A hyperloop render with a red X across it

The Emperor Has no Hyperloop

Well, I was going to talk about the intricacies of transit network planning here in the Twin Cities, waxing philosophical about the meanings of the words “plan” and “bus.” I have some in-depth analysis of the unique aspects of our governing structure and transit network and where we can improve and reform it. But no, those articles have got to wait so I can capitalize on the current moment — albeit a little behind Streets.mn founder Bill Lindeke—and talk about grift.

So, join me as I instead go through Global Wellness Connections’ (GWC) hyperloop proposal piece by piece and explain how it’s built on a throne of lies. First, a little background.

What Is a Hyperloop?

It’s a vacuum train. A vacuum train is exactly what it says on the tin: a train that operates in a vacuum. Like a lot of things, Elon Musk claimed he invented it despite a long history of other people inventing it. To his credit, those other people didn’t get it to work either.

a cylinder shaped train leaves a tube curving to the right in this black and white photo
The Beach Pneumatic Transit, an 1870s subway in New York City that operated on a pressure differential. While not a true vactrain and unsuccessful as transit, it gave rise to the pneumatic tube systems now seen at banks, restaurants, and post offices. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.

These trains would hypothetically work on the principle that a lack of air resistance will increase the top speed and energy efficiency and so forth and so on. It doesn’t work. It’s an idea that’s been around for over 100 years and no one has managed to make it work. The fact that some new snake oil salesman has come along and convinced people it can work does not mean it works. Here’s why:

The Physics Always Win

It’s a phrase you’ve heard me say before. It turns out that we have not yet reached a point where getting rid of air is more energy efficient than improving aerodynamics. Let’s compare the two, starting with the conventional trains.

a chart comparing the energy consumption of various train technologies at different speeds, ranging from 22 kWh/km for a TGV duplex on the Rhine-Rhone route at 320 km/h, to 85 kWh/km for the Tokyo-Osaka Maglev at 500 km/h
Energy consumption of various rail modes, including the French TGV, German ICE, and Japanese Shinkansen and Maglev. Table credit: Eckert Fritz et al in the International Maglev Board.

Worst case scenario: Let’s say we’re building a Chuo-Shinkansen-style Maglev, with a cruising speed of over 310 mph and running mostly underground so the piston effect increases air resistance. The straight-line distance from MSP to RST is 122.6 km (76 miles). So, some basic number crunching gives us an energy cost of about 10.4 MW*h and a 15 minute travel time. We’ll come back to why this should be a straight line, as well as that 15 minute number.

So how much energy does it take to suck the air out of a 122.6 km tunnel? Well first we need the total volume. I’m going to give hyperloopers the benefit of the doubt and say this is for passengers only, with passengers always seated in the pod thing. This will minimize the cross-sectional area of the tube. Let’s say this thing has a 1-meter radius to make the math easy, and we’ll generously assume the walls are infinitely thin. I’m also not factoring in back pressure from any tubing to the surface that’ll be necessary for an underground tunnel, or any other source of inefficiency.

The smallest hyperloop render I could find, with seats in a 2x1 layout
The smallest hyperloop render I could find. Photo credit: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, via Wired.

The next step is a bit trickier. We know that the average atmospheric pressure is 101.325 kPa, that the volume of the tube is 385,159 cubic meters, and that we’re hoping for a number below 10.4 MWh. Since pressure times volume equals energy, we get 10.84 MWh. In other words, it takes a little more energy just to vacate the tube than it does to make 1 trip with a Maglev, and that’s with the scale heavily tilted in the hyperloop’s favor. As Minnesota doesn’t have many mountains to tunnel through, that last number is likely to be much higher. 

Pardon my scribbling. I’m a bit out of practice and this probably isn’t the most straightforward way to compare these.

This number becomes less important as more trains are run, since hyperloop theoretically requires less energy to move its pods. Past a certain point, however, induced demand will require more and larger tunnels to add capacity, which requires more pumping and therefore more energy, and of course I’ve neglected to mention a cardinal rule of engineering: Everything leaks. How much it leaks depends on the underlying geology of the region, so I’m leaving it unanswered, as I don’t have the money to pay surveyors to do that. Needless to say, removing the air isn’t just a one-and-done affair. There’s a constant, fixed amount of energy required on top of running pods.

Also, hyperloops are usually envisioned to have lower capacity per train/pod. Most lie in the 20-50 range, as opposed to the L0 series maglev train, which is designed to carry up to 1000 people. As such, the former requires much more infrastructure to move the same amount of people. This is all a very long-winded way of saying the technology probably doesn’t scale well, and consumes more energy on a per-passenger basis than any other form of public transit, including airlines.

I haven’t even touched on the cost of drilling a 76-mile-long tunnel. Using the Gotthard Base Tunnel as a guide since it’s the only comparable project, the tunnel alone will be in the range of $23 billion. Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail provider, has historically gotten less than a 10th of that per year.

Could it work? Maybe, but there’s a lot of places it doesn’t make sense. For example:

  1. Where standard trains or even maglevs are viable and can still increase speed and capacity, they make for much cheaper options.
  2. Over distances less than about 500 km, hyperloop doesn’t really promise to save time.
  3. We currently lack the technology to run these things under the oceans, removing the last best remaining use case from the board.

The Proposal

The full proposal is called “20230 UNI Global Wellness Hyperloop” and is available by searching the Met Council’s website. Its stated purpose is to fuse the Rochester and Twin Cities metro areas and boost economic development in the region with projects including the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center and a potential World’s Fair bid, along with providing transportation and stuff.

I’m skipping over a lot of what’s in here because it’s either a) pure marketing fluff, b) would be true if the technology actually worked (but it doesn’t), c) is either covered by what I’ve already said or what I will say, or d) will prompt me to go on tangents that deserve their own articles, namely how freight logistics work and why we as a society need to abandon the consultant class.

Once considered science fiction, hyperloop technology is transportation’s 21st-century response to a world beset by climate change. Like automobiles and airplanes in the early 20th century, hyperloop will transform how people and goods move, enabling hyper-fast connections across distances, allowing for ease of travel without the significant environmental and biological harm caused by carbon-based transportation. Hyperloop, a carbon-neutral transportation system […]

I know I already covered how energy-intense this mode actually is, but I’d like to look at the “carbon-neutral” part of this from a different angle. Any sort of pneumatic system is loud, energy intense, greasy and oily and has high maintenance requirements. I’m used to this in the context of industrial manufacturing. I cannot imagine just how annoying it would be to live next to the giant pump pushing air out of this thing 24/7.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. (HyperloopTT) is now the only US-based research and development company advancing hyperloop systems. GWC is working with HyperloopTT on this proposal to introduce the technology to Minnesota leaders across sectors. GWC and HyperloopTT would develop a larger public-private partnership (P3) for the proposed feasibility study.

If hyperloop companies were a species, they would be functionally extinct. HyperloopTT is currently in the process of being absorbed into some megaconglomerate investment fund thing. This is usually a sign that they’ve run out of money. Their CEO Bibop Gresto is a known grifter who’s led several hyperloop “projects,” so it’s not unreasonable to assume he’s taking the Met Council for a ride.

The Part Where I Talk About Grift

Seriously, did no one involved with this proposal actually take the time to ask why HyperloopTT is the last remaining company developing this technology? It’s the same reason we don’t see much about NFTs, star registries or monorails anymore: People realized they weren’t actually getting anything of value, if they got anything at all. Sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they at least made visible progress! For all its faults, I can go online and find photos and video of California High Speed Rail being built as intended. Between the dozens of companies claiming to herald the future with this technology, there’s maybe 1000 feet of test track to show for it. Most didn’t get past making a website.

Hyperloop projects are underway in North and South America and Europe. Several states in the US, notably the Chicago-Cleveland-Pittsburgh corridor, have projects in various stages of development. The first commercial line, from Venice to Padua, Italy, is on target to open for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

The words and phrases “underway,” “various stages of development” and especially “on target to open for the 2026 Winter Olympics” are all doing a lot of heavy lifting. None of these projects has gotten past early studies. They’re at the same stage as trains to Mankato or Fargo are, and just as unlikely to be operational by 2026.

Preliminary travel data indicates the most favorable station locations to attract the highest number of travelers would be at MSP Airport, Bloomington South Loop, downtown Rochester and RST Airport

They also note that the route is about 85.6 miles long and will take about 15 minutes end-to-end. I took a rough measurement connecting these points by tracing highways 55 and 52. It worked out to about 86 miles. I assume they did the same thing, but with coarser resolution.

Physics, Winning, Etc.

One of the fascinating things about physics is it takes things that we often don’t think of as the same, and shows that they are actually the same. For example, if you put someone in a cylinder in space with no windows and spin it at the right speed, they can’t tell that it’s not gravity! This is an often-used idea in sci-fi media to provide artificial gravity in spaceships, although we’ve made some real progress on that recently, unlike hyperloop.

This is also what you feel when you take a corner at sufficient speed, and is called angular acceleration. It’s pretty easy to calculate, just take the square of velocity and divide by the radius.

Actually, let’s rearrange this to find the radius of a curve with a given velocity and acceleration, so r = v2/a. Given a speed of about 700 mph — or 312 m/s — and a maximum comfortable lateral acceleration of about 2 m/s, we can get a rough estimate of the minimum viable curve for a hyperloop!

It’s 48.7 kilometers. In radius, not diameter. Here’s what that looks like overlaid on the Twin Cities metro:

Some engineering trickery can help trains, or hyperloops, get around this. The most common is “banking” wherein the vehicle tilts into corners, changing the angle of the acceleration and therefore pressing you into your chair instead of sliding you out of it. Sometimes the vehicle itself tilts too, but these tricks can only go so far. I think it goes without saying that there needs to be a compromise in either top speed (and therefore trip times) or right-of-way. Considering that Highway 55 is built for 65 mph car traffic, it’s probably going to be the latter. Property rights literally extend all the way “to heaven and hell,” so contrary to GWC’s claims this will require quite a bit of property acquisition, and probably a whole heap of eminent domain proceedings.

Time Is a Flat Circle

Wait, back up: A high-speed transit line between Minneapolis and Rochester in the median of highway 52 for the purposes of both supporting the Mayo Clinic’s new development and a potential bid for a World’s Fair — where have I heard about that before?

The map of the 20 or so original route alternatives for Zip Rail
Map of route alternatives for the Twin Cities to Rochester “Zip Rail” project.

Oh yeah, Zip Rail! Or, more specifically, the North American High Speed Rail Group’s version of the project. They were a group of local business leaders whose members we (mostly) weren’t allowed to know but totally got $4.2 billion from outside investors to build high speed rail between Minneapolis and Rochester. Unsurprisingly, the project had its own problems, and nothing ever came of it, but in the broadest sense I’d say it was a good idea.

Would it surprise you to know that at least one person on the Zip Rail board is now on the board of GWC, and several others were involved with the World’s Fair effort? I’m not suggesting some grand conspiracy here. Everyone has their social circles, and these people’s career choices have put them in close contact. People talk and share ideas, it’s all perfectly normal. What I am saying is, similar ideas from similar people often share similar outcomes, and both these people and the technology they’re pushing are batting 0.000.

‘Til He Can Shout No More

Again, it’s something I’ve written about before: the difference between high-speed rail/ maglevs and hyperloop is that one consists of “actual machines” and the other is “f***ing magic.” FM solutions can be very cool, but we need actual machines to solve our actual infrastructure problems.

Hell, we don’t even need a high-speed train here, a normal-speed one would be fine! Using the existing CPKC trackage to either Winona or Owatonna, or both, to connect to current and future Amtrak would be a great way for people to dip their toes in the passenger-rail pool without the hassles of implementing new technologies or condemnation proceedings. It’s not shiny and cool, but that’s the point. We don’t need a shiny new toy to ogle at, we need to move people from point A to point B.

Yet there’s only been the most tepid criticism from our local news outlets of what is obviously a complete fib — shout out to Racket for posting not one, but two short yet sweet rebuttals. Many (supposedly) serious and (definitely) influential people and groups are singing its praises, from the Star Tribune and its editorial board to local politicians and business leaders. It’s worth noting that two of the three of the authors of this opinion piece are on the GWC board. Jim Hovland is the triple threat, as he is also the chair of the Transportation Advisory Board at the Met Council. He said he’d recuse himself when it comes time for the Met Council to discuss it, but considering he felt the need to co-pen an editorial at the first sign of resistance, I’m skeptical about his ability to keep his mouth shut.

Why are our local leaders so complicit in endorsing what is obviously a scam? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but at this point ignorance and malice are arguably the same thing. There’s simply no way to think this will go anywhere without willfully ignoring the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Maybe one day we’ll actually get politicians and journalists who are both knowledgeable about transit and influential enough to nip these kinds of grift in the bud.

Don Quixote charges the windmill
Don Quixote at least got a book. Image credit: Seattle Opera Blog

Until then, I’ll still be here, tilting at windmills.

Ian Gaida

About Ian Gaida

Pronouns: he/him

Foamer, Maker, Outdoorsman. bsky: @trainsfan Youtube: Midwest Urbanist