Freight via Hyperloop ?>

Freight via Hyperloop

The first space rockets carried satellites, chimps, and dogs.  Only then did we put a human in a capsule and send him to space.  The smart approach for Hyperloop is to do the same: freight first, then passengers.

Artists renderings have been turning up on the web with a forty-foot container snuggled in a pod.  While the cargo may not complain about the ride, the Hyperloop system may.

A standard forty-foot container is 40 ft long, 8 ft wide and 8 ft 6 in tall.  They are not so common anymore; many ocean carriers have gone to high-cube containers, 9 ft 6 in high exclusively.  The maximum cargo weight allowed for road carriage is 62,750 lb (28,520 kg).  This brings the total container weight up to 71,500 lb (32,500 kg).

A Hyperloop freight capsule doesn’t need life support systems.  That’s a plus.  But 28 passengers only weigh 5,040 lbs (2,290 kg).  With baggage, that might be 6,160 lb (2,800 kg).  A freight pod needs to carry ten times that payload.  That’s ten times the lift provided by air-skis or magnetic levitation.  It takes ten times the energy to accelerate it down the tube.

When a container is packed with uniform goods, say 21 pallets of pasta, you can be relatively assured that the center of mass lies approximately on the centerline of the container, half way along its length.  From a Hyperloop design perspective, that’s great.  An engineer can anticipate the loading of the air-ski or maglev system.  She’ll have to beef up the energy requirements for both levitation and propulsion, but that’s predictable in advance.

The cost of ocean freight is almost linear with container count.  A fixed number of containers fit on the ship.  Only to a tiny degree does the weight of the container affect the cost.  Value of the cargo is irrelevant to cost, but not to price.  The price of ocean freight may vary with weight, but is more closely related to cargo value (the shipper’s ability to pay) and the relative negotiating power of the shipper (the shipper’s willingness to pay).  Wal-Mart, as you might expect, get low freight rates no matter what’s in the container.

On land, particularly with trucks, the cost of labor is absolutely linear with container count.  Most companies don’t bother to calculate the differences in cost for containers of differing weights.  Once the cargo is a container, the price is the price.

In the days when ocean carriers charged by the ton, “errors” were common.  Systematic understatement of the shipping weight reduced the freight and customs duties.  Ocean carriers overlooked these misdemeanors when the customer proffered lots of business.  It was after all, “simply a paperwork error.”  The guys loading the ships knew.  In the old days a crane operator knew a container weight by feel.  Today he knows it to great precision (within 1% for an off-the-shelf, uncalibrated strain gauge system).  The ship’s first officer needs to know that the ship was loaded evenly.  Hyperloop operators need to know the same thing.

Once on board a ship, it doesn’t matter whether the container was loaded evenly front to rear, or side to side.  Among thousands of containers, it’s just another one.  In a Hyperloop pod, it will make a difference.  A nose-heavy container will need more levitation at the front of the pod.  Conceivably, the polar moment of inertia of the container could be an operational factor.

Hyperloop operators will relearn the lessons of the container industry, lessons learned since the S.S. Ideal X sailed from Newark with 58 containers in 1956.  To get that ship to sail, Sea-Land Service made some serious concessions to the dockworkers union, whose jobs would otherwise be lost.  Hyperloopers may avoid the provisions of the National Railway Labor Act, but if they intend to lift containers from the Port of LA-Long Beach, they will be in for a surprise.

There are a lot of ways to stack containers in a dispatching yard, but the most efficient is using unmanned rail mounted gantry cranes.  The containers are stacked (and reorganized overnight) to optimize vessel loading.  In a Hyperloop installation, one would hope that a container was received and loaded in a continuous process, minimizing the dwell time.  That will require some imaginative workflow design.

Ocean carriers aren’t particularly worried about hazardous cargo.  Stuff that blows up goes on deck, where an accident would cause the least damage.  Likewise for compressed gasses and the like.  The atmosphere surrounding a ship is always sea-level pressure.  Air carriers tend to be more concerned.  The federal government doesn’t allow lithium batteries or flammable liquids (“placarded cargo”).  Hyperloop operators will be.  Both for reasons of safety and product quality Hyperloop operators need to be concerned about whatever is in a container depressurized to 100 Pa.  Anything packaged in a plastic bag is likely to burst.  There goes Frito-Lay as a client.  Anything with a water content, wood, flour, is likely to experience dehydration.  At 3500 Pa, the boiling point of water is 80° F (26.5° C).  Granted, the time of exposure is short, but the effect would be significant, absent a pressure vessel for the cargo container.  Freezing is a concern in airfreight, but not boiling.

Where other hazardous goods are concerned the tube is an issue.  Hazardous goods are more common than you might expect.  A truck containing margarine caught fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel in 1999 killing 37.  Retail packages are not marked, but cases are.  Spray paint is a hazardous good (ORM-D), for example.  If a truck full of spray paint crashes, the propellant is likely to be dissipated into the atmosphere.  Sure a fire is possible, but unlikely.  In an evacuated tube, there’s no chance of fire.  On the other hand, a single can of Krylon paint bursting would pollute tens of meters of tube with acetone and propane.  It looks like a pressure vessel will be required for cargo pods as well.

It won’t be long before people talk about taking their cars on a Hyperloop trip.  Gasoline cars will be a problem because they contain … gasoline.  Elon Musk will probably want you to take your electric Tesla.  If the federal government has anything to say about it, lithium batteries will likely be a no no.  The logic will escape me.  Boeing 787s use lithium batteries, but they are banned from the cargo bays.

We know already what federal agency will be responsible when things go wrong on Hyperloop, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  When things are going right, it would logically be the Department of Transportation.  How the DOT chooses to organize itself remains to be seen.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a part of DOT, had a devil of a time figuring out how it would organize itself to regulate space travel.  Depending on how the politics play out, the Federal Railroad Administration could end up as regulator.  There is little question that it will have much work in front of it to expand its core competencies.

A look at the economics

Hyperloop will compete with trucks and trains for 40 ft container traffic.  The rule of thumb in the industry is that truck is the preferred mode for 500 miles or less.  Rail is better for 500 miles or so, if the trucking from the rail depot does not exceed 10% of the trip.  The logistics of container traffic is complicated by the need to return empty containers to their origin.  The cost per mile to truck a container round trip is $1.00 to $2.00 per mile.  The railroads and shipping lines do have drop-off points, but the cost are built into other charges.  The tractor would likely have to bobtail home anyway.

Given that Hyperloop costs are a function of weight, shuttling empty containers would be very good business.  The cost of moving an empty by truck are practically the same as a full container. In the Hyperloop, it would be a pittance.

In the Hyperloop sweet-spot, then, trips under 500 mi (700 km), on those routes where there is a tube trucks would be displaced.  If the energy consumption numbers work out and the tube network grows, Hyperloop could revolutionize freight transport.  For those goods where rail and barge are already dominant, coal, grain and ores, it’s unlikely, but possible.

One thought on “Freight via Hyperloop

Leave a Reply