Will the Hyperloop Outrace the Bullet Train?

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

Let’s admit right up top that an intriguing proposal is difficult to stack up against a plan that is already in place, but yesterday’s news must have churned some stomachs at California’s High Speed Rail Authority.  One report stated that the bullet train is facing new delays before it gets started and that those delays very likely could add to the rail’s cost. Another report talked about a futuristic competitor to high speed rail that would transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in one-fifth the time and at one-tenth the cost of the high speed rail.

As the Bloomberg Businessweek news report asserted, the proposed Hyperloop transport made up of aluminum pods enclosed in steel tubes “immediately poses a challenge to the status quo—in this case, California’s $70 billion high-speed train.”

The idea is from Elon Musk, chief executive of both Tesla Motors and its electric cars and the Space X satellite company. The idea is to transport people in pods through the tubes along the I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes.

Hyperloop or Hyperbole?

The report indicates the science is sound. The pods will travel through low pressure tubes similar to vacuum tubes often used in large businesses and manufacturing plants to send documents around. Or as Musk put it, the experience would be “like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland.”

Besides the time difference in travel – the bullet train is supposed to run the SF to LA route in 2.5 hours, although critics dispute that time frame – Musk projects the cost to build the transport system would be between $6-$10 billion. Not only is that about one-tenth the current projected cost for the high speed rail, but that amount could be covered by the already approved state bond for the HSR. No need to search for those pesky outside investors who haven’t appeared yet to fund the rail system.

Another benefit of the tube transport is that the tube can be built above the existing interstate. No need to buy land from disaffected farmers and landowners.

Of course, since there is no real plan, it is difficult to know what the cost would be for the Hyerloop. Musk says he’s not going to work on the project because he’s too busy with other endeavors. He offers his proposal for others to consider and improve.

The problem for the high speed rail is that the discussion about the Hyperloop comes at a time when the high speed rail seems to be going off track. As the Los Angeles Times reported, construction of the HSR was scheduled for 2012, moved back to spring 2013, adjusted again to July 2013 and now officials are saying the groundbreaking won’t happen until 2014.

With the delays, construction experts warn, costs could go up. Recall how the cost of the rail has bounced around so often in the past.

Of course, keeping a low first estimate on a big project is part of the game plan according to former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown. In July, he wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle column: “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Well, there’s an alternative to the bullet train now.

The idea of tube travel is not new as of yesterday. In fact, I referenced a similar plan in a piece I wrote on this site over a year ago. At that time I wrote, “the HSR technology could be outmoded before the state sees a train make its first run.

Musk’s announcement further challenges the HSR as cutting edge technology.

Whether the Hyperloop is feasible is a question for engineers. But the economic challenge it presents against a system that could be outmoded before it is built should give the legislators and the governor pause.

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