Elon Musk’s Boring Company is digging a 10-mile tunnel in Maryland

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How Do You Build a Subway Tunnel Under Water?

VICE.COM

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we’re calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

On Monday morning, New York City’s subway system had another meltdown. This time, it was a signal problem at Rockefeller Center and an investigation in Downtown Manhattan, which caused a butterfly effect that left a number of lines stalled underground. “Happy Monday morning @NYCTSubway!” one rider wrote on Twitter, with a photo of a crammed subway platform attached. “Fix this shit.”

Often times when we think about subways, these are the most visible pressure points—the signal failures, the overcrowding, the slugging trains, etc. But so many of those problems are linked to the infrastructure itself. As the world’s largest subway system, New York has more than 800 miles of track running through it, meaning that the possibilities for failure are far greater than your average city.

And nowhere is that area more vulnerable than under water.

The New York City subway system has 16 subway tunnel connections underneath water bodies, if we’re counting smaller gaps, like the Newtown Creek and Harlem River. That number grows if we add in the tunnels for the Long Island Rail Road, PATH Train, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak. When Hurricane Sandy hit, in 2013, a large number of those tunnels were flooded, disabling them entirely until workers were able to pump the water out. The Montague Street Tunnel, which takes the N and R trains between Manhattan and Brooklyn underneath the East River, had to be shut down for 13 months, for complete reconstruction. The Canarsie Tube, which transports the L, now faces a similar fate.

But to understand why, or how, these tunnels became so vulnerable, it takes understanding a question that subway riders (myself absolutely included) often do not ask ourselves—how were they even built in the first place?

When I posed this question to Michael Horodniceanu, he immediately made a clarification: The subway tunnels in New York are not necessarily “underwater,” but rather, underneath the riverbed. Except, he adds, the 63rd Street Tunnel, which carries the F train to Roosevelt Island. That one was precast in the South, floated up to New York, and quite literally dropped into trenches dug into the East River, with dirt, stone, and concrete slabs placed on top over time. (So if you dive deep enough, you’d hit the tunnel? “No, because they’re all covered,” he told me. I know, dumb question.)

Horodniceanu would know—for nine years, he served as the head of Capital Construction for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), overseeing two of the system’s largest expansions in decades: the 7 train extension to Hudson Yards, and the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway (He stepped down this year.) But those, of course, were built in the 21st century, using modern technology that wasn’t available at the turn of the 20th, when most of the subway system as we know it was constructed.

The Canarsie Tube, opened in 1924, was built the same way most of the city’s subway tunnels were, says Horodniceanu. Workers would dig by hand through the riverbed, placing cast-iron rings around them as they went. The soft mud was easy to dig through, but highly pervious; a shield had to be placed in front to block out water, allowing the workers to continue. Once the physical tunnel was constructed, a second layer of concrete was added, to seal it.

But still, that material doesn’t always hold. “There is no such a thing as a tunnel that doesn’t have leaks,” Horodniceanu declared. “It doesn’t exist. Eventually, water finds its way.” Especially in tunnels that were built more than a hundred years ago. And once water gets in, it affects everything that’s inside the tunnel—the signals, the lights, and all of the other electrical utilities that can turn a Monday morning commute into a hellfire.

“It’s not that complicated to fix the leaks. It’s more complicated to change everything that’s in there,” adds Horodniceanu. “In the tunnels, you have these benches on one side, the evacuation bench. Inside this bench are gazillions of tubes that are carrying all kind of systems, and number one, they are old. So sometimes the concrete crumbles, because it’s old, and was exposed, even more now with humidity, but then water that came in.”

Horodniceanu says the work planned during the L train shutdown will address these two problem areas, with modern-day material that plugs up water penetration on outside, and a total rewiring of the utilities that run through the tunnel. The latter is time-consuming, he says, requiring multiple trades who have to work in conjunction, to get everything up and running fast. Finishing in 15 months—the timeline given by the MTA for the tunnel’s work—”is doable, but ambitious,” he added

One of the major issues back then was also air pressure. Famously, when building the tunnel leading up to the Brooklyn Bridge, at least five workers died from “the bends,” or decompression sickness. In another occasion, a shield ‘blew out’ due to pent-up pressure, sending a man named Richard Creedon soaring out of the 4 and 5 train tunnel, into the East River, and up in the air. He survived, and became a local legend.

Tunnels in 2017 are, of course, built a little differently. A good example is the Hudson Tunnel Project, a plan to build two new tunnels underneath the Hudson in order to replace the existing century-old structure, which services Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit. Many people might know the larger Gateway Program’s predecessor, the ARC (Access to Region’s Core) project, that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sunk, pissing off a majority of his state in the process. (Grumblings over the outgoing governor are background noise on any delayed NJ Transit train.)

“The Hudson River tunnel that’s existing now is increasingly unreliable, and a single point of failure for 10 percent of the nation’s GDP,” Craig Schulz, the Gateway Program spokesperson, told me. “Four-hundred-and-fifty trains a day, 200,000 commuter and passenger trips made every day, rely on this 106-year-old asset. This thing was built before the Titanic set sail, when the Wright Brothers were switching from the Model A to the Model B flyer.”

Schulz, like many others, referred to it as the “most urgent infrastructure program in America.” “It needs to be replaced,” he added. “It needs to be rebuilt from the inside out, and there’s no alternative.”

In order to do that, the design for the Hudson River Tunnel includes four Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs), which, if you haven’t already seen the videos, are basically these massive drills that look like something you’d see someone driving in Mad Max. Attached to the TBMs are conveyor belts, which takes out the river muck and rock. As the machine bores deeper into the earth, workers follow behind, adding in the decor, like the lighting, tracks, and concrete finishes.

The two tunnels are three miles long, and require two TBMs each, which are custom-built for their respective terrain. The Palisades, which one tunnel will go through, has a hard rock surface, requiring a different cutting head than the other tunnel underneath the riverbed. The construction and operation of the TBMs make up a significant portion of the project’s estimated $12.9 billion price tag. (The project is currently finishing its environmental impact statement, and awaiting funding.)

Considering that technology, one might be wondering how subway tunnels built by hand nearly a hundred years ago have sustained billions of passengers for this long. But it’s not the original design that’s causing any of the issues.”It’s just that it’s old, and as you’re well aware, New York doesn’t close their subways,” Michael Wyetzner, an architect at Michielli+Wyetzner, who has written on the topic, told me. It’s in continual operation, which makes it even more challenging, and puts more wear and tear on it.”

In fact, he argues that the structural engineering that went into those tunnels was “really kind of brilliant,” a marvel of the Industrial Age build. He then mentioned the cut-and-cover method used underneath city streets, no further underground than a basement; engineers cut trenches on the side of the road, lifted up the cement, laid down tracks, and then put the road back on top. “It’s very American. It’s very New York,” he continued. “It’s pragmatic, and very, ‘Just get it done!’ And then they’d decorate it with some nice tiles, which I kind of get a kick out of.”

But like with any engineered construction, Wyetzner added, its utilities require maintenance—something that, critics say, the agency hasn’t funded properly in decades. And the result of that was seen by millions of passengers Monday morning. “It’s like a car—if you maintain your car, it’ll last much longer than if you don’t do anything,” Wyetzner told me. “That’s what really causes the delays and breakdowns. Without maintenance, everything tends to break down at once.”

Missed opportunity for a new Port Authority bus terminal

METRO

No, I am not a BUS LOVER, but realize how important they are where there are no trains.

Recent news that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has yet another plan for rebuilding the existing 42nd Street Bus Terminal is disappointing. The approved Port Authority 2017 – 2026 ten-year $32 billion Capital Plan provided only $3.5 billion toward construction of the new $10 billion 42nd Street PA Bus Terminal. Initiation of another planning study for $70 million is just the first down payment. How many more years will it take to complete this study, environmental review process, preliminary along with final design and engineering?

It is wishful thinking that the Port Authority can count on $6.5 billion in future federal funding to make up the difference. Don’t be surprised in waiting until the next Port Authority ten year 2027 – 2036 Capital Plan before a complete $10 billion or more funding package is in place. This is necessary to support awarding construction contracts.

The Port Authority, MTA, NJ Transit, NYC DOT and other transportation agencies are counting on the same US Department of Transportation Federal Transit or Federal Highway Administration to help provide billions toward the $29 billion Gateway Tunnel, $10 billion Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel and $6 billion Phase Two Second Avenue Subway among many others.

Five years ago in December 2012, NYC officials and developers broke ground for the new Hudson Yards project which is to be built over the Long Island Rail Road Westside storage yard between 10th and 12th Avenues in Manhattan were all smiles. It left transit riders and taxpayers frowning. The existing 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Terminal is antiquated lacking sufficient capacity to deal with current and future needs. Upon completion of their morning AM rush hour trips, hundreds of buses have to dead head back to New Jersey for midday storage. They have to make another return trip in the afternoon back to NYC for outbound evening service. Eliminating dead heading of buses would open up additional capacity for the already overcrowded Lincoln Tunnel. Relocating this facility to the Hudson Yards site would have provided the ideal solution. There would be the ability to expand capacity for new bus services. Hundreds of buses could lay over in Manhattan saving the costs of both fuel and deadheading to and from New Jersey.

Recent news that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has yet another plan for rebuilding the existing 42nd Street Bus Terminal is disappointing. The approved Port Authority 2017 – 2026 ten-year $32 billion Capital Plan provided only $3.5 billion toward construction of the new $10 billion 42nd Street PA Bus Terminal. Initiation of another planning study for $70 million is just the first down payment. How many more years will it take to complete this study, environmental review process, preliminary along with final design and engineering?

It is wishful thinking that the Port Authority can count on $6.5 billion in future federal funding to make up the difference. Don’t be surprised in waiting until the next Port Authority ten year 2027 – 2036 Capital Plan before a complete $10 billion or more funding package is in place. This is necessary to support awarding construction contracts.

The Port Authority, MTA, NJ Transit, NYC DOT and other transportation agencies are counting on the same US Department of Transportation Federal Transit or Federal Highway Administration to help provide billions toward the $29 billion Gateway Tunnel, $10 billion Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel and $6 billion Phase Two Second Avenue Subway among many others.

Five years ago in December 2012, NYC officials and developers broke ground for the new Hudson Yards project which is to be built over the Long Island Rail Road Westside storage yard between 10th and 12th Avenues in Manhattan were all smiles. It left transit riders and taxpayers frowning. The existing 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Terminal is antiquated lacking sufficient capacity to deal with current and future needs. Upon completion of their morning AM rush hour trips, hundreds of buses have to dead head back to New Jersey for midday storage. They have to make another return trip in the afternoon back to NYC for outbound evening service. Eliminating dead heading of buses would open up additional capacity for the already overcrowded Lincoln Tunnel. Relocating this facility to the Hudson Yards site would have provided the ideal solution. There would be the ability to expand capacity for new bus services. Hundreds of buses could lay over in Manhattan saving the costs of both fuel and deadheading to and from New Jersey.

Is Richard Branson’s high-speed train in a pneumatic tube pie in the sky?

The Guardian

First airlines, then spaceships. Now the Virgin boss wants to build Hyperloop One – a high-speed, pneumatic maglev railway. But engineering experts doubt that it will ever leave the station.

Last week, Richard Branson gave a boost to tech tycoon Elon Musk’s vision of a futuristic transport system. Hyperloop One is the frontrunner among several companies working on plans for magnetically propelled ground shuttles capable of keeping pace with commercial airliners. Branson announced an investment of an undisclosed sum in the company, which took its total funding to £186m.

Musk first outlined his plans, entitled Hyperloop Alpha, in 2013, when he said the system could provide a safer, faster and more convenient mode of long-distance transport than cars and trains, while also being low cost, sustainable, immune to adverse weather and earthquake-resistant.

He went on to describe a system of tubes elevated on columns running the 381 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with journey times cut from a driving time of six hours and 30 minutes to 35 minutes. In Silicon Valley style, he “open-sourced” the project, inviting others to take up its development.

Earlier this year, at Hyperloop One’s test site in Nevada, they carried out a trial using a full-size pod that reached 190mph, although the company is aiming for top speeds of 600mph-plus for the passenger vehicle.

Meanwhile, Musk, who is not directly involved with Hyperloop One, has taken his vision underground. In July, he claimed his separate venture The Boring Company had secured verbal agreement from the US government to build an underground loop from New York to Washington DC. The White House described the exchange only as a “promising conversation”.

As founder of the internet payment system PayPal, electric carmaker Tesla and rocket builder SpaceX, Musk has earned the right to be taken seriously. However, Branson’s financial involvement has failed to quieten the critics who argue none of the players in the hyperloop field has taken proper account of the size of the enormous hurdles facing anyone seeking to make the technology a reality.

Technology troubles
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While hyperloop might look revolutionary, some of its core concepts have a long pedigree. Musk’s plans describe capsules being fitted with electric compressor fans to transfer high-pressure air to the back of the vessel and travelling through low pressure tubes.

Maglev transport systems using magnetic levitation have long been used in Japan, South Korea and China. Pneumatic tube transport systems used to deliver messages and small parcels were developed during the 19th century. These use air-compressors attached to the ends of tubes to create a partial vacuum that pulls cargo along. The short-lived Beach Pneumatic Transit system used compressed air to move a carriage along a 95-metre tunnel in Manhattan between 1870 and 1873.

Of course, a hyperloop that safely carries people over long distances is an entirely different proposition and raises major engineering challenges. For example, the rapid compression of air required to drive the capsules would produce a lot of heat. Air conditioning could deal with this, but would require wider, more expensive tubes or tunnels.

Engineers also say the pipes would be subjected to significant thermal expansion under direct sunlight, especially in the Californian desert. A 100km pipe could expand by as much as 50 metres in length, potentially undermining the system by allowing air in. High-speed railways cope with this by having rails that overlap at the ends, but this isn’t possible with hyperloop. Musk’s solution is to use expansion joints, but the LA to San Francisco route would require thousands of them. This would produce a large maintenance workload to prevent a potentially critical failure.

Safety is the top priority for any transport system and engineers note that Musk’s hyperloop pronouncements have so far not been big on how it would handle glitches without fatalities. “It’s an exciting engineering challenge, but not much has been released on the safety case,” says Philippa Oldham, head of technology and manufacturing at Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers. “The devil will be in the detail. We really need to know a lot more about the safety features and what would happen if something went wrong.”

“As something entirely new, it will require an intense amount of testing, possibly even more than for the pharmaceutical industry, where trials can take 10, 15 or 20 years,” says Adie Tomer, an infrastructure expert at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution, a public policy thinktank.

Even if it can be shown to be safe, hyperloop also needs to be relatively comfortable. “Some people have called it the ‘barf tube’, because being accelerated at high speeds and then decelerated again is likely to make people sick,” says David Bailey, professor of industry at Aston Business School in Birmingham. This depends on the rate of acceleration. Passengers on a typical commercial aircraft experience a G-force of about 0.4 when taking off. Musk says hyperloop capsules could reach a top speed of 760mph in around 70 seconds, which would see passengers experience 0.5G.

We also experience lateral G-forces when going around a bend. To restrict these to 0.5G, the turning radius would be about 23.5km at 670mph. This requires routes to be kept almost straight or the capsules to slow right down when curves are necessary. Even then some passengers may still feel nauseous.

Those who have followed the twists and turns of selecting the route for HS2, England’s second high-speed rail network, planned to link London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, will know that getting people to agree where to put overground infrastructure in densely populated countries is challenging. “In a crowded country where land is expensive, the potential problems for hyperloop would be like those of HS2 on steroids.”

Such projects have to produce environmental impact assessments, which can take years to write. Work on a 16.2 mile extension to Washington DC’s subway began last year, having first been proposed in 1996. The project was long delayed by legal claims that it would undermine populations of Hay’s spring amphipod, a tiny protected crustacean.

People also tend to be pretty vociferous in their opposition to plans to demolish their homes for new transport systems to help others. That means they require solid, long-term support, which is difficult to get from politicians focused on elections.

“Finding and then obtaining the right land for infrastructure projects of this scale is a lot trickier than people realise,” says Tomer. “It’s what drives a lot of projects into the ground, whether because of the environmental protection of endangered species or people not wanting to give up their land and making the project take more expensive alternative routes.”

These complications probably explain why Musk’s more recent statements on hyperloop have described an underground system.

Consumer fears
As anyone with a fear of flying can attest, consumers’ perception of risk is more important than actual risk when it comes to passengers’ choice of modes of transport. About 30% of people admit to some fear of flying, yet mile for mile, driving a car is 100 times more deadly. Even a traditional train is twice as likely to be fatal.