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?”
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:
- Friction between the rails and the rail;
- Internal friction due to the multiplicity of moving parts; and
- 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.
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
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.
The European experience is that regulations will be developed a land-based agency, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.
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
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.
In addition to attending the meeting the trip was a good opportunity to see the famous cherry blossom.