train, but not on the frame or in the track. At Hyperloop’s proposed speed and curve radius, getting to 5 m/s^2 force felt in the interior of the train, toward the floor, requires extensive canting. Unfortunately, this means the weight vector would point sideways rather than down, which the lightweight elevated tube structure would transmit to concrete pylons, which have high compressible strength but low tensile strength. This restricts any such system to carrying only very lightweight cargo, of mass comparable to that of passengers. This is less relevant to conventional high-speed rail and even maglev, which use more massive elevated structures, but conversely the problem of high forces on the outer rail ensures cant deficiency must be kept low.

Taken together, this means that high-speed freight can’t be of the same type as regular freight. Hyperloop One, to its credit, understands this. The managers are furiously trying to find freight – any kind of freight – that can economically fit. This has to involve materials with a high ratio of value to mass, for example perishable food, jewelry, and mail. SNCF ran dedicated TGV mail trains for 31 years, but decided to discontinue the service last year, in the context of declining mail volumes.

High-speed freight has a last mile problem. Whereas high-speed passenger service benefits from concentration of intercity destinations near the center of the city or a handful of tourist attractions, high-speed freight service has to reach the entire region to be viable. Freight trains today are designed with trucks for last-mile distribution; starting in the 1910s, industry dispersed away from waterfronts and railyards. The combination of trucks and electrification led to a form of factory building that is land-intensive and usually not found in expensive areas. Retail is more centralized than industry, but urban supermarkets remain local, and suburban ones are either local or auto-oriented hypermarkets. Even urban shopping malls as in Singapore are designed around truck delivery. The result is that high-speed freight must always contend with substantial egress time.

Let us now look at access time. How are goods supposed to get from where they’re made to the train station? With passengers, there are cars and connecting transit at the home end. There’s typically less centralization than at the destination end, but in a small origin city like the secondary French and Japanese cities, travel time is not excessive. In a larger city like Osaka it takes longer to get to the train station, but car ownership is lower because of better public transit, which increases intercity rail’s mode share. On freight, the situation is far worse: industry is quite dispersed and unlikely to be anywhere near the tracks, while the train station is typically in a congested location. Conventional rail can build a dedicated freight terminal in a farther out location (for example, auto trains in Paris do not use Gare de Lyon but Bercy); an enclosed system like Hyperloop can’t.

And if industry is difficult to centralize, think of farmed goods. Agriculture is the least centralized of all economic activities; this is on top of the fact that of all kinds of retail, supermarkets are the most local. Extensive truck operations would be needed, just as they are today. And yet, outside analysts are considering perishables as an example of a good where Hyperloop could compete.

With that in mind, any speed benefits coming from high-speed freight services vanish. There are diminishing returns to speed. Since the cost of extra speed does not diminish, there’s always a point where reducing travel time stops being useful, since the effect on door-to-door travel time is too small to justify the extra expense. The higher the total access plus egress time is, the sooner this point is reached, and in freight, the total access and plus egress time is just too long.

In passenger service, the problem of Hyperloop is that it tries to go just a little bit too far beyond conventional high-speed rail. The technical problems are resolvable, at extra cost, and in a few decades, vactrains (probably based on maglev propulsion rather than Elon Musk’s air bearings) may become viable for long-distance passenger rail.

In freight, the situation is very different. Successful freight rail companies, for example the Class I railroads in North America, China Railways, and Russian Railways, make money off of hauling freight over very long distances at low cost. Quite often this is because the freight in question is so heavy that even without substantial fuel taxes, trucks cannot compete on fuel or on labor costs; this is why Western Europe’s highest freight rail mode share is found in Sweden, with its heavy iron ore trains, and in Switzerland, Finland, Austria, with their long-distance freight across the Alps or toward Russia. Increasing speed is not what the industry wants or needs: past US experiments with fast freight did not succeed financially. The fastest, highest-cost mode of freight today, the airplane, has very low mode share, in contrast with the popularity of planes and high-speed trains in passenger service.

None of this requires deep analysis; in response to Hyperloop One’s interest in freight, an expert in logistics asked “why do we need to move cargo at 500 mph?“. The problem is one of face. The entrepreneurs in charge of Hyperloop One cannot admit that they made a mistake, to themselves, to their investors, or to the public. They are bringing the future to the unwashed masses, or so they think, and this requires them to ignore any problem until after it’s been solved, and certainly not to admit failure. Failure is for ordinary people, not for would-be masters of the universe. The announcement of the grand project is always more bombastic and always reaches more people than the news of its demise. It’s on those of us who support good transit and good rail service to make sure the next half-baked idea gets all the skepticism and criticism it deserves.

Hyperloop Costs

Two years ago, when Elon Musk first proposed Hyperloop as a faster, cheaper, and more entrepreneurial alternative to California High-Speed Rail, I explained in depth what was wrong with the proposal. The curve radii were too tight for passenger comfort, and any attempt to fix them would require more expensive civil infrastructure. In general, the cost estimates in the plan were laughably low. Musk has moved on, but another team has been trying to build the system. It is planning to build a test track in the next three years, a distance of 8 km, for $150 million.

Let us analyze these costs. The per-km cost of this scheme is about $19 million, which if costs don’t run over is reasonable for HSR flat terrain, if anything a bit low. California HSR’s Central Valley segments, in more urbanized areas, are about $24-27 million/km, ex-electrification and systems (which don’t add much). This, in principle, suggests the system could be built for about the same cost as conventional HSR. Of course, it’s already far more expensive than Musk’s original estimate of $6 billion for about 650 km (including tunnels), but it still sounds like a good deal – in theory.

In practice, I’d like to go back to my often-quoted sentence in my post from two years ago, that Hyperloop would be a barf ride. The plan is to run capsules at their full speed, but only when empty. Tests with passengers would be restricted to 160 mph, or about 260 km/h. If the picture in the article describing the test track is accurate, the turn looks like its radius is perhaps 800 meters. Passengers can’t ride through this at very high speed. Even at 260 km/h, it requires full canting, and will make passengers feel noticeable extra gravitational push, about 0.2 g.

The importance of this is that any attempt to build tracks at higher speed will run into problems with both horizontal and vertical curves very quickly. The picture depicts sleek viaducts in empty land; imagine much taller viaducts, to allow the track to curve more gently than the terrain. Once the terrain becomes problematic, as it does on the approaches to the mountain crossings from the Central Valley to both the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, costs go up. This is true for any mode of transportation, up to and including mountain roads with hairpin turns, but the higher the speed, the larger the cost differential. In this situation, 4 km horizontal curve radii and 20 km vertical curve radii (about absolute minimum for conventional HSR) are expensive; 20 km horizontal curves and 230 km vertical curves are far more so. And within the urban areas, the inability of the system to leverage legacy rail tracks forces expensive urban viaducts.

Transportation Renaissance

Ada Palmer posts rarely, but when she does, it’s always worth reading. She alternates between writing about her science fiction and writing about academic history; her most recent post is the latter, covering the historiography of the Renaissance. She notes that the idea of a three-age system, in which great Ancient knowledge was lost in the Middle Ages and rediscovered in the Renaissance, was first promoted in the Renaissance itself, even if the word renaissance was only used starting in the 19th century, and traces why this idea was accepted then and why it’s remained popular since. In short: it provided political legitimacy to the coterie of thugs (“aristocracy”) who launched coups and counter-coups in the Italian states, who could hire historians to portray them as harbingers of a new era of revival of ancient glory.

This is a paragraph-long summary of a 13,000-word post that summarizes an in-progress book, so I’m glossing over a lot of detail and I recommend that people read the post if they want to talk about Renaissance historiography. I bring this up because this is relevant to transportation, and to some extent urbanism in general, in a number of ways.

The three-age schema

Ada notes that medieval Europeans divided the world into two ages: before and after Jesus. The Renaissance began a trend of a three-age system: Antiquity, a medieval dark age, and the Renaissance or modernity. She further traces the intellectual history of this not just in the Italian Renaissance but also in more recent times, going over the use of the language of renaissance in Johan Burkhardt’s work to argue for a new modernity replacing medieval superstition.

Stepping away from professional historians, I do not know to what extent the average educated Westerner thinks in terms of three ages. The answer is clearly “a great deal,” but I do not know to what extent it is universal. I was taught this schema uncritically in primary and middle school, but what I see in the online discourse is less consistent – for example, Paul Krugman’s writings on Malthusianism back a two-age model, before and after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But even with the caveat that economic historians don’t view things this way, the Nike swoosh model of Roman greatness, medieval decline, and modern resurgence still exercises enormous cultural influence.

The relevance of this is that people who propose a change to something often default to the three-age model, transplanted into a specific context. The emergent view of most American and European advocates for rail transport is that rail had a golden age from its invention until the middle of the 20th century, declined subsequently, and is supposed to enter a renaissance now. This is usually connected with urbanism, with a model of the growth of traditional cities, decline through suburban sprawl, and renaissance; variants depend on politics, but Strong Towns, myriads of consultants telling cities how to attract talent, most YIMBYs, and most of the left agree on this picture.

Revival of ancient learning

Renaissance Italy had a MIGA obsession. In an era of the Avignon Papacy and intensifying warfare between different factions and city-states, the appeal of Roman unity and peace is not hard to understand; it’s not as if 14th- and 15th-century Italians had better models. Here’s Ada again:

The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans.  If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome.  Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands.  Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.

“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways!  Let’s do it!”  Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened.  Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable.  Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read.  Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors.  No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.

This provided the template for every Western narrative of decline that I’m familiar with, and a good number of non-Western ones: we were great, we’ve gone into decline, we will reverse the decline by restoring our ancient values. It’s unavoidable in every narrative of American decline; it’s there in the Brexit conception of British nationalism; it’s there in cross-national narratives of the decline of the left since the 1970s. In non-Western countries, it was there in a lot of early colonial rebellions (the Indian Rebellion of 1857 tried to restore the Mughal Empire). Even Japan went through a restorationist phase in the wake of its forced opening, though it famously went in a very different direction once the Meiji restoration happened.

This schema is used at a subnational level extensively. Regions that view themselves as declining, like the American Rust Belt, Northern England, or East Germany, cling fiercely to distinctive local institutions. This includes extensive study of local history and local affairs. It’s unavoidable in, say, Belt Publishing. Sometimes, this history is studied critically; in the broad public, it usually isn’t. The number of times I’ve heard New Yorkers contrast how the First Subway was built in four years (and not, say, 40) with how long subways take today is beyond mortals’ ability to count.

With rail transport specifically, advocacy is usually bundled into railfan interests. This, as per the usual paradigm, dovetails into very deep, usually uncritical, study of the history of the technology back when it was supposedly great. Go on Railroad.net and you will see people talk about the minutiae of historical steam and diesel engines and also brush off every piece of knowledge that was not generated in American mainline railroading. Interest in rail technology as a solution for the future gets bundled into romanticism for steam locomotives and for the particulars of how private railroads chose to operate service in the early 20th century.

The Renaissance Man as the innovator

Finally, Ada’s insight about why the idea of the Renaissance was accepted so quickly matters when looking at modern technology. Here, the three-age model is less relevant. The same emphasis on the innovator bringing the company/city/nation/world into a golden age is produced by other models. The accelerating growth model of the technological singularity produces the same effect even without the need to learn history, and is therefore widely popular among rationalists.

In transportation, the best recent example of this is the idea of the Hyperloop. What it is, underlyingly, is a new technology for running rail service, like maglev but capable of running at higher speed. All aspects of rail service planning with the exception of propulsion remain mostly the same (mostly, because the higher speeds do have special implications, though I don’t think they’re any different from what one can extrapolate from existing high-speed rail). This means that what it takes to build Hyperloop is similar to what it takes to build ordinary rail plus more money. I think Hyperloop One and Virgin understand that, but Elon Musk does not.

The importance of history as legitimacy cannot be discounted here. Court historians were hired to write hagiographies, just as artists were hired to paint and sculpt the likenesses of the biggest thugs (“royalty”). This does not usually apply to modern academic history – historians have political biases but there are layers insulating high-prestige academic historians from donors. But it does apply to a lot of popular writing, especially business journalism. I forget where I’ve read – I think it was in the context of New York real estate – that 2010s journalism is alive and well in trade media, but writing critical investigative pieces about powerful players is not always expected or rewarded in publications that make money as internal trade papers.

The upshot is that analyzing history, whether general or specific, as an abrupt positive change serves to empower people who can claim that they are the new world, and that any and all criticism is just the old way of thinking. It’s a form of epistemic narrowing that blocks off knowledge those people don’t have or can’t easily control.

The Private Sector’s Role in Transit Innovation

The United States has long had private success and public failure – not just the sense of private affluence and public squalor, in which household income is high but the state of public services lags, but also in that the private sector is more productive than the public sector. American politicians generally recognize this and often propose programs to use private-sector methods to revitalize the public sector – including infrastructure.

As a rule, existing proposals are failures, such as anything with Elon Musk’s name on it, or when moderate governors like Charlie Baker put some second-rate managers like Luis Ramirez in charge of public transportation agencies. Nonetheless, a program for leveraging private-sector expertise to improve public transportation could be fruitful if politicians aimed at long-term management rather than at favorable short-term press.

Much of what I’m going to propose is an extension of what I blogged last year about the value of outside advice. But here it’s not about domain knowledge, since the American private sector knows little of how to run public transportation well, but rather about more general management principles.

Done is better than good

I encountered the aphorism that done is better than good in the context of video game development. In gamedev, multi-year delays are routine since projects commonly expand in scope or have to adapt to changing circumstances. In the 1990s, Starcraft notoriously was delayed from 1996 to 1998, at a time when one-year development cycles were normal – and then in the 2000s both Starcraft 2 and Duke Nukem Forever took longer than a decade, the latter spending 14 years in development. In such an environment, a culture has to develop that puts an emphasis on finishing something even if some compromises on features are needed.

I genuinely don’t know to what extent other industries use this maxim when projects are delayed. I was told of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in which everything gets delayed by months or years as everything has many layers of committee review, and when I asked if the organization had heard of the maxim, my source said “lolno.” I know that TransitMatters can take months to edit a document that I can produce in a day as a blog post, and judging by the delays to FRA reform, originally slated for 2015 but only finalized about a year ago, this is also true of public planning.

Making sure things are done on a timely schedule is critical. This isn’t even about delays in construction so much as about planning and engineering. Managers should learn to cut features when in a crunch, to require teams to prioritize, and to avoid the endless layers of design by committee that lengthen the process without improving results.

State regulations, too, should aim at reducing red tape. American government at all levels uses delays as a substitute for rule of law, with federal and state regulations that require layers of mandatory review. The standard approach for achieving any social purpose is to add yet another layer, even if the delays cause more problems than they solve. For example, there are mandatory reviews of disparate impact lengthening the planning process, even though implementing public transportation improvement faster would have a positive impact on racial minorities as they ride at much higher rates than whites (and not just in the US).

Project management

Project management is an expertise that transfers well between different industries. Thus, a successful private-sector manager can transition to overseeing a complex public infrastructure project. The special aspects of the American public sector, such as high union density, are not that unusual from the perspective of a general-purpose American manager, who may well spend time running companies in traditionally unionized industries.

Boston provides a negative as well as a positive example: the Green Line Extension saw ballooning costs due to poor project management, as the MBTA had no person experienced in the supervision of such a large program of construction. But as soon as the MBTA restarted the project with an outside project manager with ample experience, it managed to cut the headline budget from $3 billion to $2.3 billion; moreover, about half the current cost is sunk from the line’s previous iteration, so going forward the cost is barely $1 billion. This is a very high cost for such a short light rail line, but the factor of three difference with the previous estimate suggests that performing the normal oversight and management could save other expensive American infrastructure projects large sums of money.

Hiring and promotion

There are three types of people: people who have never worked in any large hierarchical company, people who work at human resources, and people who loathe human resources from the bottom of their hearts.

Nonetheless, there are HR departments and there are HR departments. The worst horror stories I have heard about hiring come from the American public sector. They are worse than the worst I have seen in the private sector, like when Hyperloop One assured me they had the visa covered when I asked about it in March 2017 when the Trump administration had just revoked the visa category I was to use, and then when the company wanted to hire me in April it discovered the remaining visa category had a deadline that had passed 2 weeks before. In the public sector, there are positions that remain unfilled for years.

A catalog of problems that afflict hiring at transit agencies in New York and Boston, and presumably in the American public sector in general, includes all of the following:

  1. Onerous checks and long turnaround times. The best applicants will find a private-sector job in 1-2 months while the transit agency takes 6-12 months to go through the process. This affects line positions such as driving a bus as well as office work and managerial positions.
  2. General indifference within HR to applicants. A Boston resident was offered a job at the MTA that required residence within New York City; as the potential hire had a partner who worked in Albany, they proposed that they should live in Poughkeepsie and the MTA hire would commute by Metro-North. HR required them to file forms stating their exact address in Poughkeepsie, never mind that they still needed to find an apartment in the area and had no reason to do so without a written job offer. The applicant was unhired and the position remained unfilled for years.
  3. Periodic hiring freezes instituted by politicians and senior managers who wish to look prudent. Critical departments may remain understaffed, contributing to overstaffing elsewhere through inefficiency, which then provides political justification for keeping the hiring freeze.
  4. Uncompetitive salaries. Starting salaries at planning positions are well below what university graduates with comparable skills can fetch in the private sector. They’re balanced by high pension payouts, but first, the overall level of benefits is very competitive with generic white-collar offices but not with tech with its ample stock options, and second, your typical highly-motivated recent graduate wants a salary now and not a pension in 30 years.
  5. An outdated hiring process. For example, there is no dialogue with how tech companies hire employees, that is the whiteboarding system of technical interviews. The MBTA gave up on this entirely and outsourced its tech to a subsidiary that is shielded away from the rest of the org chart and run as a standard tech company.

The promotion process suffers from some of the same problems. It is outdated, based on the rigid hierarchies of postwar office work, with a tinge of the Japanese salaryman system except without the strict demands the company makes of the employee. A smart 30-year-old will take decades to be in a position to make serious decisions, even if the 55-year-old manager is detached from any new idea from the last generation and is in effect providing no value to the agency.

One additional problem with promotion is known as collision. This is when union agreements based on seniority result in a situation in which promoting an employee would reduce their salary, as they would trade many years of experience at a line position with extra pay for seniority for a higher-level position with no prior experience. The agencies are aware of this problem and have attempted to fix it, and I have heard complaints from union sources, namely Tim Lasker of OPEIU Local 453. I stress that this is the case because it’s common among some reformers on the center and right to blame unions for problems with pension cliffs and collisions, and yet the unions themselves understand that there are problems with both; the real blame should go to management, especially politicians, who refuse to back one-time investments into hiring more people or raising salaries where appropriate.

American business culture

My impression of American business culture is that it is extremely practical and anti-theory. German engineering firms like hiring people with advanced degrees in engineering; at the time of the American bailout of GM and Ford, VW was run by a CEO who had a Ph.D. in engineering and had worked in the auto industry or at suppliers ever since graduating. American firms like hiring people with management experience.

This limits the suitability of the American private sector to public transportation in several ways. The most important is that without theory, American business culture is heavily based on the idea that weak firms just die out and strong firms grow. Turnarounds exist, but a huge fraction of turnaround experts are selling snake oil, and with good connections the snake oil peddlers manage to get appointed to turn around transit agencies. Moreover, because American business culture denigrates foreign best practices, its managers are ill-positioned for an industry where little innovation exists in the US and the most important thing for Americans to do is learn to imitate Europe and East Asia.

The benefits of the private sector are then most pronounced in areas where there is genuine industry-independent management expertise. In those areas, American business absolutely shines; a good rule of thumb to remember is that with completely dysfunctional health care, infrastructure, construction, and education, the US still manages to have labor productivity on a par with the richest European countries and better than anything in Asia, so purely by averaging things out, the rest of the economy must be doing well.

Thus, project management is a core strength in which it is both useful and imperative for the American public sector to learn from private-sector success. The issues of hiring, mentoring, promoting, and firing workers are a core strength as well. Transit agencies have to transition to a model in which jobs are not sinecures, and instead of steep pension cliffs, workers get paid well now and can quit or be let go after a number of years without having to start from zero at their next job.

Finally, the culture of delays must give way to a culture of working quickly, which means knowing when cutting corners is feasible and when it isn’t even at the cost of slowing down the process. Spain achieves low infrastructure construction costs in part by setting its regulations as well as internal oversight and procurement to maximize the speed of decisions: key decisions may be made in a single day, environmental reviews take two months rather than years, and contractors are judged in part by how quickly they can construct a project, on the theory that delays create more opportunities for cost overruns.

None of this is flashy. The most applicable parts of high American private-sector productivity are the most boring. This is less about heroic entrepreneurs, who as a rule have no place in the transportation industry, and more about experienced managers, who as a rule are never written about in the business press unless they’re about to be indicted for embezzlement. Just as the latter have built up a high-performance business culture over the generations, so can they build high-performance state capacity if the politicians let them and give them the resources they need. All it takes is political conscientiousness and more macro- than micromanagement.

Meme Weeding: Unions and Construction Costs

Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.

American costs are high even without unions

The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.

However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:

We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.

Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.

Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.

Non-labor problems in American transit

I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.

When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:

  1. Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
  2. Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
  3. Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
  4. Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.

Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.

But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?

In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.

So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.

The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.

Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral

While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.

The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.

The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.

Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.

There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.

What Does “On Demand” Mean, Anyway?

One of the tech industry’s buzzwords for transportation is “on demand” – that is, available to the passenger immediately, without fixed schedules. When I said something about schedules at my Hyperloop One interview, the interviewers gently told me that actually, they intend their system to be on-demand; I forget what I said afterward, but I do remember I didn’t press the point. More commonly, people who insist on using ride-hailing apps rather than public transit talk about how great it is that they don’t have to follow fixed schedules.

But what does this really mean? Calling a cab, or hailing one via a TNC app, does not mean it comes immediately. There’s a wait time of several minutes. How many minutes depends on time of day and which city one is in. A Dallas air travel blog describes wait times of around 10 minutes. In and around Boston, Patreon supporter Alexander Rapp says “2-7 minutes is the typical range” with New York waits slightly longer. In Los Angeles, a dissertation studying racial bias finds that the average predicted wait times are 6-7 minutes for black people and 5-6 minutes for others (PDF-p. 147); both the absolute numbers and the difference are much higher for street-hailed cabs. In 2014, the median wait time in New York was 3 minutes.

On an urban transit line, an average wait of 10 minutes is equivalent to a 20-minute frequency, and an average wait of 5 minutes is equivalent to a 10-minute frequency. At the lower end, the fixed schedule is actually better – a well-run transit system with 20-minute frequencies publicly posts clockface schedules and sticks to them, so people know in advance how to time themselves to the bus or train’s arrival time.

Even the wait times of 2014’s New York, not since achieved in the city or elsewhere, are only equivalent to a subway train that comes every 6 minutes, which is decidedly mediocre. The outer subway branches in New York get a train every 8-10 minutes off-peak, but they are not what TNCs compete with. Bruce Schaller’s report alleging that TNCs are responsible for the decline in subway ridership uses data from mid-2016, when 56% of TNC trips in New York were in Manhattan south of West 110th and East 96th Streets and another 22% were in inner-ring neighborhoods, mostly before the subway branch points. And subway frequency in New York is not good for how busy the system is; during the daytime, longer headways than 5 minutes are rare on the Paris Metro and on the trunks in London and Stockholm. Milan, hardly a transit city, runs its driverless metro line every 4 minutes off-peak.

All of the comparable waits get longer outside the city. Stockholm’s highly-branched metro system runs every 10 minutes on some branches off-peak, and Tube waits go up to 10 minutes on some branches as well. Commuter rail waits start from 10 minutes on the busiest branches, like those of the RER A, and go up from there, sometimes even to a train every half hour off-peak in suburbs of respectable European transit cities. But the branches are not where people ride TNCs. Just as in New York the vast majority of TNC trips are downstream of the branch points, in London as of 2013, 74% of taxi trips were within Inner London; if New York’s subsequent evolution is any indication, TNC traffic is somewhat less dominated by the center, but has only differed from street-hailed cab traffic patterns in degree rather than kind.

This calculation does not mean that transit is better than TNCs on out-of-vehicle times. It is not. Walk times to stations are considerable. Trips that require transfers have extra wait time. In New York, there appear to be about 1.6 unlinked trips per linked trip, but most likely multiple-seat rides have shorter waits on average, because they include local-express transfers, which passengers make preferentially if the waits are short. In London, judging by the origin-destination matrix, 61% of trips do not require any interchange, and another 34% require just one. So even with transfers, frequent subways are still a little bit ahead, but then the walk time to the station makes a big difference in favor of TNCs.

But here’s the thing: tech workers who talk about the greatness of on-demand transportation do not talk about station access time. Evidently, Hyperloop One, which has to use stations, talks about on-demand service. The company did try to think about how to branch in the cities in order to reduce station access time, but reduce does not mean eliminate. Moreover, the same kind of branching is already available to trains and even more so to intercity buses, and yet they rarely make use of it: intercity buses do not make milk runs within cities, leading to awkward situations in which a person in Upper Manhattan traveling to Boston has to take the subway to Midtown and then get on a bus that slogs through Manhattan streets going toward Upper Manhattan on its way to the freeways to Boston.

So what’s going on here? There’s a legitimate advantage to cars over transit in that they don’t require you to travel to a subway station or transfer, but that’s not the argument that opponents of transit who talk about TNCs and app-hailed services and on-demand travel make. They talk about wait times, never mind that well-run urban transit offers shorter wait times than app-hailed TNCs.

My suspicion is that this involves business culture. Urban transit is extremely Fordist: it has interchangeable vehicles and workers, relentlessly regular schedules, and central allocation of resources based on network effects. The tech industry has corners that work like this as well, like Amazon’s monitoring its warehouse workers’ bathroom breaks, but for the most part the industry comes from a post-Fordist world. The idea that there should be people writing down precise schedules for service is alien, as is any coordinated planning; order should be emergent, and if it doesn’t work at the scale of a startup, then it’s not worth pursuing.

There have been positive examples of using better software technology to improve public transportation. The Internet itself has been amazing at improving access to information; the single most important technology for transit reform in lagging regions like North America is Google search, followed by Wikipedia, and even in places with healthy transit these tools are valuable. Within schedule planning, new software tools make it easier to track delays. Tech is a tool, and as such it has been very useful for transit, as for many other industries.

However, all of this occurs within the usual culture of transportation planning. In contrast with this culture, most companies that produce software use a culture of startups, which have to work at a small scale to get anywhere. Where network effects are required, as with social media, it’s necessary to find a small, high-prestige network of early adopters, e.g. Harvard students for Facebook. Anything that requires more initial capital than a VC is willing to risk on a single firm is out; thus Hyperloop One views itself as a consultancy developing a technology rather than as a railroad actually building its own Hyperloop infrastructure.

A corollary of this is that people within the tech industry dismiss schedules out of hand. Thus they insist that transportation be on-demand, even when in practice the wait is longer than on a competing mode of travel that is scheduled. The idea of on-demand travel is reassuring, and because Swiss scheduling precision is alien to the American tech entrepreneur, it’s not a big deal if on-demand means a promised 5-minute wait and an actual 10-minute wait.

But what reassures the tech entrepreneur does not reassure the average rider. By overwhelming numbers, people who have a choice between even mediocre public transportation and TNCs slog through 9-minute bus and train frequencies; people who have access to good public transportation keep taking it where available. In New York, where transit isn’t even that great by the standard of large European cities, there is an ongoing panic about a 2% decline in annual subway ridership, which Schaller wrongly attributes to TNCs rather than to internal decline in subway service quality. Ultimately, the experience of waiting a few minutes for a train is annoying and passengers try to avoid it, but over time they don’t find it any more annoying than the experience of waiting for the app-hailed car driver to show up. Rhetoric about on-demand service aside, passengers do notice how long they’re actually waiting.

Elon Musk’s Ideas About Transportation are Boring

Four years ago, I broke my comment section by declaring that Elon Musk’s Hyperloop proposal had no merit, combining technical criticism with expressions like “barf ride” and “loopy.” Since then, Musk seems to have quietly abandoned Hyperloop, while the companies attempting to build the technology, run by more serious people, are doing away with the promise of reducing construction costs to one tenth those of conventional high-speed rail. Instead, Musk has moved to a new shiny target in his quest to sell cars and compete with public transit: The Boring Company. I criticized some of what he was saying in Urbanize.LA last summer, but I’d like to go into more detail here, in light of a new fawning interview in Wired and an ensuing Twitter flamewar with Jarrett Walker. In short, Musk,

a) has little understanding of the drivers of tunneling costs,
b) promises reducing tunneling costs by a factor of 10, a feat that he himself has no chance to achieve, and
c) is unaware that the cost reduction he promises, relative to American construction costs, has already been achieved in a number of countries.

The Boring Company’s Ideas of How to Cut Costs

There is much less technical information available publicly than there was for Hyperloop. However, The Boring Company has an FAQ including an outline of how it aims to cut construction costs:

First, reduce the tunnel diameter. The current standard for a one-lane tunnel is approximately 28 feet. By placing vehicles on a stabilized electric skate, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet. Reducing the diameter in half reduces tunneling costs by 3-4 times. Second, increase the speed of the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). TBMs are super slow. A snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil TBM.  Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race. Ways to increase TBM speed:

  • Increase TBM power. The machine’s power output can be tripled (while coupled with the appropriate upgrades in cooling systems).
  • Continuously tunnel. When building a tunnel, current soft-soil machines tunnel for 50% of the time and erect tunnel support structures the other 50%. This is inefficient. Existing technology can be modified to support continuous tunneling activity.
  • Automate the TBM. While smaller diameter tunneling machines are automated, larger ones currently require multiple human operators. By automating the larger TBMs, both safety and efficiency are increased.
  • Go electric. Current tunnel operations often include diesel locomotives. These can be replaced by electric vehicles.
  • Tunneling R&D. In the United States, there is virtually no investment in tunneling Research and Development (and in many other forms of construction).  Thus, the construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.

This is not the first time that Musk thinks he can save a lot of money by reducing tunnel diameter; he said the same thing in the Hyperloop paper. Unfortunately for him, there is literature on the subject, which directly contradicts what he says. In my Urbanize piece, I mention a study done for the Very Large Hadron Collider, which compares different tunnel diameters across various soil types, on PDF-p. 5. Two tunnel diameters are compared, 4.9 m (16′) and 3.9 (12′). Depending on soil type and tunnel boring machine (TBM) drive, the larger tunnel, with 1/3 larger diameter, costs 15-32% more.

Subsequent pages in the study break down the costs per item. The TBM itself has a cost that scales with cross-sectional area, but is only a small minority of the overall cost. The study assumes five drives per TBM, with the first drive accounting for 75% of the TBM’s capital cost; in the first drive the larger-diameter tunnel is 32% more expensive, since the TBM accounts for 25-40% of total cost depending on diameter and rock, but in subsequent drives the TBM accounts for about 5% of total cost. Another 6% is muck cars (item 2.05, PDF-pp. 7 and 46), whose cost rises less than linearly in tunnel diameter. The rest is dominated by labor and materials that are insensitive to tunnel width, such as interior lighting and cables.

But the actual cost is even less sensitive to tunnel width. The VLHC study only looks at the cost of tunneling itself. In addition, there must be substantial engineering. This is especially true in the places where transportation tunnels are most likely to arise: mountain crossings (for intercity rail), and urban areas (for urban rail and road tunnels). This is why there’s a trend toward bigger tunnels, as a cost saving mechanism: BART’s San Jose extension is studying different tunnel approaches, one with a large-diameter tunnel and one with twin small-diameter tunnels, and the cost turns out to be similar. In Barcelona, the large-diameter TBM actually saved money and reduced disruption in construction.

The Boring Company’s various bullet points after its point about tunnel diameter are irrelevant, too. For example, labor is a substantial portion of TBM costs, but in the VLHC study it’s about one third of the cost in easier rock and 15% in harder rock. There appears to be a lot of union featherbedding in some American cities, but this is a political rather than technological problem; without such featherbedding, labor costs are not onerous.

Tunneling Costs Aren’t Just Boring

At $10 billion for just 2.2 km of new tunnel, East Side Access is the most expensive urban rail tunnel I am aware of. The second most expensive, Second Avenue Subway’s first phase, costs $1.7 billion per km, not much more than a third as much. Is New York really spending $10 billion on just boring 2.2 km of tunnel? Of course not. The 2 km in Manhattan cost a little more than $400 million, per an MTA status report from 2012 (PDF-p. 7). The few hundred meters in Queens actually cost more, in an unnecessary tunnel under a railyard. The cavern under Grand Central cost much more, as do ancillary structures such as ventilation.

The TBM is probably the most technologically advanced portion of urban tunneling today. Even in New York, in the most expensive project ever built, the TBM itself is only responsible for about $200 million per km; more typical costs, cited in a consultant’s report for Rocky Mountain tunneling, are somewhat less than $100 million per km. This is why large-diameter TBMs are so appealing: they increase the cost of the tunneling itself, but save money everywhere else by allowing stations to be constructed within the bore.

Of course, The Boring Company is not building conventional subways. Subways already exist, and Musk likes reinventing everything from the wheel onward. Instead, the plan is to build tunnels carrying cars. This means several things. First, the capacity would be very low, especially at the proposed speed (Musk wants the cars to travel at 200 km/h – excessive speed is another of his hallmarks).

Second and more importantly, instead of having to deal with expensive subway stations, the infrastructure would have to deal with expensive ramps. Musk wants cars to be lowered into the tunnels with elevators. Underground elevators are cheap (vertical TBMs are easy), but in the proposed application they just move the problem of ramps deeper underground: the elevator (“skate” in Musk’s terminology) would carry the cars down, but then they’d need to accelerate from a standstill to line speed, in new tunnels, separate from the mainline tunnels so as to avoid slowing down through-traffic. Trains solve this problem by making the entire train stop in the tunnel and taking the hit to capacity, and compensating by running a long train with many more people than cars could possibly hold. But roads would need the same infrastructure of urban freeways, underground.

Switching between tunnel trunks poses the same problem. Flying junctions are expensive, especially underground. In New York, they were common on the IND subway, built in the late 1920s and 1930s; the IND was expensive for its time, around $150 million per route-km in today’s money, whereas the Dual Contracts from the 1910s and early 20s (with fewer junctions) were about $80 million per underground route-km. Most subway systems don’t do what the IND did, and instead of complex junctions they build independent lines, switching between them using transfer stations. With cars, this solution is impossible, forcing underground four-level interchanges; even above ground, those interchanges cost well into the 9 figures, each.

There is So Much Musk Doesn’t Know

The starting point of The Boring Company is that Los Angeles’s tunnel construction costs, which the company pegs at a billion dollars per mile, need to be reduced by a factor of ten. This means cutting them from about $600 million per km to $60 million. While there is nothing that Musk or his company has said in public that suggests he is capable of reducing construction costs, other parts of the world have substantially done so already.

In my construction costs posts, there are a few projects in the $60 million/km area. Manuel Melis Maynar, the former CEO of Madrid Metro, wrote a brief report on how he built subways cheaply; in today’s money, the underground parts of Madrid’s 1999-2003 subway expansion cost around $70 million per km, but this includes rolling stock, and without it, actual cost is likely to be where Musk wants it to be. Recent subway lines in Seoul have also been in that area, including Metro Line 9 and the Sin-Bundang Line. Going up to $100 million per km, there are more lines in Stockholm.

Melis Maynar’s writeup ignores any of the technological pizzazz Musk thinks of. Instead of trying to squeeze more power out of TBM, he emphasizes good contracting practices, and separation of design and construction. Like Musk, he believes that faster construction is cheaper, but he is aware that the limiting factor is not boring speed: even at a conservative rate of 15 meters per day, a TBM could excavate several kilometers a year, so it’s better instead to begin construction at several points along the line and work in parallel rather than in sequence. Adding TBMs does not make projects substantially more expensive: one TBM used for East Side Access cost $6-8 million, and other estimates I’ve seen only reach into the 8 figures, for multibillion dollar projects. Nor does adding staging areas raise cost underground, where there are many potential sites; underwater it’s a bigger problem, and there costs are indeed much higher, but nothing that Musk does seems designed around underwater tunnels, and his proposed map for LA road tunnels is underground.

Musk’s Ideas: Loopy and Boring

Americans hate being behind. The form of right-wing populism that succeeded in the United States made that explicit: Make America Great Again. Culturally, this exists outside populism as well, for example in Gordon Gekko’s greed is good speech, which begins, “America has become a second-rate power.” In the late 2000s, Americans interested in transportation had to embarrassingly admit that public transit was better in Europe and East Asia, especially in its sexiest form, the high-speed trains. Musk came in and offered something Americans craved: an American way to do better, without having to learn anything about what the Europeans and Asians do. Musk himself is from South Africa, but Americans have always been more tolerant of long-settled immigrants than of foreigners.

In the era of Trump, this kind of nationalism is often characterized as the domain of the uneducated: Trump did the best among non-college-educated whites, and cut into Democratic margins with low-income whites (regardless of education). But software engineers making $120,000 a year in San Francisco or Boston are no less nationalistic – their nationalism just takes a less vulgar form. Among the tech workers themselves, technical discussions are possible; some close-mindedly respond to every criticism with “they also laughed at SpaceX,” others try to engage (e.g. Hyperloop One). But in the tech press, the response is uniformly sycophantic: Musk is a genius, offering salvation to the monolingual American, steeped in the cultural idea of the outside inventor who doesn’t need to know anything about existing technology and can substitute personal intelligence and bravery.

In reality, The Boring Company offers nothing of this sort. It is in the awkward position of being both wrong and unoriginal: unoriginal because its mission of reducing construction costs from American levels has already been achieved, and wrong because its own ideas of how to do so range from trivial to counterproductive. It has good marketing, buoyed by the tech world’s desire to believe that its internal methods and culture can solve every problem, but it has no product to speak of. What it’s selling is not just wrong, but boringly so, without any potential for salvaging its ideas for something more useful.

Faster-than-Conventional Rail: Where Could It Work?

Note: this post is secretly about Hyperloop and Elon Musk’s most likely fraudulent claim about the Northeast Corridor. But it’s an interesting discussion more in general. Not all such technology is vaporware the way Musk’s efforts are. See more on The Boring Company’s false claims in a piece I published at Urbanize.LA a few days ago.

The upper limit of conventional high-speed rail seems to be 360 km/h. In Japan, experiments at that speed have succeeded, but there already are problems with noise, stopping distance, and catenary wear, and currently trains top at 320; plans to go at 360 depend on a future Shinkansen extension to Sapporo. In China, the maximum speed is 350, with trains capable of reaching 380 but not doing so in practice. In Continental Europe the maximum speed for new lines is 320-330 km/h, whereas in Britain HS2 is designed for about 350 km/h (220 mph).

Faster technologies exist, in service, today. Shanghai’s Transrapid tops at 431 km/h in service, and JR Central’s under-construction maglev line is targeted at 500 km/h, with tests at 600. Vactrains can go even faster, but are still untested technology (and this includes Hyperloop variants). The question is, where is there room for such technology? So far, Siemens’ attempts to sell Transrapid failed beyond the Shanghai airport connector, an orphan 30 km line going from the airport to the edge of the built-up area of the city. JR Central is building the Chuo Shinkansen maglev between Tokyo and Osaka, but so far there are no plans to extend this technology elsewhere – even within Japan, the state is continuing with building Tokyo-Sapporo as conventional Shinkansen rather than maglev.

The Tokyo-Osaka line is somewhat sui generis. JR Central is currently running about 14 trains per hour at the peak on the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, each with 1,323 seats, and they’re generally full. It is also old – as the first HSR line in the world, it has a curve radius of 2.5 km (newer lines start at 4 km and go up), and a top speed of 270 km/h. This is exactly the sort of situation that favors new technology. The Tokaido Main Line was a popular intercity line in the late 1950s, but Japan National Railways couldn’t add more express trains without bumping against the capacity limit imposed by slower trains using the line; this tilted it in favor of building the Shinkansen. The Paris-Lyon main line was similarly busy in the 1970s, encouraging the construction of the LGV Sud-Est as a bypass. Nowhere in the world except Tokyo-Osaka is there a full conventional HSR line, except Paris-Lyon – but see later why it is a poor candidate for faster technology.

Track sharing

The main tradeoff with maglev, or even faster technology, is cost. This comes from two places. First, higher top speed requires much more advanced civil engineering, with wider curves, which means more tunnels and viaducts. Conventional HSR can limit costs by climbing steeper grades than legacy trains (the LGV Sud-Est has no tunnels, the legacy Paris-Lyon line does). Maglev can climb even faster grades, but once the speed crosses into the vactrain range, the vertical curve radius required to achieve a steep grade is so wide that it is no longer possible to vertically hug terrain the way European HSR lines do.

The second place is the urban approaches. In theory, this should be a strength of faster-than-conventional rail technology, which has a lower minimum curve radius than HSR at equal speed. But in practice, conventional HSR can leverage existing railroad lines on the urban approaches. At lower speed the stopping distances are shorter, so capacity is higher; the upper limit at speed maybe 12-15 trains per hour, but on a low-speed approach it’s closer to 24-30, so it’s possible to share tracks with legacy commuter and intercity trains.

In Japan, Spain, and Taiwan the HSR track gauge is different from the legacy gauge, so track-sharing is not possible in the major cities, driving up the cost of urban approaches. In smaller cities, Japan and Spain have gauge-change technology, which takes too much time to be of use in capacity-constrained big cities but can allow track sharing on branches. But unconventional technology cannot share tracks anywhere, requiring tunnels on urban approaches. The cost of 20 km of urban tunnel can easily match that of 200 km of at-grade greenfield HSR outside urban areas. The Chuo Shinkansen’s cost, around $200 million per km, comes from the fact that 70-80% of the line is underground, in urban areas and under mountains.

This implies that unconventional technology is most useful when there is limited benefit to be gained from track sharing. This includes the following situations:

  1. The cities served do not have usable legacy rail approaches, or else have a surplus of space within which to build a new approach.
  2. There is no need to branch and use legacy track at lower speed.
  3. There is no preexisting high-quality track that HSR can use, either at high speed outside cities or at medium speed on approaches.

In North America, FRA regulations traditionally led to situation #1. But FRA regulations seem to be changing, which makes track-sharing on approaches more feasible; practically every city has approaches with a surplus of passenger rail capacity (yes, even New York – Amtrak runs 4 trains per hour into Penn Station from the west at the peak, it just uses these slots poorly). In Europe, cities with poor approaches are more likely to be served on a branch, since the rest of the network is so strong. Situation #2 never applies here – branching is always useful, letting the LGV Sud-Est carry not just Paris-Lyon trains but also Paris-Marseille, Lille-Lyon, London-Lyon, Paris-Geneva, etc.

Some of the stronger intercity travel markets are in situation #3, but most aren’t. In North America, the Northeast Corridor has long stretches of high-quality track, either already capable of high speed or capable with a small number of curve modifications. That characteristic alone makes it exceptionally bad for unconventional rail technology: such technology would need a new alignment through hundreds of kilometers of suburbia in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Toronto is also a poor candidate for unconventional technology, since it has a long stretch of suburbia in both directions with high-quality four-track commuter rail, straight enough for 200 km/h or even more. Significant suburban tracks are also useful in California (Caltrain, parts of Metrolink) and Chicago. Only the Pacific Northwest, Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, has a real shortage of usable legacy track even on the approaches. So is it a good candidate for unconventional technology? No, for reasons of distance.

The optimal distance

Faster-than-conventional rail is silly at short distance. The difference in travel time is smaller and does not justify the expense. Access and egress times are fixed, and may even go up if the station locations are less central (the Chuo Shinkansen won’t serve Tokyo Station but rather Shinagawa, a few km south of the CBD). So focusing on in-vehicle time is less useful. The Chuo Shinkansen is really at the lowest end of what is acceptable. It works because, again, the Tokaido Shinkansen is at capacity. Tokaido is also relatively circuitous in order to avoid mountains – the distance from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka is 515 km on the Tokaido Shinkansen, 438 on the Chuo Shinkansen, and 405 on a straight line. On the Northeast Corridor, the New York-Washington distance is 362 km on the railroad and 330 on a straight line, a much smaller difference.

Conversely, faster-than-conventional rail is questionable at very long distance. At maglev speed, a New York-Los Angeles train would take perhaps 12 hours, not really competitive with planes for people who don’t mind flying. At vactrain speed, the train would be competitive. However, in either case, trains require linear infrastructure, and repackaging them as a new Hyperloop doesn’t change this basic fact. Ignoring the effects of terrain, a 4,000 km vactrain or maglev line costs ten times as much as a 400 km line. This is not the case for air travel, which requires no fixed infrastructure between the airports.

There should be a good zone in the middle, say the 1,000-1,500 km range. This includes city pairs like Beijing-Shanghai, New York-Chicago, Tokyo-Sapporo, Tokyo-Fukuoka, Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, and some international European pairs like Paris-Madrid. Going up to 2,000 there are also New York-Miami, Chicago-Dallas-Houston, Beijing-Guangzhou, and Los Angeles-San Francisco-Seattle; in China, where conventional HSR is faster, even 1,000-1,300 km is well within conventional HSR capabilities (Beijing-Shanghai is 1,300).

However, the fact that there is this sweet spot for unconventional rail does not mean that the construction costs are affordable. This remains a question mark. Maglev costs are either in line with HSR costs at equal tunnel proportion, or somewhat higher. The Shanghai maglev cost 10 billion RMB in 2003, which in PPP terms is maybe $100 million per km for an elevated suburban/exurban line (bad, but not terrible), and in exchange rate terms (imported technology) is somewhat more than half that. The Chuo Shinkansen seems to be $200 million per km, 70-80% underground, which is in line with urban tunneling costs in Japan but high by the standards of exurban tunneling (the 60% tunneled extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori was $55 million per km).

The upshot is that a New York-Chicago maglev is likely to cost like 1,200 km of HSR. The western half of this line is easy – maybe a short tunnel in suburban Chicago is required, but there’s so much right-of-way space that an above-ground urban approach should be fine. The eastern half of this line consists of 600 km of pain in the Appalachians, suburban New Jersey, and a new tunnel under the Hudson. Costs approaching $100 billion are likely, and I don’t know that the benefits are commensurate.

Can you start big?

A short maglev or vactrain is of little use. Given the expense of approaches, the best use of expensive infrastructure may well be to build multiple lines using the same approach. For example, not just New York-Chicago or New York-Atlanta-Miami, but both at once, to take advantage of the same maglev tunnel under the Hudson. By itself New York-Chicago might be good enough, but it’s unclear – it’s nowhere the huge benefit/cost ratio coming from a program for conventional HSR on the Northeast Corridor at normal first-world rates.

I think this is the biggest risk with unconventional rail technology. Its basic characteristics suggest that there should be a distance range at which it works well – not too short so as to offer too little benefit versus conventional HSR, not too long so as for construction costs to grind it down. But it’s equally possible that the two bad zones, too short and too long, really overlap, so that 1,200-km lines are still too expensive to compete with planes while not offering enough speed benefit over conventional HSR to justify all this new construction.

The problem, then, is that it’s difficult to start big with a risky technology. The shortest useful maglev segment, Tokyo-Nagoya, is still well over $50 billion, and Tokyo-Osaka approaches $100 billion. This is on a route with proven demand; what about routes that don’t parallel overcrowded conventional HSR? Some government will need to take a $100 billion gamble on a long route hoping that the 1,200-km niche really exists.

New York’s MTA Genius Challenge

I don’t like the word “genius.” When people use it unironically, what I hear is “we haven’t met many smart people, so the first one we meet looks like a genius to us.” Math academia is very good about excising the word from anyone’s vocabulary. It drills you on the idea that you’re not Manjul Bhargava or anyone of that caliber, and if you are, you’re judged by what you’ve proved, not how theoretically smart you are. The tech industry uses the term more often, alongside related terms: rock star, 10x engineer, ninja. Most of it serves to convince coders that they’re masters of the universe, that all of them are above average and half of them are in the top 10% of coders.

New York State just issued a call for proposals for a $1 million grant, dubbed the MTA Genius Transit Challenge. I sent in a request for more information, and haven’t gotten a response yet; when I do, I will probably apply, if the specs and timeframe are within what I can give, but I doubt I will get it. My suspicion is that the state is looking for a tech company to privatize something to. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants someone to tackle one of the following three problems:

  1. Rail signaling, in context of how to maximize the subway’s capacity in trains per hour.
  2. Rolling stock maintenance schedules: the state isn’t saying what the ultimate issue is, but presumably it is reliability.
  3. Cell service and wi-fi underground.

I doubt that the tech industry is capable of doing much on the first two issues, while the third one is a solved problem (as in cities like Singapore and Boston) that just requires installing wires. The first two issues have a lot of potential improvements, but they come from the transportation field, including service planning.

Unfortunately, the panel judging the grant is tilted toward people in the tech industry. Only one has background in rail transportation: Sarah Feinberg, former administrator of the FRA, whose background prior to working at the US Department of Transportation is in politics and tech. Two more are academic administrators, neither with background in transportation: SUNY Chancellor-elect Kristina Johnson, an engineer with background in energy and 3D graphics, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, whose background is in IT. The other five are in the tech industry; one is a professor who studies networks, with some applications to car transportation (congestion pricing) but not to rail. Missing from the panel are people who worked on ETCS, people who have developed driverless train technology, and professionals within the major rolling stock vendors.

The biggest tech fixes in New York area outside the three areas identified by Cuomo. One, train arrival boards, is already in development, with planned opening next year.

But an even bigger fix is speed: the subways in New York have permanent slow orders at some places, not because of deferred maintenance but because of past accidents. There is a railroading tradition, in the US but sometimes also elsewhere, of using slow orders to mask underlying safety issues, even when the accident in question had very little to do with speed. The subways in New York today are getting even slower, for a combination of legitimate reasons (temporary signal upgrades) and illegitimate ones (inexperienced crews assigned at the busiest times).

However, the solutions to these problems often combine many different viewpoints. Speeding up the subway involves ending the slow orders (which involves signaling, but isn’t exactly tech), improving scheduling to reduce delays at merges (which involves service planning), reallocating crews (which involves labor relations), and coming up with ways to reinstall signals with less impact to operations (which is itself a combination of signaling tech and service planning).

American tech industry titans like to think of themselves as omnicompetent; Elon Musk’s bad ideas about transportation, from Hyperloop to elevator-accessed tunnels for cars, stem from his apparent belief that he can understand everything better than anyone else. This is not how good interdisciplinary work happens; the best examples in science involve people who are specialized to the two fields they’re combining, or people in one field collaborating with people in another field. A governor that understood this would empanel people with a wider variety of fields of expertise within the transportation industry: service planning, civil engineering, signal engineering, local labor relations and regulations, rolling stock maintenance. There would be one tech person on the panel (among the existing panelists, the professor studying networks, Balaji Prabhakhar, seems the most relevant in background), rather than one non-tech person.

This sort of self-importance especially appeals to Cuomo. Cuomo is not managing the state of New York; he is running for president of the United States, which requires him to be able to say “I did that” about something. Solving big problems requires big money; reducing costs requires local tradeoffs, such as reducing construction costs by using more disruptive cut-and-cover techniques. That’s how you run a good government, but that’s not how you run a cautious political campaign for higher office, in which the other side will pounce on every negative consequence. As a result, Cuomo is hoping to solve problems using tech innovation without spending much money; but the parameters of his plan seem to guarantee that the panel can only solve small problems, without touching on the most fundamental concerns for people riding the subway.