HARP Meeting (April 2018)

HARP-Panel.jpg

Background

For those of you who are new to this blog here is some background.

  • For almost three years the citizens of Ashland have been resisting the proposal to run a third track through town.
  • The resistance has been on many fronts, including public meetings with the authorities and reviewing legal issues.
  • I have concentrated on technology. After all, the last major technological change to the tracks took place in the early 1950s; it was the transition from steam to diesel-electric. That’s two generations ago.
  • The transportation industry in the United States is currently undergoing massive, wrenching and exciting changes. It seems that hardly a day goes by without there being news to do with autonomous vehicles, Space-X, electric trucks and other new technologies.
  • One of those changes is the technology known as “hyperloop”. (A brief overview of what this word means is provided below).
  • So the question is, “Can hyperloop technology perform an end run around this whole 3rd track controversy?”

Hyperloop

Hyperloop train Richmond to Washington
The technology associated with hyperloop is still being developed so it lacks standardization. (This is analogous to what happened in the early days of railroading. Initially many, many companies built and operated “short lines” — often using different track gauges. Only later did those short lines merge into large systems such as Pennsylvania Railroad.)

Regardless of how the technology shakes out, the key feature of any hyperloop system is that it virtually removes the three sources of friction that are a feature of current trains. They are:

  1. Friction between the rails and the rail;
  2. Internal friction due to the multiplicity of moving parts; and
  3. Air resistance — particularly when speeds go above 60 mph.

Hyperloop removes the wheel/rail friction because there are no wheels or rails. It has virtually no moving parts (it is driven by linear induction motors). And the pods run through tubes from which most of the air has been evacuated so there is negligible air resistance

The upshot is that the pods (carrying either freight or passengers) can travel at airplane speeds and they are very efficient. Moreover, there will probably not be trains or timetables as we know them now.

HARP

About a year ago a non-profit called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership was formed. (I am a member.) The organization tries to pull tother all the threads to do with this new technology. The first conference that I attended was in New York last year.

They had another meeting this week in D.C. My overall impression is that both the technology and the business models are maturing. Hyperloop is happening. There are currently about 10 companies competing for work.

The following are my notes from the meeting in no particular order of priority.

The Baltimore/D.C. Project

HARP-1.jpg

The keynote speaker was Mr. Pete Rahn, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Maryland. He described the project that is underway to connect D.C. with Baltimore with an underground hyperloop system. The D.C. “station” will be on New York Avenue. He stated that, “Amtrak should be very worried”.

They plan on placing concrete tubes below grade; the tunnels will be built by Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which claims that they can dramatically reduce the time and cost it takes to make a tunnel, just as they have done with space travel. (The Boring Company keeps a snail in their office as a permanent challenge. They claim that snails move 14 times more quickly than current boring machines). One of the key justifications for going underground is that they get around most of the challenges to do with taking and demolishing property.

I asked Mr. Rahn if the tubes are of sufficient diameter to handle the 53 ft. containers that we see trundling through town all the time. Also, are the curves of sufficiently long radius to handle those contaners. He did not know the answer to either question.

Regulations

The European experience is that regulations will be developed a land-based agency, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.

Projects

In addition to the Maryland project, other active programs are:

  • A 3 km test track in Toulouse, France
  • The Dubai/Abu Dhabi route
  • Quebec City/Montreal/Toronto/Chicago project

Real Estate

Any attempt to expand any type of transportation system faces the challenge of lack of real estate. So proposals to build a new airport, freeway or railroad track results in resistance from local communities. Ashland is not unique.

The most attractive solution is go underground. But, in spite of the optimism expressed, the cost would probably be very high. Another option would be to use existing rights of way (freeways and railroads) to construct an elevated system.

Cherry Blossom

In addition to attending the meeting the trip was a good opportunity to see the famous cherry blossom.

Cherry-Blossom-1.jpg

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HARP Hyperloop Meeting

HARP HyperloopOn December 6th the non-profit organization Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) organized a conference in New York City. The title of the conference was The Hyperloop: Promises and Challenges. There were 75 attendees  —  the meeting was sold out.

Most of the meeting, which was chaired by HARP’s President, Dane Egli, consisted of a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session. Panel members were:

  • Sebastien Gendron, CEO & Co-founder of TransPod Hyperloop
  • Rebecca Leonard, President of Hypernet Holding Corporation (HHC)
  • Bibop G. Gresta, Chairman & Co-Founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)
  • Rick Geddes, Professor of Policy Analysis, Cornell University & Director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP)

As many readers of this blog know I started to look into the feasibility of hyperloop in order to find out if this new technology could create an end run around the problems to do with our ‘High Speed Rail’ project. But I have learned that this technology has the potential to change our transportation world as much as the automobile did a hundred years ago.

I attended this particular conference to learn more about the five basic questions I am trying to answer regarding hyperloop technology. The questions are:

  1. Will it work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Is it socially acceptable?
  4. Can it be profitable?
  5. Can it meet regulatory requirements?

The panel discussion was wide-ranging; I was encouraged to find that the research that we have done so far to do with the five questions has been quite successful — there were no surprises.

The three major takeaways for myself were:

  1. The technology is quite mature and proven.
  2. Hyperloop is not just a substitute for traditional rail. It will create a new culture that will transform all forms of surface transportation.
  3. The biggest challenge is political will — do we want to step out and adopt this new technology?

Based on my own research and on what I heard at this meeting the answers to the five questions are,

  1. Yes — there is no commercial hyperloop system in service yet but pilot projects are going well and all the pieces (maglev, low pressure tubes, linear electric motors) are in service and are successful.
  2. Conditional Yes — there are some concerns that need to be addressed regarding tracking stability.
  3. Strong Yes — the fact that hyperloop takes up much less real estate than roads, railways and airports was a stressed by the panelists. The technology is also environmentally clean.
  4. Uncertain — but the fact that Sir Richard Branson, who is a very successful business person with his own rail and airline companies, has invested in the company now known as Virgin Hyperloop One is a strong indicator as to the financial potential for this technology.
  5. Yes — the regulations have yet to be written (I have volunteered to help), but there is no reason to anticipate that they will constitute a major hurdle.

The Laws of Physics

Tesla truck

I am a chemical engineer. One of my first projects was to do with scaling up the results from a pilot plant that made plastics to the full-size facility. It turned out that scaling an industrial process can be tricky. For example, the volume of a vessel is proportional to its radius cubed, but the surface area is proportional to the surface squared. Hence heat transfer to and from the vessel required careful thought as the vessel size increased.

Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have also spent many years analyzing the risk to do with large, complex industrial systems (chemicals, refining, pipelines, offshore oil and gas) and have published many books on these topics (the one that is probably most relevant to this discussion is Process Risk and Reliability Management).

I thought about this background in scale-up and risk management when reading about the new and exciting Tesla truck, as discussed in Just One Week. Such a vehicle seems almost too good to be true. It is efficient, environmentally clean, quiet and — above all — trendy. And the logic seems to be inescapable: electric cars have proven themselves to be commercially feasible, so why not scale up to electric trucks?

Well, as Tesla has shown, it is indeed possible to build an electric truck. But it is doubtful if a trucking company would ever buy one (unless diesel fuel becomes much, much more expensive than it is now). And this reticence has nothing to do with “attitude” — it is to do with the basic laws of physics, as discussed in the article Tesla semis and the laws of physics. What it boils down to is as follows:

  • Diesel fuel is much more energy-dense than even the most modern batteries.
  • A conventional, diesel-powered truck can haul 80,000 lb. of cargo for distances well in excess of 800 miles.
  • If an electric truck is to achieve a range of 800 miles the battery pack will be so heavy that it will not be able to carry any cargo at all.
  • The cost of the electric truck’s batteries alone is in the range $500,000 to $650,000, as compared with a complete diesel truck that is in the $100,000 $150,00 range.

An electric truck would be able to carry cargo over shorter distances (but much less than 80,000 lb.) But the economics simply do not work out. The transportation business in highly competitive — a trucking company is not going to purchase an electric truck without some type of government subsidy. Even for short distances, such as shuttling containers from a ship to a waiting freight train, the Port of Los Angeles found that electric trucks did not make economic sense. It is possible that new battery technology — also discussed in Just One Week — may address some of these difficulties. But that remains to be seen.

This site is about rail and hyperloop transportation, not about trucking. But there may be some lessons to be learned. We have to be careful that hyperloop does not become hyperloop. Specifically, does the maglev technology that is a fundamental part of hyperloop systems scale up successfully? For example, MagLev trains work and have been commercially successful for many years. But they have been successful in light-rail service such as airport shuttles. Will the technology scale up when faced with the challenge of supporting full-size, long distance passenger and high-value cargo traffic?

I trust that the answer to this question is “Yes”. But my industrial background suggests that we should be cautious and that we should be careful to check out assumptions to do with the basic laws of physics.

Denver Takes the Lead

Arrivo system in Denver

The State of Colorado, working in partnership with the company Arrivo, has committed to building the nation’s first “electromagnetic super highway”. A video of the announcement is here. The Colorado executive director starts by noting that the Denver highway system was designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960s for a population of the 1980s. But since then the population of the area has doubled. The existing infrastructure cannot be expanded — they are stuck. A new type of transportation system is needed.

Here is my understanding of what they are proposing.

  • They will start construction of a test track next year. They then start a 400 day certification period around 2019/2020. If they receive certification they will move into building the first commercial track, probably between Denver and its airport.
  • This is not a full hyperloop system because the tubes are at atmospheric pressure. Consequently the the pods travel at only 200 mph.
  • The pods are powered by Linear Electric Motors (LEMs).
  • The journey time to the airport will fall from the current 90 minutes to 9 minutes.
  • A one-way ticket will cost $15.
  • The system will carry passengers, automobiles and freight and bicycles. They stress the fact that it is an auto train. This means that people will not have to give up their cars.
  • It will have a capacity ten times the current highway system. Current highways have a capacity of 2,000 to 3,500 cars per hour. They believe that the new system will be able to handle 20,000 cars per hour.
  • They will “layer” the system on to the existing infrastructure.

 

The Destruction of Ashland

mcmurdo-annotated-2

The following is a letter written by Roseanne Shalf to various regulatory and government agencies. Given that technology is moving so fast it seems highly doubtful that the mid-1950s proposal from the DRPT will actually happen. But, as the letter points out, the destruction of our town is happening now.

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Dear DC2RVA,

I am a resident of Ashland, Virginia. I have researched and written much about the history of Ashland including its historical relationship with the railroad companies that travel through the center of town. I have also attended most of the meetings regarding the third rail options for years now, including the most recent ones in 2017. I am very familiar with the Section 106 study done on Ashland’s historic properties. I think that the DC2RVA group must have been surprised about the strong community reaction to the third rail through town, and you should take the wisdom of the community very seriously.

I oppose the option to put a third rail through town for a number of reasons. A few are below.

#1. THE FRA DECISION WILL HAVE IMPACTS IMMEDIATELY: The biggest and most immediate impact will be simply the decision by FRA to choose the option to add a third rail through town, even though it is scheduled for 15 years down the road. The town’s economy will begin to crash now, not just in 15 years or during the construction that will close Center Street for several years. I cannot say that strongly enough. It has happened in large cities, and even years after construction, the economy struggled to repair itself. But Ashland is a small town. We are constantly struggling to build up our public image. A 15-year lead-up, a 3 year shutdown of our historic downtown, and the impact on our primary employer Randolph-Macon College, will destroy the town for decades and it may never recover. It doesn’t matter how pretty we can make it look after construction. The economic scare has already started. Homeowners who want to sell are having difficulty getting contracts. This is especially true for homes facing the tracks. Shop owners are wary of longterm commitments and are beginning to look for a way out of the commitments they already have. That will intensify over the next 15 years should FRA choose the 3rd rail through town. Such a massive project as the one proposed for a small town like Ashland, with so few commercial, residential, and tourist corridors, cannot be compared to a project on a city that has many such corridors. Ashland WILL LIKELY NEVER RECOVER. We have too few resources.

So, if there is a better alternative, such as the Hyperloop or streamlined ways for deep-bore tunnel construction, that are developed in the intervening 15 years, it will be too late for Ashland. If the decision is made now for a third rail through town, Ashland will have collapsed. How can you contemplate such a project for this town?

#2. THE 1836 RIGHT OF WAY IS TOO SMALL: The current right of way for the rails through Ashland was established in 1836 and the town developed around it. The oldest and most historic part of town is along that current right of way. The oldest shade trees line the track. A third rail would require demolition of some of the houses and businesses, demolition of all the 100-year old street trees along both sides of the track, and it would place the rails so close to many homes and businesses that they would be rendered uninhabitable—useless. Moreover, the development over the last 181 years has been so dense that there is no way to move the buildings back 10-20 feet. Is it really worth it to choose this option? The lawsuits would be unending, would cost the government many millions, and would create longterm delays.

#3. THERE WILL BE NO WAY TO ACCESS MID-BLOCK HOMES AND BUSINESSES DURING THE 3-YEAR CONSTRUCTION PERIOD: The town was laid out formally in 1854, (please see attached map) although we believe that some buildings were constructed before then. The lots along the tracks were between 8 and 30 acres each, and over the intervening years they have been subdivided into smaller, different size lots. That created lots of different depths so that today there is not straight line along the backs of the lots. (See the Hanover gis site, attached, or access it at http://www.hanovercountygis.org) Thus, there are no alleyways behind the buildings along the tracks. To try to create alleyways today to access the mid-block buildings from the rear would require demolition of even more buildings in the historic district. To create a temporary rail or temporary travel lanes along the fronts of buildings along the right of way in order to create access to mid-block buildings would bring the car lanes or tracks within feet of some of front porches and doors—For three years or more with no break! The project cannot be phased.

#4. THE SECTON 106 STUDY REVEALED BUILDINGS THAT ARE POTENTIALLY ELIGIBLE FOR INDIVIDUAL LISTINGS. The DHR and the consultants who completed the study marked a number of buildings along the tracks in the business district of the Ashland Historic District, the residential part of the Historic District, and on the Randolph-Macon Historic Campus that are potentially eligible for individual status. They were designated as potentially eligible for individual listing because they are an unusually intact example of Greek Revival, High Victorian, or Colonial Revival architecture, or an important event took place, or an important person lived there during formative years, or an important architect designed a building. As an example, our 1923 Train Station, designed by W. Duncan Lee of Richmond, would be demolished to make way for the enlarged right of way.

We are justifiabley proud of our Ashland Historic District and the Randolph-Macon Historic Campus, and we have been planning for some time to create a separate historic district in the Berkleytown area to the north of the campus that is traditionally an African-American neighborhood to tell that part of the state and national story. These historic districts and the buildings that are potentially eligible for individual listings are not only fun nostalgically, but they tell a state and national story as well. They are serious history. Aren’t historic districts and buildings elevated to individual historic listings supposed to protect our state and national history?

#5. THE 100-YEAR OLD STREETSCAPE WILL BE DESTROYED: We have also pointed out that the 100-year old streetscape along the tracks would have to be demolished if a third rail on the surface or in a trench or in a soft-earth tunnel were to be constructed through town so that utilities could be reinstalled. It would take another 100 years to regrow those oak and maple shade trees, to say nothing of certain trees that hold a special history. As an example, the oak in the front yard of 604 S Center Street was one of a pair. In the 1870s, the family balanced a plank between the two trees to create a bench for Col. Pumphry, wounded during the Civil War, to watch the trains go by and to talk to his neighbors as they strolled by. The plank is long gone, but the tree remains. The old oaks in front of the former Ashland Baptist Church were likely planted when the church was built in 1859. Early pictures show them. Such old trees are not only pleasant to view, but the also tell a history, they soften the landscape, and they lower the ambient temperature. Not many towns in Virginia have so many large old trees that have survived so long. ( See photos of the streetscape below)

#6. THE TECHNOLOGY THAT FRA IS USING NOW IS FROM THE 1950s: We all know how fast technology changes. In transportation, countries like Canada, France, South Korea, and other nations are embracing new technology called Hyperloop for for both freight and passenger systems. Elon Musk is experimenting with a deep bore machine that would reduce costs and disruptions in our transportation system and in the social impacts. (Please see this link: https://iansutton.com/downloads/Hyperloop-Standards.pdf or Wikipedia explanation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop or Wired.com’s article on the new deep bore machine from Elon Musk’s The Boring Company at http://www.wired.co.uk/article/elon-musk-tunnel-boring) The cost is decreasing on both of those technologies. Imagine a deep bore tunnel under I-95, which is fairly straight, has plenty of right of way, and takes a train through Akka yard. It would not even require using potential future traveling lanes. Or a tunnel through the land west of Ashland, that would protect the historic farms, allow farmers to get to their fields, and would eliminate the need for and costly lawsuits related to eminent domain. Why are we still planning on using mid-20th century technology for a project that will be built mid-21st century? Shouldn’t FRA be looking at these new technologies before planning this gigantic, expensive, 3rd rail from DC to RVA, let alone through Ashland, Virginia? Innovative projects can attract donations from major private foundations like the Gates Foundation. Perhaps FRA could use this corridor as a model for the rest of the country.

Using new technology would eliminate costly lawsuits related to eminent domain.The social upheval would be nil. The project would raise support for rail projects where there was none. And the cost might be defrayed by foundation grants.

Thank you for paying attention to our comments. Please don’t put a third rail through Ashland, Virginia.

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Draft EIS. Comment #11: Appendices I and J

Map of CSX operations
The following letter was mailed to the DRPT.

This is my last comment. I am commented out.

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712 S. Center St.
Ashland, VA 23005

281-782-7459

October 30th 2017

Dear Ms. Stock:

As you know I have submitted many comments on the Draft EIS to do with new technology. In summary, they say that the proposed expansion to the rail system, as discussed in the Draft EIS, is unrealistic due to the rapid and profound changes that are taking place in the transportation industry.

I recognize that considering the impact of new technology is outside the remit of the DRPT’s current scope. Nevertheless, it would, in my opinion, be inappropriate for the DRPT to continue spending funds on developing a project that is so unrealistic.

I have prepared a report entitled “Hyperloop — Setting the Standards”. A copy is enclosed with this letter; it can also be downloaded from https://iansutton.com/downloads/Hyperloop-Standards.pdf.

With regard to the details of the EIS I have two specific comments.

  1. I challenge ‘Section 2.2 Assumptions’ of Appendix I. No consideration is given to the fact that technology is changing. This assumption should be added to the report, and then defended.
  2. I also challenge the Contents of Appendix J, ‘Section 2.3 Supply’. It lists five types of transportation but fails to identify new technologies such as hyperloop.

As always, I would be grateful if you could acknowledge receipt of this letter. I am not confident that mailed comments are always processed properly.

Yours truly,

Ian Sutton

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Hyperloop — Setting the Standards

Hyperloop train approaching New York
Regular readers of this blog know that, during the two years in which I have been writing about the proposed “High Speed Rail” project, I have been learning more and more about new technologies — particularly hyperloop. An increasing number of posts at this site have been to do with that topic.

I have decided to combine much of my research and analysis into a single report: Hyperloop — Setting the Standards. It can be downloaded here. (This is Rev.1; I will be making updates on a regular basis.) In the report I speak to four fundamental questions about hyperloop:

  1. Will it work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Can it be profitable?
  4. Is it socially acceptable?

The fourth question is probably the most relevant to our community. Virtually all the discussion to do with the proposed project has been about real estate. The insight that Elon Musk expressed in the year 2012 to do with hyperloop is that it is not about speed — it is about avoiding the use of new real estate.

As I said in a previous post,

  • I have registered the domain HyperloopVA.com. (There is no web site yet.) I will use it for further information and discussions to do with hyperloop. The site ashlandrail.com will continue to challenge the ill-thought out “High Speed Rail” project.
  • I will be preparing a matching video that you can download at no cost.
  • If you would like to speak in a meeting let me know.

I will submit this report (by mail, not email) to DRPT and the CTB (Commonwealth Transportation Board), and then I am done with commenting. (I have also offered to make a presentation to DRPT and the CTB.)

Risk Report: Munich Re

Santiago, Spain high speed train crash

The company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has worked with Munich Re to create the first Hyperloop Technologies Risk Report. Their web page states the following.

Munich Re is of the opinion that the Hyperloop technology developed by HTT is both feasible and insurable in the medium term and that delivering the system demands a model represented by HTT’s innovative approach.

In my own preliminary analyses I identify three categories of risk (I exclude grade crossings because no new high speed transportation system will incorporate them.)

  1. Air leak into the tubes.
  2. Electrical power failure.
  3. Instability.

The first two do not appear to prevent a significant safety risk — in both cases the pods in the tube would simply glide to a halt. The third item, instability, is, however, something to be concerned about, as can be seen from this video to do with the high speed rail derailment that occurred in Santiago, Spain in the year 2013.

Draft EIS. Comment #10: The Boring Company

The Boring Company hyperloop

The following will be submitted as a comment to the DRPT.

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In previous posts I have pointed out that Elon Musk’s insight regarding transportation is that we are constrained by available real estate. The key advantage of hyperloop is that the low pressure tubes can be installed along existing rights of way with minimal disruption to the local communities. The fact that the capsules move at 600 mph is attractive, but it is not the prime reason for installing hyperloop.

In the context of our own “high speed” rail project my vision has been that we install the hyperloop tubes along the I-95 median. The capsules would be used for long-distance passengers and for high value freight. Our existing tracks — which would not need to be expanded — would be used for low value freight, such as coal, and for stopping passenger trains, such as we have now.

Needless to say, Musk is ahead of us. If we are to move into the third dimension we should also look at going down as well as up.

During the early discussions to do with the DRPT project the idea of a tunnel under Ashland was summarily dismissed as being too expensive. Yet, once more, Musk is turning things around. This year he formed a new company — the Boring Company — to come up with ways of creating tunnels more quickly and at lower cost than traditional methods. And now he has a contract: a tunnel between New York and Washington for hyperloop pods, with the first ten miles to be dug being in the Baltimore, MD area.

It would appear to be a simple matter to use the same technology for building a tunnel under Hanover County. Why is this option not being considered given that costs are being reduced so dramatically?

Draft EIS. Comment #9: Time Out

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

The following comment has been submitted to the DRPT.
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I recognize that the scope of the draft EIS does not include consideration of new technologies. Yet, if there is one industry in the United Sates that is undergoing radical change it is the transportation industry. In my view it would be irresponsible for the DRPT to make a recommendation to do with the future of passenger and freight transportation along the east coast corridor without considering these profound changes.

There are many aspects to the new technologies — these include drones, autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles. But the one that will have the greatest impact on the rail industry is what is known as ‘hyperloop’. The seminal paper on this topic was written by Elon Musk in the year 2012. He recognized that the key advantage to this technology is not speed — although traveling at 650 mph is certainly enticing — but the fact that such systems can be implemented without needing much real estate.

I am currently preparing an article with the working title, The Practicality of Hyperloop, for publication in a professional journal. In the article I address three questions:

  1. Does it (hyperloop) work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Can it be profitable?

Question #1
Hyperloop is made up of well-established and commercially proven pieces (low pressure tubes, linear induction motors, mag lev suspension), so my conditional answer to the first question is “Yes”.

Question #2
Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have spent many years analyzing the risk to do with industrial systems (the picture is of one of my books on the topic: Process Risk and Reliability Management). Based on this experience I would say that there are legitimate safety concerns, but that traveling by hyperloop is likely to be safer than flying on a commercial airplane. So the answer to the second question is also a conditional “Yes”.

Question #3
Richard Branson Virgin Hyperloop OneFinally, we look at economics. Obviously there are many unknowns but the fact that Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines has now made a substantial investment in the company known as ‘Virgin Hyperloop One’ suggests that professional investors see a real opportunity. So, once more, I respond with a conditional “Yes”.

I will mail a draft of my article to the DRPT before the November 7th comments deadline.

If DRPT management is interested in having a presentation on this topic, please let me know. I would be very willing to visit with management and discuss these issues in greater depth.