It’s been a bumpy week for high-speed rail advocates in California. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published a story saying that groundbreaking on the first section of the “bullet train” route linking L.A. and San Francisco will likely slip into 2014—more than two years behind schedule. Then on Monday, aerospace and automotive mogul Elon Musk published details of his proposed Hyperloop, which would shorten the one-way trip from L.A. to San Francisco to just 35 minutes by shooting passenger pods through steel tubes on cushions of air at more than 700 miles per hour.
No one thinks the timing was a coincidence. It seems clear that Musk is trying to deflate enthusiasm for the existing rail project by dangling an even sexier alternative in front of the traveling public’s eyes. “I don’t think we should do the high-speed rail thing,” Musk told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s basically going to be California’s Amtrak.” (“He didn’t mean that as a compliment,” Bloomberg Businessweek helpfully explained.)
But it’s a false choice. The proposed routes for the two systems don’t overlap by much, so building one doesn’t preclude building the other. It’s really a question of hedging our bets—and supporting innovation of all stripes.
The 200-mph rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco, approved by California voters in a 2008 ballot measure, will cost at least $68 billion overall and will start operating over its full length by 2029 at the earliest. Its main advantage is that it uses proven technology: after 180 years, we know a lot about building railroads. The Hyperloop concept hasn’t advanced much beyond the sketch-on-a-napkin stage, so it would need to be thoroughly tested. But if, as Musk says, his proposed system can be built faster and for far less cash—$7.5 billion, which is little more than a rounding error in the California High Speed Rail Authority’s project—then there’s no reason to choose between the two ideas. Logic and economics dictate that we should try building both, and let the chips fall where they may. If we find out after a few years that Musk is right, we’ll still have time to pull the plug on high-speed rail. At that point, no one will want to waste $68 billion on an unneeded rail line that will take another 10 years to complete.
In fact, to up the stakes, I’d like to propose a prize competition, of the same sort that spurred John Harrison to solve the longitude problem in the 18th century and Charles Lindbergh to complete the first solo transatlantic flight in the 20th. Here’s my idea: the first organization to deliver a live human from Los Angeles to San Francisco over a fixed ground route in under three hours wins $10 billion. We can call it the Smog to Fog Challenge.
Okay, the name might need some work. Also, I’ll need to find a group of government agencies, corporations, and philanthropists enlightened enough to stake the prize money. (Larry and Sergey, I’m looking at you.)
While the title and the prize amount I’m suggesting are a bit tongue-in-cheek, I’m not joking about the idea of a prize. NASA, DARPA, and the X Prize Foundation have shown over and over that prize-based competitions stimulate innovation. And competitions have a venerable history in the railroad business. The 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, rewarded the competing companies—the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific—with 12,800 acres of land and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track they laid toward the central meeting point (which turned out to be Promontory Summit near Salt Lake City, Utah). Union Pacific, which had the easier job, won handily, completing some 1,086 track-miles from the Missouri River westward to Utah. But Central Pacific built an impressive 690 miles of track stretching from Sacramento eastward over the Rockies to Salt Lake.
It was, arguably, the best money the federal government ever spent. There’s no need to detail how much economic value was unlocked by the completion of the transcontinental link—the first in what became a vast network. Sending passengers and freight across the continent on iron rails was such a good idea that we’re still doing it today, long after nearly every other 1830s-era innovation has become obsolete.
Rail travel is fast, clean, efficient, and still a little romantic. That’s why I was a model railroader as a kid, and it’s why I’m a longtime fan of the California high-speed rail project, whose trains would glide down tracks just one block east of my loft building here in San Francisco. You have to admit that the idea of being able to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles by train in just two hours and 40 minutes—compared to an interminable five and a half hours by car—is pretty attractive. So is the project’s carbon profile. The High Speed Rail Authority has said that the trains will run wholly on electricity from renewable sources. And it has projected that by keeping people out of their cars, the rail project will lower greenhouse gas emissions by some 4 to 8 million metric tons every year—the equivalent of shutting down a coal-fired electric plant.
Granted, the high-speed rail plan is far from perfect. The route deemed most politically viable is also frustratingly indirect, taking LA-to-San Francisco passengers on a wide detour through Bakersfield and Fresno. (Phase 1 of the project, in fact, is a 300-mile “backbone” section connecting Merced to the San Fernando Valley, meaning nobody in San Francisco or Los Angeles will actually see high-speed trains until the late 2020s.) And for passengers departing San Francisco after 2029, the first 50 miles of the trip will hardly feel bullet-like. The authority has decided that it would be impractical to build new high-speed tracks in the existing Caltrain right-of-way, meaning the new trains will have to trundle down the peninsula at commuter-rail speeds.
But none of that is the stuff that bothers Musk, the charismatic co-founder of PayPal and the CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX. His principal objection is that we already have a fast way to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles: flying. Unless a new transportation system is faster, cheaper, and safer than air travel, Musk argues in a 57-page design brief posted this week on the Tesla Motors blog, it’s not worth building. (He adds that a new system should be more convenient than flying, immune to weather, sustainably self-powering, immune to earthquakes, and “not disruptive to those along the route.”)
The big question, of course, is whether the Hyperloop would qualify on any of these counts.
The system’s only indisputable advantage, based on the designs Musk has offered, is that it would be faster than plane travel, and way faster than train travel. Here’s the basic idea. A Hyperloop “capsule” would be narrow—only about 4.5 feet wide and 6 feet high—and would carry 28 passengers in a single row of seats. At stations, the capsule would … Next Page »
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