Future Long-distance Transportation: Trains versus Hyperloop?

As I rode Amtrak trains up the scenic California coast from San Diego toward Santa Cruz, I wondered about what long-distance travel here might look like in a couple decades. Will “car culture” prevail, as gas guzzlers, hybrids, and growing fleets of self-driving cars jam the highways criss-crossing Western United States? Or will airplane flights become increasingly popular and uncomfortable? Or as climate change begins to hit home and droughts heat up, will people try to avoid these greenhouse gas-emitting (and federally subsidized) modes of transportation and even avoid long trips altogether?

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train.

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train.

Of course, airplanes and automobiles aren’t the only game in town. Many people frequently take trains between southern California and the Bay Area, and the trains yesterday were full of people heading north. It currently takes ten hours to traverse the distance from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, and if the state’s high-speed rail is completed according to plan, by 2029 one could make the trip in sleek bullet trains in just two and a half hours.

Here's another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Here’s another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train.

On the other hand, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has popularized the Hyperloop concept. This system would hurl groups of two dozen people at faster airplane-like speeds in low-pressure tubes—like the old pneumatic tubes used by banks (and human-sized tubes in the Futurama cartoon)—in as little as one fifth the time of high-speed trains. Engineers could be building the first Hyperloop pods well before the final tracks in California are laid.

High-speed rail, the Hyperloop, and self-driving cars all have their advantages and shortcomings, but my feeling is that trains will be the way to go, at least until the 2040s. I may be biased, as I’m a big fan of trains. But let’s consider the issues of practicality, budgets, and timelines.

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

The necessary technology for high-speed rail is already available. American engineers could build on the innovations of European, Japanese and Chinese train systems. It will be difficult to cross some mountainous areas in Southern California, but if the Hyperloop comes to pass, it will be built through a similar corridor and will face similar challenges. But engineers don’t really know how the Hyperloop could work yet, either like expensive Maglev (magnetic levitation) technology or floating on pressurized air like air hockey pucks, and many years of testing remain. They don’t even know where they might build the first Hyperloop either; it might come to Slovakia before California.

The high-speed rail project has notoriously gone over budget, as it’s now at $68 billion, twice original estimates. Legal and political disputes have plagued it as well. (Furthermore, Southern California lost out when state authorities recently decided to build the first segment of the route from San Jose, rather than Burbank, to the Central Valley.) But the Hyperloop concept is still in its early stages, and its budget estimate of only $6 billion is wildly unrealistic and has been rightly criticized by economists.

High-speed rail has dropped behind schedule, but now that people are actually in the process of building it, I think it will be completed near the current timeline, within 15 years. (It reminds me of the James Webb Space Telescope, which experienced many budget overruns and delays, but now NASA’s sticking to its final larger budget and launch date of 2018.) If the Hyperloop, on the other hand, were shown to be successful elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine Musk or someone else even starting to build it in California before then.

The technologies involved in developing self-driving cars, either for taxis or personal use, are farther along than the Hyperloop, but they’re not ready yet. Scientists predicted last year that, like trains and the Hyperloop, self-driving cars could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But these estimates assume that many Americans will jump on board these smaller vehicles and trust their software. This study also assumes no “rebound effect,” but if the cars are as good as hyped, it’s reasonable to expect that people would drive more, using more energy than before.



Finally, maybe it’s just me, but self-driving cars seem kind of strangely anti-social. Instead of expending so many resources to build thousands of cars driving in unison on the same highway, wouldn’t it be simpler to design a more efficient public transit system with already available technology? If you really like your car, you can drive it to the train station!

Book Review: “Leaving Orbit” by Margaret Lazarus Dean

First came the Apollo era. Following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first satellite and human in space, the United States leaped into the space race. Within 11 years of NASA’s formation, and with incredible public support, they managed to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. The moon!


Then came the space shuttle era, also a time of lofty and grand missions. NASA astronauts flew the shuttles on 135 missions, to deploy space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope and to assemble the International Space Station. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, witnesses and chronicles the final flights of the Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis shuttles in 2011. For each of those three shuttles, she describes the visceral experience of watching the launches and landings, including the responses of diverse fellow onlookers at Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida.

Dean reflects on the space shuttle program’s many impressive achievements, as well as its shortcomings and failures, in the case of the tragic explosion of Challenger in 1986 and the breakup of Columbia in 2003. (She previously wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster.) Throughout the book, she provides a record of a wide range of people grappling with the end of the era and wondering about what might come next.

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

She encounters both aspiring and accomplished astronauts—she’s starstruck as she meets Aldrin (and I don’t blame her). Dean also talks to space workers, as well as other writers and journalists, who are all somehow trying to figure how to put these momentous events into words. She makes many references to iconic writers, during what she considers the pinnacle of American spaceflight. Especially Norman Mailer (author of Of a Fire on the Moon), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Oriana Fallaci (If the Sun Dies) clearly influenced her.

Dean sprinkles many telling and intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. At one point she quotes a conversation she overheard, in which a NASA public affairs person corrects a Reuters journalist, saying that it’s not the end of American spaceflight, but “the end of American spaceflight as we know it,” which seems to be a subtle distinction. She also points out that in spite of NASA currently accounting for a small fraction of the national budget, her university students overwhelmingly overestimated how much funding the agency actually receives. It gets about 0.4% of the national budget, but most of her students guessed it was more than one fifth! Maybe that demonstrates NASA’s ability to have a big impact and inspire the public imagination with relatively few resources.

NASA's logo, often affectionately referred to as the "meatball." (People refer to its less popular logo in the '80s as the "worm.")

NASA’s logo, often affectionately referred to as the “meatball.” (People refer to its less popular logo in the ’80s as the “worm.”)

Dean’s book is more a memoir than anything else. It’s often fascinating to read, but it feels too wordy and verbose at times. She includes far too many mundane or irrelevant details, including the drive to and from Florida, the motels she stays at (one reference to Mailer is enough there), and numerous texts and social media posts. Omar Izquierdo, a NASA technician, host and new friend, makes for an interesting character, but every single interaction with him doesn’t need to be included. It’s as if she documented in detail every step she took and every thought that popped in her head and shoehorned them in. She also writes many times about her husband and child, who made sacrifices so that she could make these trips; she raises important concerns, but they would belong more in a book more directly touching on work-life balance and gender equality. She and her editors could have cut 100 pages from this book, in my opinion, strengthening its impact without losing any substance.

A few times—maybe a few too many—Dean writes self-referentially about her own book. (Such a device can be effective in a comedy like The Muppet Movie, but I’m not sure how well it works here.) The point, it seems, is to pose a question to herself as much as to others involved in the shuttle program and commercial spaceflight: “I’m asking what it means that we went to space for fifty years and have decided not to go anymore,” she writes.

Dean’s book seems slightly late: it was probably written in 2011 and includes few developments since then. She briefly mentions NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion—scheduled to be launched in an uncrewed mission in 2018—and she describes SpaceX and other spaceflight companies, but this feels tacked on at the end.

I understand her skepticism about commercial spaceflight, and I share many of her concerns. She has three main criticisms: First, the big and daring spaceflight projects that she and many others support are, by definition, not good investments. “They are exploratory, scientific, ennobling, and expensive, with no clear end point and certainly no chance of making a profit.” Second, as long as spaceflight is run by a government agency, she says, any child can reasonably dream of flying in space one day. Third, it’s been part of NASA’s mandate to make its projects available to the public, but private companies have no such obligation.

I don’t think Dean means to diss NASA, but it does seem that way toward the end, as she seems to think ending the shuttle program was a huge mistake. But what’s done is done, and without the shuttle, NASA continues to accomplish a lot. In the past year alone, it deployed a satellite to study Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the asteroid belt; it flung a probe past Pluto, giving us the most detailed images ever of our diminutive cousin; it sent a spacecraft to observe Saturn’s moon Enceladus; and it recently completed a yearlong study of the astronaut twins, Mark and Scott Kelly.

Later in the book, she argues cynically (and to some extent, correctly, in my view) that support for the space program started as an accident, because of Sputnik, a new president, the Cold War, and German rocket designers like Wernher von Braun who fled to the U.S. instead of the Soviet Union.

In the end, however, her reflection turns into an almost obsessive nostalgia for a glorious past. This stifles our ability to take stock of where we are right now and how we got here, and then focus our efforts to plan and prepare for what comes next, which might include returning to the moon, journeying to Mars, and exploring beyond our solar system. Dean’s patriotism limits her too: space exploration requires international collaboration; it isn’t just by or for blue-blooded Americans. It’s for all people who want to join the party, including Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and everyone else.

Mourn the shuttle era in your own way, but then let’s move on with our lives and make the most of our current national and international space programs. We have lots of brilliant, clever and talented people and powerful tools to work with, and if we set our minds to it, our days of exploring space, including launching more people into the skies, will be far from over.

More News from Monterey: Otter Rescue, Coastal Economy, Fog Maps

Here’s a few new stories I reported on and wrote for the Monterey Herald newspaper over the past couple weeks:


Helping otter pups survive El Niño

When a stranded sea otter baby was rescued on Carmel Beach by Monterey Bay Aquarium workers in January, it was a rare enough event to be featured on the television news.

But with more El Niño-strengthened rainstorms returning to the Monterey Bay, these rescues might become more commonplace.

Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors enjoy the sea otter exhibit during the 1:30 feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Friday. (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors enjoy the sea otter exhibit during the 1:30 feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Friday. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

Storms increase the potential for pups to be separated, said Tim Tinker, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Santa Cruz. Otters like to feed closer to shore in shallower water, where the waves are bigger during El Niño. Storms also rip up kelp forests, giving the animals less shelter and resting areas, he added.

Only a few otters have been rescued so far this year, said Andrew Johnson, manager of the aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. “We’re holding our collective breath about the effect of conditions out there.”

Most pups are born between late fall and early spring, and they require many months of nursing and weaning. Adult otters spend much of their time foraging for food, as they need to eat 25 percent of their body weight every day. But an otter mother can’t forage as much and becomes weak by the end of the weaning period.

“She’s on the razor’s edge. It sounds pretty harrowing, but that’s the way they are,” said Tinker. Storms can split up otter pups from their mothers during this particularly vulnerable period. On their own, pups struggle to survive and don’t have much time before they starve or freeze to death.

This is where the aquarium’s sea otter rescue program comes in. Often responding to calls from citizens and networks of volunteers, their staff annually rescue dozens of distressed otters stranded on the shore. Sometimes a pup can be heard before it is seen, chirping or squeaking for its lost mother. In addition to suffering from food limitations, older otters are sometimes found to be sick with disease or injured by white sharks.

When the animals meet certain criteria and respond well to treatment, then the rescue program adopts them. Staff members feed and care for the otters in giant circular tanks, filled with kelp and companions, with plenty of room to swim, play and rest. They pair the pups with a surrogate mother, who helps them grow and learn to survive on their own. After they recuperate, which can take months, the otters are tagged and released back into the wild. “We want them to go out and be a productive member of sea otter society,” said Johnson…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 5 March 2016. As usual, thanks to David Kellogg for editing assistance and to Vern Fisher and David Royal for their excellent photography.]

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