Will Loop and Hyperloop kill Metros and High Speed Rail?

I started writing the draft for this post last year as a follow-up to this post. At the time, I was quite heavily focused on technological solutions to transport and the climate crisis. Things have changed a lot since then. But before I go into how and why, check out the draft first paragraph I wrote before.

Hyperloop looks to be a serious threat to high speed rail. As a rail fan, this is a somewhat bittersweet realisation. But not only is Hyperloop a threat to rail, the Boring Company Loop system and the Tesla RoboTaxi Network that would operate within it is also a threat to metro systems and commuter rail.

I intended to write about how hyperloop and the boring company loop systems were going to give metro and high speed rail systems a hard time. I don’t want to write these systems off entirely, but now that we’re a year later and the climate crisis is looking like an imminent threat to the functioning of society, these types of solutions can’t be the priority. We have to drastically change the way we live now to be somewhat like full lockdown in terms of living more locally, with empty roads and more cycling. The time just isn’t there to be able to wait for self driving RoboTaxis to come along.

Perhaps the loop system could be great in the future when full autonomy is realised, but so far the Las Vegas Loop has been roundly criticised. Currently it’s being driven manually and quite slowly, so it’s not really doing anything a bus lane couldn’t do much better and more cheaply. And if we just banned private cars as I keep saying, then you’d get rid of the traffic which was the main driving force behind the loop concept to begin with.

With that said, maybe the Boring Company should instead focus on their plans for creating special small tunnels for running utility pipes and cables through. That really does seem like a great idea.

As far as Hyperloop is concerned, I saw a YouTube video that made me think a lot about it. It was on the channel “Adam Something” which I strongly recommend. I’m happy that I was able to still be open minded despite having most of my savings bet on Tesla (that might change soon, we’ll see). The video on Hyperloop compared it to High Speed Rail and maglev trains. Adam pointed out that Hyperloop cost estimates per mile are far lower than maglev, despite Hyperloop being effectively maglev technology plus a vacuum tube. The cost is therefore very likely to be significantly higher, and because of the way the vacuum tube works, you would assume that the maintenance will be a nightmare as well. Especially for really long routes.

From my perspective, if we’re to live more simple and low consumption lives, the most obvious thing to do for long distance transport would be to run more sleeper trains. We need to stop living the fast life and start enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

But for right now, the absolute priority must be to reduce emissions as fast as possible to zero. That doesn’t mean 2030 and it definitely doesn’t mean 2050. It means right now. During the first lockdown, we were told that global emissions dropped by about 13% during that time before climbing back up. If we were to do that on a permanent basis and improve from there, we might actually have a chance.

How I would Nationalise Britain’s Railways

Imagine it with a B instead.

Great British Railways. I don’t know about you, but to me it comes across as an arrogant, old fashioned branding exercise to attract Tory voting baby boomers who are desperate to be told that Britain is still the best. We need a modern, simple naming system like that of Japan Railways (JR). BR South, BR North, BR London, BR Scotland (if they stay with us) etc. We would have a unified logo but with different colours for each region and matching train liveries.

Simple JR branding on the side of this Yamanote Line train

Unlike the Japanese system, we need to fully nationalise it. Privatisation works in Japan because trains are the default way of getting around, and it’s a priority for government to keep it running smoothly and the technology up to date. They will spend big to prop up the private operators. In the U.K., cars are the primary mode of transport and because of that, rail has been underinvested in. The infrastructure is out of date and the prices are high because the government has left it to rot. And private companies are probably not going to invest in improving the service if they don’t see it as an effective transport monopoly as most of the lines are in Japan.

Grant Shapps compared Great British Railways to the London bus and Overground systems. That’s not what we need. We need full public ownership of all of our transport networks. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to make rapid changes in sustainability, pricing and general appeal in order to end car ownership in the face of the climate crisis. It’s not enough to just build bike infrastructure or incentivise e-scooters (not that we’re doing either or those). We need to do everything possible now to cut emissions and make us a healthier and happier society. Public ownership and investment is the only way.

Trains are Especially Vulnerable to Climate Change. Bicycles are not.

As we’ve seen from the tragic accident in Scotland last week, the U.K. rail network is facing an existential risk from the climate disaster. That might sound hyperbolic. But when you consider the likely future of self driving cars, a dramatic reduction in vehicles on the road as a result; the rise of electric bikes and the inevitable mass rollout of associated infrastructure, it doesn’t look promising for the rail industry.

As I’ve recently written, the rail network is already going to be threatened by the other forms of transport I’ve mentioned due to the fact that the network hasn’t been invested in for so long. It’s not like in Japan where they wouldn’t walk away from such a great system. Loyal daily passengers will only remain loyal for so long if they’re dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving.

But it’s when you couple that with the threat of climate change that things really unravel. I’ve been following the weekly update videos Network Rail put out on their YouTube channel for a while now. There’s an obvious trend in that they’re constantly having to fix damage caused by extreme weather. It’s mainly landslips but also work on reinforcing sea walls to protect against sea spray. Landslips in particular must be costing NR huge amounts of money, and it’s money that is not being spent on upgrading the ageing infrastructure. Watching TV shows about railways just shows how much disruption is already being caused from rain, storms, heat etc. It’s only going to get worse, and as we’ve seen this week, it can be deadly.

Road transport I believe to be at less risk from the climate disaster, but I would say the main benefits will be as we switch to autonomous driving. Because we have so many privately owned cars, the cars are parked all over the country, so whenever extreme weather hits, the cars can’t be moved and they get written off and float down the road.

However, once we stop owning cars and we replace them with self driving fleets, the number of cars in the country will drop potentially 90%. This will not only eliminate traffic, but it will also allow vehicles to avoid flooded roads or be moved to a safe location before the weather hits if it’s scheduled to hit a wide area. Because our road network is completely connected, if one road is flooded, they can go another direction. Trains can’t do that, and that’s a giant problem that the rail industry will struggle to get around.

Since the benefits for road traffic mainly take effect once we go autonomous, and that technology doesn’t exist yet; at the moment the only way to minimise the risk of flood or storm damage is to get rid of your car and buy a bike. Even a big, heavy cargo bike can be taken upstairs with your couch and the rest of your belongings. You’re not going to leave it to be flood damaged if you can avoid it. With a car, there’s very little you can do, especially if the weather is unexpected or worse than forecast.

It’s true for the infrastructure as well. It would be far cheaper to build elevated bike routes and bridges in high risk areas than it would be for other modes. We need to do everything we can to improve infrastructure and reduce risk. Invest in the rail network, move away from car ownership, and make us a bike society.

The Future of Public Transport: Why Tesla Hasn’t Made a Bus

Elon Musk recently tweeted that he didn’t believe public transport as it exists today is viable for the future. That’s not due to Covid. He’s always thought that personal public transport is the future. As much as I wish Tesla had made a bus, because it could have made a huge impact by now if they had, I also think he’s correct. Tesla RoboTaxis combined with Boring Company “Loop” systems of tunnels and stations could kill off local traditional offerings. Especially in countries which don’t have very good public transport.

It’s sad when you consider what Tesla could have done by now had they wanted to. But to be fair to them, if the company had gone down the route of making buses back in the Model S early days then they probably wouldn’t have generated the same hype it did and Tesla probably wouldn’t have got to where it is right now.

Luckily we have companies like Proterra whose CEO, former Tesla exec Ryan Popple probably left because he also knew that Tesla wasn’t interested in traditional buses. Companies like Proterra and Arrival will help to keep the bus industry somewhat innovative over the coming years. And combined with EV models from the traditional European makers and the huge Chinese brands that have taken over the industry in the last decade or so should keep buses relevant for a while yet. Yutong and BYD are making a lot of electric buses, but are not really innovating that much in my view. They’re basically making exactly the same buses, just with batteries. And that’s a good thing for the time being. But I don’t think that will be enough in the longer term to persuade people to keep riding the bus when far more advanced mobility solutions come along. And that’s an inevitability.

And this is all before you talk about e-bikes and e-scooters cutting into their ridership. There’s going to be a lot of change in the next decade. I think to keep ridership high, they’re going to have to invest heavily in other aspects of the business like linking in with MaaS, smartcards such as Oyster, and other helpful features to make travelling as seamless as possible for passengers. My local bus company has done it the other way round. They have a pretty decent app with live tracking, digital ticketing and a smartcard for season ticket holders. But no EVs at all. They really need to fix that quickly. But with Covid dragging on forever, they’ll be able to roll out every excuse in the book as to why they can’t ditch diesel. So who knows how this will play out.

In order to talk about trains I need a whole other post. I’ll be talking about Hyperloop and the threat it poses to high speed rail.