Meet The Pneumatic, Same As The Old Matic

Elon Musk was recently so “disappointed” in the very existence of the California HSR project (which, admittedly, has taken some disappointing directions in the past) that he called multiple press conferences to declare the superiority of a pneumatic transit system he calls Hyperloop, which he isn’t funding.

The media reaction to this has been very odd, describing this as a “new” or “radical” idea, despite pneumatic railways being over 200 years old in theory and at least 150 years old in execution. Now, the ostensible novelty of unique transit technologies isn’t the problem here – God knows I love monorails and I think they get a bad rap – but failing to do cursory research is a problem of the present media climate. And I’d like to know why there aren’t any atmospheric railways currently longer than a 2-mile airport shuttle, even in urban Asia, where there are monorails 35 miles long carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.

That said, monorails and bullet trains are more or less beside the point, given another glaring failure of reporters too busy raving about Musk’s successes as a maverick investor to bother mentioning that he isn’t actually investing in his own idea. He also came up with some back-of-the-envelope estimates that he published as if they were better-researched and appear downright whimsical: how much tunnel does he really expect to get for $600 million? How much viaduct for $2.6 billion? How much right-of-way for $1 billion? (And how much does he think the Hyperloop actually needs? Approaches for 75-MPH car traffic up the Grapevine pass on the 5 are going to be much, much tighter than approaches for passenger travel at supersonic speeds.)

These much-flogged numbers seem about as unserious as McDonalds’ much-derided budget for non-managerial staff, and probably for the same reasons: Elon Musk is making a public-relations stunt about how much he hates HSR, and providing the Silicon Valley narrative about the power of technology and markets to “disrupt” what amounts to geometry and physics. I doubt he has any more interest in how much it costs to tunnel under the Tehachapis and why than some Visa PR flack has in understanding poor skills and what the working poor will pay for “reliable transportation”.

Maybe, maybe someone who is actually serious about pneumatic transit on a large scale can make it work. Even if it cost three times as much as the Hyperloop pitch – and I’m under the impression it will probably cost significantly more than that – it will still be less expensive than CAHSR. I can understand sophomoric estimates when published by sophomores (we’ve all been there!), but Musk is an adult with real policy influence, and he is not actually serious. This is a nerdy, narcissistic extended joke about the cost of HSR and I’m surprised people are still paying attention to it.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on August 13, 2013.

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