“It's not a transport mode – or even a technology”: Public authorities should stop wasting money on hyperloop

This may well never happen. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

Remember the Hyperloop? In August 2013, superstar businessman and outer space-botherer Elon Musk published his concept for an entirely new transport system. Levitated pods whooshing round aluminium tubes at 1,220km/h would deliver a “massive return” by being far faster, cheaper, safer and just god-damn better-er than existing public transport.

The tech media, already keen Musk followers owing to his Tesla electric car business and his SpaceX commercial rocket venture, lapped it all up. Since then, clickbait headline after clickbait headline has breathlessly told us that the Hyperloop is “really happening“, “officially” being built by Musk’s company SpaceX (despite its insistence that it’s not doing any such thing), and wait for it, “kinda serious“. Take that, high speed rail! Naysayers like your humble correspondent, who took a more sceptical view back in 2013, were chastised for failing to recognise Musk’s brilliant visionary qualities.

Since then, the Hyperloop has not got much closer to leaving Elon Musk’s sketch pad and becoming a commercial reality. Of the two main companies trying to develop the idea, the more sober contender, Hyperloop One, has managed to reach the stage where it launched a metal sled along a track at less than one-fifth the promised Hyperloop speed. It still has no idea how to safely transport passengers in a sealed pod inside a tube.

The other firm, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, seems to be mainly preoccupied nowadays with “augmented reality windows“. These sound nice, but won’t help achieve those near-supersonic speeds.

If that were all that was happening, there might not be any cause for concern. But in the last few months, an alarming development has started to emerge: public bodies have started to invest time and money in the Hyperloop.

French state rail company SNCF has found the money to buy shares in Hyperloop One; this is the same SNCF which posted record losses this year, and is struggling to find the cash to keep its regional train services going. A Russian sovereign wealth fund has also invested, apparently with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin. The Slovakian government has also bought into the idea to link up its cities. Deutsche Bahn is working with the rival Hyperloop developer on its fancy windows.

And there’s the worry. As long as the Hyperloop remains the plaything of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, it need not trouble the serious business of delivering transport infrastructure for cities. But as soon as public authorities and policymakers start to invest in this idea – either financially or politically – we should all be scared.

Because the Hyperloop is not, contrary to what its developers claim, a transport mode. It’s not a technology, either. It is a concept.

Musk called it right back in 2013, when he called his 57-page pipe dream an “alpha concept”. For all the lab work, fundraising and bubbly news stories of the past three years, there is still no actual settled design for the Hyperloop system. There’s not even any conclusive proof that is even technically feasible.

Nor is there any proof that it’s affordable. Hyperloop cost estimates to date have failed to price in realistic costs for land acquisition: they are guilty of treating the Hyperloop like a mass-produced widget that can be churned out ultra-cheap on a production line. In practice, infrastructure projects are notoriously resistant to this lean and mean approach.

To a non-geek, infrastructure is boring, and for a very good reason. Major projects like Crossrail are expensive, complicated to deliver and require several years of studies, consultations, and legislative and regulatory approval to get done properly. As a public authority, you can only justify spending that kind of time and money if you’re certain that the thing is so boringly conventional, so tried and tested and trusted, that will work at the end of it all.

Dream on, lads: a proposed US hyperloop network. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

It’s also, incidentally, the only way you can convince private finance to back the project, as governments around the world are trying to get them to do more and more. Venture capital’s all very well for the exciting bit in the laboratory, but to build an infrastructure project, you need cheaper, long-term finance, which looks for low-risk, technologically safe schemes.

We as a planet face an infrastructure gap. We just can’t sustain economic growth without improving our infrastructure. Any government that takes the Hyperloop hype that “this is happening now” at face value risks wasting precious resources on an idea that may never become reality – all the while, not spending those resources on technologies, like high-speed rail, that exist and deliver real benefits.

So by all means, let the Hyperloopies have their fun. Let them raise cash from private backers and continue to shoot bits of metal on rails in the Nevada desert. But please, for all our sakes, don’t think it can replace boring old trains and buses just yet.

René Lavanchy is a recovering infrastructure finance journalist and tweets at @InfraPunk.

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London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.