Global Hyperloop Conference — 2019

Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP)

We, as a community, need to keep a watchful eye on the proposal to drive a third track through Ashland. Although immediate actions have been shelved for now we need to keep our guard up. The issue has not gone away.

From the beginning of the controversy I felt that there should be a technical solution to the problems that were raised. Is there a way of expanding our transportation network (as distinct from merely the railway network) without causing so much disruption?

I think that the answer to this question is “Yes”.

In fact, there are two answers. The first is to introduce new forms of high speed transportation. After all, if there is one industry that is in turmoil right now, it is transportation (think drones, autonomous vehicles, electric cars, Uber). The second answer to move into the third dimension, i.e., to go underground.

In this post, let’s take a look at a response to the first question: new technology.

Here are the requirements for a new form of long distance transportation:

  1. Speeds at least equal to that of airplanes;
  2. Radically reduced impact on the climate as compared to conventional trains, trucks and airplanes;
  3. The highest levels of energy efficiency; and
  4. The highest levels of safety.

So, is there a form of transportation that meets these requirements? I think that the answer is, “Yes”. And its name is “hyperloop”.

In future posts I will describe the basics of hyperloop: what it is and how it works. For now, I would like to introduce an organization called HARP and to provide a plug for the organization’s upcoming conference.

HARP

The initials HARP stand for “Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership”. HARP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its mission is,

To promote the collaboration, research, funding, and knowledge sharing necessary for the development of high-speed tube transportation networks and standards around the world.

Conference

HARP organizes an annual conference. (Last year’s was at the University of California — here is what I wrote about that successful event).

This year we are meeting at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado — July 8-9th. (I will be leading a session to do with ‘Safety and Security’.) Please spread the word about HARP and what promises to be an interesting and useful meeting.

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LoopTransport 2018

Hyperloop Conference UCLA 2018

Last week I attended a Hyperloop conference at UCLA in Los Angeles. I also presented a paper entitled “Hyperloop Safety Study”. The conference followed the Space-X competition, hosted by Elon Musk, in nearby Hawthorne.

I will post details later. But for now, I say that I started my presentation with two simple questions that must always be asked when starting a new project, or looking at new technology: 

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe? 

My remarks were focused on the second question, “Is it safe?”

Oil Spill in Iowa

Tank Cars spilled crude oil

A freight train carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to Oklahoma derailed on June 22nd near Doon, Iowa. Here are some details:

  • 32 tank cars derailed.
  • 14 of them are leaking.
  • The total volume of the spill is 230,000 gallons (for reference the capacity of a typial DOT-111 tank car is 34,500 gallons, so the total spill is equivalent to about 6 or 7 cars).
  • Much of the oil has been contained with booms, but some of it has entered the local river system.
  • The cause of the event is not known. Speculation is the floodwaters may have eroded the soil beneath the track.

Further information is available here and here.

Derailed and leaking crude oil tank cars Doon Iowa

Fox News Hyperloop Video

Fox News has just released a video to do with hyperloop. The video is upbeat in tone, suggesting that the technology is well advanced and that the general concept is practical. It does not, however, provide any new information.

They also discuss the regulatory environment: should a hyperloop be considered a train or an airplane? They seem to come down on the side of ‘airplane’ because the modules are actually flying along the tubes — there are no wheels or rails.

The Tunnel Option

Ashland is not the only locality that does not have the space for expansion of existing transportation systems. In fact, such problems are pretty much universal in any urban or suburban area.

Elon Musk’s response to this problem is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to build a network of tunnels below the surface infrastructure.

Now there is nothing original in his insight — after all, cities around the world have been building subway systems for decades. But what Musk is claiming is that he can build tunnels much more quickly and economically than has been possible in the past. Is he correct? Well, only time will tell. But, when we look at his Tesla electric cars we see that, regardless of whether his company will eventually be financially successful, his initiative has become a ‘forcing function’ for other, more traditional automobile companies, to develop electric cars.

Maybe something similar will happen to tunnel construction. Musk has put the companies that build tunnels on notice that there is a new type of competitor in town, and that they need to look at upping their game.

So what does this have to do with the proposed “high speed” rail project? Well, the natural solution to the problem of adding capacity to the existing railroad in the Ashland area is to go underground, i.e., to build a tunnel for the new trains, and to keep the existing tracks for slow freight trains and local passenger service.

The traditional response to this suggestion has been that building a tunnel would be much more expensive than adding new surface tracks. But maybe Musk’s challenge will prove that assumption to be wrong — maybe tunnel options will turn out to be not only environmentally friendly, but also be a more sound financial investment.

Here are three examples of new tunnel projects. The first is the City of Chicago, which has just announced that it will be working with Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between downtown and O’Hare airport. Second, as we have previously reported, the State of Maryland is looking at a similar system to connect Baltimore with D.C. Finally, something similar is underway in Los Angeles. Projects such as these tell us that we should not summarily reject a tunnel option on the grounds that it is too expensive. Maybe it is, and — there again — maybe it isn’t.

Hyperloop Safety Study

 

Location of Hyperloop Conference, 2018
Kerckhoff Hall, UCLA

As we have discussed many times at this blog, the world of transportation technology is undergoing radical and wrenching changes. Almost daily there is news about electric cars, autonomous (driverless) vehicles, drones and even space rocket transportation.

One of the new technologies — and one that we have discussed frequently at this site — is hyperloop. This technology is still in the early development phase, but has the following essential features.

  • “Trains” travel along tubes from which the air has been removed. Hence, there is very little air resistance.
  • The “trains” are magnetically levitated — they do not actually touch anything — there are no tracks. Hence there is no wheel/rail friction loss.
  • The maglev system incorporates linear motors that propel the modules. Hence there are very few moving parts and so there are few internal friction losses.

But, before this new technology can be adopted for general use, we must address the two questions that engineers always ask when starting a new project. They are:

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe?

In order to address the second question we will be presenting a paper at the ‘LoopTransPort’ conference at the University of California in July of this year. The title of the paper is ‘Hyperloop Safety Study’. Details to do with the two day program are available here.

The theme of the paper is that the safety  challenges that the hyperloop industry is facing are similar to challenges faced at one time or another by other industries. These include the nuclear power industry, the offshore oil and gas industry and the chemical industries. In spite of the very different nature of the technologies between them, many lessons can be learned from these other industries. The reason for this is that safety is basically a management topic, not a technology issue. Therefore, the safety management practices developed in one industry can often be successfully used in another area.

Alexandria Derailment and Bridge Destruction

Derailment in Alexandria, VA

One of the reasons that we should not try to dig a trench through Ashland is that a derailment involving tank cars carrying highly hazardous chemicals could have very serious consequences. (An example is the 2014 derailment in Lynchburg, VA). Another serious accident, once more involving tank cars, has taken place — and once more in Virginia. This incident took place in Alexandria, near the Floyd St./Wheel Ave. intersection on May 19th 2018.

The NTSB has not yet issued a report, but the following facts have been reported.

  • 30 cars out of a total of 167 derailed.
  • There were no injuries, either to the train crew or to the public.
  • Firefighters say that the train was not carrying hazardous cargo.
  • The cause of the derailment was a failure with the rail or railbed. (Some of the rail ballast was missing.)
  • The rolling cars “took out” the bridge that collapsed.
  • There has been no major disruption to passenger train service.

Informal discussion suggests that the rebuilding of the bridge could cause a serious delay in the High Speed Rail project.

From the pictures that are available it appears as if CSX was lucky — this event could have had much more serious consequences.

Alexandria-Derailment-2
Alexandria Fire Dept.

The Boring Company in Los Angeles

The problem that almost all rail expansion projects face — Ashland is no exception — is that new tracks destroy property or attractive open areas of land. This means that the best solution is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to construct a tunnel.

Elon Musk receives a lot of publicity to do with his new technologies such as hyperloop, space transportation and electric cars. But it could be that, in the long run, his greatest contribution will be the new technologies that he is developing with his Boring Company.

When various options for the Ashland area were under consideration last year, the idea of constructing a tunnel was summarily dismissed as being too expensive. It could be that Musk will change that way of thinking. As noted in our post The Baltimore/D.C. Project, he claims that current technology is such that the machines for drilling tunnels move at one fourteenth the speed of a snail. He aims to increase tunnel-drilling speeds to equal that of a snail.

The Baltimore/D.C. post described the project that is under way to build a tunnel between those two cities. The “trains” running through it are likely to be some form of hyperloop. Now we learn that the City of Los Angeles has entered into an agreement with the Boring Company that could result in the creation of a network of tunnels underneath that city.

Let’s revisit the idea of a tunnel under Hanover/Ashland. It could be used for high speed trains and other non-stop traffic. The existing rail could be used for non-express trains and selected freight trains.