The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Will California’s High-Speed Rail Be Obsolete From Day One?

Elon Musk, maker of electric cars and launcher of civilian spaceships, has a plan for a new transportation system that could make California’s massive high-speed rail undertaking a failure at launch. It’s called the Hyperloop, and it plans to whisk passengers in car-sized capsules through enclosed tubes at great speed, shortening the LA to San Francisco commute down to a mere half of an hour. Musk describes this plan as a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” Believe it or not, Musk has a company—ET3—that is already working on this. Yahoo News reports on ET3′s pipe dream, called Evacuated Tube Transport:

ET3′s Hyperloop-like project already has a number of schematics and plans already in place. They claim an automobile-sized, six-passenger capsule constructed for “outer space” travel conditions could easily reach speeds of 4,000 miles per hour on longer journeys across the country or across continents. In theory, this elevated tube system could be built for a tenth of the cost of high-speed rail and a quarter the cost of a freeway. The projected cost for a passenger to travel from Los Angeles to New York is $100.

If the Hyperloop or Evacuated Tube Trasnsport was built and succeeded, it could make California’s current high-speed rail project obsolete. With a budgeted cost of $70 billion, the high-speed system currently under development would take passengers from San Francisco to L.A. in three hours, potentially six times slower than the Hyperloop.

We’re not necessarily holding our breath for our nation’s transportation infrastructure to be converted into a series of tubes. This kind of scheme has long been a staple of science fiction, and the engineering obstacles between its conception and its production are not inconsiderable. But what the story does illustrate is the hazard of making massive infrastructure bets as if technology is standing still. By the time California’s high speed rail finally comes on line, our idea of what high speed transportation should be may very well have dramatically shifted.

VM‘s preference would be to see more investment in our nation’s infostructure instead. Beefing up broadband, promoting telework, taking advantage of driverless cars: these all seem like much smarter (and cheaper) bets on how to meet the demands of future generations. The information economy substitutes the movement of information for the movement of meat; California’s expensive white elephant of a high speed rail system is a more effective method of transferring the public’s money to contractors and unions than of moving people.

Published on July 14, 2013 10:05 am
  • ljgude

    Indeed, pushing a technology beyond its natural limitations is sometimes not cost effective. I always thought the US was wise not to get involved in the Concorde. When I saw one from a 747 ready to take off at Heathrow I felt it shake the plane I was on impressively. I realized that it was mostly engine with a small passenger capacity and was a clear case of the law of diminishing returns. I agree this new technology is a long way from being realized, but this kind of huge ‘investment may not even make money over operating costs, never mind a return on investment. It looks like an expensive aspirational project that no one can afford.

  • Andrew Allison

    You omitted the major miscreant: “. . . California’s expensive white elephant of a high speed rail system is a more effective method of transferring the public’s money . . . and, via campaign contributions, etc., to politicians and their enablers than of moving people.
    The CEO’s last job, for example, was at “a global consulting firm assisting public and private clients to plan,
    develop, design, construct, operate and maintain critical infrastructure (http://www.pbworld.com/). The award of contacts will, of course, be scrupulously impartial! California’s HSR is an immense logrolling project doomed to failure at taxpayer expense.

  • http://davidhdennis.com/ David H Dennis

    Will California’s high-speed rail system be obsolete from Day One? Well, the answer is, it already is. Americans love their cars, love their planes and are indifferent to their trains. So why on earth do we want to spend incomprehensible amounts of money to build more of them?

  • MarkE

    This sounds like a scaled up version of the old pneumatic tube systems that we used to see in department stores. That was before fax and email and, probably, Elon Musk.

  • Corlyss

    I thought it was obsolete from conception.

    “This kind of scheme has long been a staple of science fiction, and the engineering obstacles between its conception and its production are not inconsiderable.”

    Right. Think “earthquakes.” And aesthetically its as bad as a windmill farm.

  • Pait

    High speed trains have worked in Europe and in Japan quite well for decades. It is a proven technology.

    Electric cars have a much less encouraging record, unfortunately. This blog seems to have a prejudice against high speed rail and a weak spot for electric cars, which may make it too excited about other unproven technologies such as ultratubes, hyperloops, and driverless cars.

    More attention to sober engineering analysis might be profitable.

    • rheddles

      Odd to use the word profitable when discussing HSR. In any country.