Hypertravel is a non-starter. Total journey time is a better measure of travel efficiency than top speed. Time not wasted is better still.
On some routes, it is even possible to save useful time by travelling more slowly.
The hyperloop is a high-speed transport system first proposed in 2013. Pressurised capsules riding on a cushion of air would whisk passengers through a low-pressure tube at a top speed of 1200 km/h.
The 560-km journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take about 30 minutes. The cost of infrastructure for this route is estimated at US$ 6 billion. This is clearly cheaper than the proposed California High-Speed Rail project, and much faster.
But the human body cannot be accelerated or decelerated very rapidly. The faster the top speed, the fewer stops are possible. Between San Francisco and Los Angeles the high-speed train would call at just 8-10 stations. The hyperloop would not stop at all.
In the hyperloop concept paper, its Los Angeles terminus was placed in Sylmar, in the northwest of LA County. Business travellers from, say, the financial district near City Hall would have to travel slowly for 40-60 minutes before they could begin their ultra-fast ride.
The terminus for San Francisco would be at Bay Fair, near Oakland International Airport. From there our business passenger would spend another 30-40 minutes getting to the San Francisco financial district.
These times assume no delays. Congestion on the roads or delays at vehicle transfer points would easily mean an extra 20-30 minutes in transit. Planned to carry 840 passengers an hour, the hyperloop will itself create heavy traffic around its terminals.
Still more time will be wasted at stations. Outside vehicles, people do not move like oil through a pipe. Some will be old, others very young; some frequent travellers, others first-timers; some in a hurry but others with all the time in the world.
Such flows generally go at the speed of the slowest, especially when passing through the inevitable security controls.
Ultimately, someone who normally drives between LA and San Francisco could still save a couple of hours by switching to the hyperloop but, with all the interruptions and transfers, it would be a less comfortable journey. Compared with a ride in a chauffeured automobile, the ride would also be far less productive.
Choosing different locations for the stations does not solve the problem. At the San Francisco end, our business passenger would save time if the hyperloop continued across Oakland Bay but construction costs would rise enormously, as Matt Johnson has pointed out.
And if the LA station is moved south, more and more passengers will have to start their journey by travelling in the wrong direction. This would make the hyperloop even less attractive to people in the north of LA County.
A hyperloop of sorts featured in Futurama, an animated comedy created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company in 1999. No wonder the idea of moving people around in tubes feels like yesterday’s sci-fi.
The impression was reinforced last week when the head of worldwide business development for Hyperloop Technologies visited Finland.
His US company is currently building a test track in Nevada. He was in the Finnish town of Turku to boost its hopes for a hyperloop to Stockholm, Sweden.
The Finnish press treated it as a serious idea. A less bedazzled study of its costs and benefits would reveal it as a bad joke.
The 260-km Baltic hyperloop has an estimated price tag of €8 billion, whereas the combined population of the regions it would connect is less than two million. This is fantasy in search of a chump.
Haste vs. speed
Instead of explosive speeds along steel tubes, an easier route to transport efficiency is to use travel time for doing something else. On short trips this can be talking, reading or eating, on longer routes sleeping.
I’m just back from a visit to Koli in North Karelia. They’re trying to promote tourism to this region of forests and lakes in the east of Finland. It is utterly beautiful in summer and winter alike.
The obstacle is an inconvenient distance. At 500 km from Helsinki, it’s 100 km less than Los Angeles to San Francisco, but takes the same amount of time to drive because the roads in North Karelia are very much worse.
The train saves little time because the railroad takes an indirect route. It doesn’t go all the way to Koli, either, so you still need a bus at the end.
The outcome is that either you have to leave Helsinki horribly early in the morning, or most of the day is over before you arrive.
Lapland is actually easier to get to, because the greater distance suits a rail sleeper service. The train that departs from Helsinki just before 7 in the evening arrives in Rovaniemi just before 8 the following morning. Perfect.
Tourists visiting Koli would be better served by road transleepers. The same would suit the LA-to-San Francisco run.
Properly equipped, a road sleeper service would leave business travellers fresh for a morning meeting instead of numb from all the changes of vehicle involved in using the hyperloop.
Both routes would take about 6 hours to drive, which is a bit short for a good night’s sleep, but the solution is cheap and easy: travel more slowly. On a rail network, a slow train disrupts timetables. On the roads, no problem.