Hyperloop in Albera? No!

So the Government of Alberta has officially taken leave of its senses and signed on to some sort of feasibility study to build a hyperloop between Edmonton and Calgary. I’m calling it now: this will turn into the worst boondoggle in Canadian history.

The idea of a high speed rail connection between Calgary and Edmonton isn’t new. Indeed, it probably makes sense to build something eventually. The idea has had several problems which impact feasibility, however:

  • Lack of good transit connections to an appropriate hub location in either city. Or even within the target cities. Without good transit connections, what’s the point? I mean, great. You can possibly get from terminal to terminal in an hour. But what good is that if you can’t get to the terminal for departure or from the other terminal to your actual destination?
  • Cost. It’s expensive to build a rail line. High speed would have to be grade separated for safety which means even more expense since it would have to be elevated for much of its distance. Or possibly in a tunnel, which would be even more expensive and comes with additional problems (pressure waves from train passage, for instance).
  • Security. No doubt some bright spark will insist that the same level of security theatre that exists for airlines will have to apply to any high speed line. That will, of course, mean additional time at boarding, further eroding the time benefit of a high speed connection.
  • NIMBY. This applies to anything built on land. The Not In My Back Yard faction will fight tooth and nail to avoid anything passing within hailing distance of their property, no matter what it is or how beneficial it would be overall. It takes a lot of political will to simply tell NIMBY to piss off. No politician these days seems willing to consider doing something like that even when it’s only a handful of complainers.

Even with all of that, a traditional high speed train could be built and it would work just fine. Indeed, if technology similar to the Shinkansen or TGV is used, it would benefit from many decades of operational experience and technological development. That is, we know that both the TGV and Shinkansen work. And both have the advantage that you can easily switch them using, well, switches on the tracks. That means an express train between Edmonton and Calgary could operate along with occasional semi-express services stopping in Red Deer and use the same track for most of the journey with only a diversion a station at Red Deer.

But none of that is what this current plan envisions. Instead, the Government of Alberta appears to have fallen for a sales job by a purveyor of hyperloop technology. The base idea is that some sort of train or pod affair (even worse) would run using a sort of maglev propulsion in a tube with low air pressure allowing higher speeds with less air resistance. Then ridiculous speed numbers like 1000 km/h (which is around 85% of the speed of sound!) are thrown around. However, hyperloop technology has a number of additional problems over high speed rail. Compared to regular high speed rail, it faces:

  • Requirement to maintain low or zero pressure inside the tube. This is expensive. Low pressure vessels have to resist the compressive pressure of the atmosphere. They have to be air tight or air gets in. Any time any air gets in, you have to evacuate it. This means air locks at every access point (station). So while you might, maybe, achieve crazy speeds once in the tube, you still have to enter an air lock, wait for vacuum pumps to extract the air from the lock, then enter the tube. This is additional time at both ends.
  • Pressure failure. Suppose the tube springs a leak while a vehicle is running down the tube. Assuming the leak doesn’t cause catastrophic tube failure by virtue of the structural integrity being compromised, you still have the sudden friction from air, or, worse, smashing into a wall of air at a substantial fraction of the speed of sound. That does not bode well for the flesh and bone inside the vehicle.
  • Evacuation. How do you evacuate passengers from a stalled or broken vehicle? Either you have to re-pressureize the tube and then allow people to walk out normally, which will have to be done slowly (see above). Or everyone needs pressure suits and they have to exit through an air lock somewhere. (Giving passengers the bends is a bad idea, after all.) More air locks is more places for pressure seal failures.
  • Thermal expansion. Yeah, regular rails have to hande this, too. But they don’t have to be air tight. Expansion joints are understood technology. Your hyperloop tube has to have expansion joints, too, and for the same reason. But they also have to be air tight. Good luck with that. Even if you manage to engineer something like that, you have now added even more failure points.

So is hyperloop ever going to work? No. If it passes safety certification, it will simply mean the authorities are corrupt, stupid, or negligent. And even if it does work, we have another technology with much less bad failure modes: high speed trains in tunnels. Yup. We already know how to build tunnels to deal with the pressure waves caused by high speed passage of trains. And we know how to build rails that can handle impressive speeds. And the trains, too. And they can run on electricity. And, for added futurism, we even know how to build maglevs.

Basically, hyperloop is a pipe dream (sure, why not, pun intended) technology that may, eventually, exist, but which will never be able to compete with more traditional transportation options for reasons of saftey, logistics, and probably cost.

So here’s hoping the Government of Alberta takes its collective heads out of its collective asses and looks at the actual science behind hyperloop and realizes that it cannot work as a viable alternative to existing high speed transportation options whose physics, costs, and operations are already well understood.

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