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 roll on wheels, but in transit the wheels would retract and the whole assembly would float on skis that emit a thin layer of pressurized air.
The air would come from the Hyperloop tube itself. To reduce drag on the capsules, pumps would lower the air pressure inside the tubes to 100 pascals—about the same as the pressure at an altitude of 150,000 feet. But there would still be enough air in the tubes to be scooped up by a battery-powered compressor at the nose of the capsule and sent to a pressurized storage tank, and from there to the skis.
Some of the air would also spew out the back, providing a bit of thrust, but the capsule’s real propulsion would come from a linear induction motor system. The design calls for “rotors” or aluminum fins on the outside of the capsule to provide acceleration as they pass through electrified stators attached to the inside of the tube.
The power for the stators and air pumps would come from solar panels installed along the top of the pair of tubes (northbound and southbound). The tubes themselves would be placed 20 feet above the ground on concrete pylons spaced 100 feet apart. The Hyperloop’s main footprint on the landscape, then, would be a chain of 25,000 pillars from Los Angeles to San Francisco, mostly along the median of I-5.
Musk says the capsules could travel at 300 mph along I-5’s curvy sections and a near-transonic 760 mph along the straightaways, for a total L.A.-to-San Francisco travel time of 35 minutes. Well, technically, Musk’s suggested route for the Hyperloop stops in Oakland—there is no provision for getting the capsules across San Francisco Bay. So in an apples-to-apples comparison between the Hyperloop and the high-speed rail plan, you’d need to add another 15 minutes or so for the decidedly subsonic subway ride from Oakland into San Francisco.
If anybody has offered a convincing case for the Hyperloop’s technical infeasibility, I haven’t seen it yet. Nothing Musk proposes violates the laws of physics or requires brand-new technology. It’s hard to know in advance how much energy would be required to pump air out of the Hyperloop tubes and to compress it onboard the capsules, so it may be optimistic to assume that batteries and solar panels could supply all of it. On top of that, some critics say drag and friction inside the tubes might be unmanageable, while others worry that passengers would be exposed to excessive g-forces. But such details could probably be ironed out.
So the next big question is cost. Musk says a fleet of 40 capsules could be built for $54 million, and the tube system for $4.4 billion. He figures the land required, apart from the I-5 median, could be bought for another $1 billion, for a total project cost of only $6 billion. A larger version of the Hyperloop capsule and tube system, capable of carrying vehicles or freight, specs out at $7.5 billion. If you amortized that cost over 20 years, the price of a one-way ticket would be only $20, Musk calculates.
Now, I’m neither an economist nor an engineer, but my instinct as a technology observer is that Musk has probably low-balled all of these cost estimates. Just look at the AirTrain system in New York City, an elevated railway system that carries passengers from from a subway station in Queens to JFK Airport. Like the proposed Hyperloop, the AirTrain runs along a viaduct above a highway (the Van Wyck Expressway); also like the Hyperloop, it uses linear induction motors for propulsion, and is fully automated, with no engineers or conductors on board. That system, built by the Canadian rail equipment firm Bombardier Transportation, cost $1.9 billion, and it’s only 8 miles long. At New York prices, covering the 350 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost an eye-popping $82 billion—about $14 billion more than the estimated cost of California’s high-speed rail project.
If Musk’s estimates are off by an order of magnitude, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, the Hyperloop will cost more than high-speed rail (assuming that the rail project itself doesn’t continue to explode in cost). If he’s only off by a factor of five, the Hyperloop will be cheaper. Either way, it’s too early to say whether the Hyperloop is or isn’t an economically viable alternative to the rail project. The only way to find out is to try building it, starting with extensive computer simulations, followed by the construction of a test track.
This will involve no small risk and expense, given the distances required to accelerate an 8,400-lb capsule to 760 mph, then slow it back down. Even a tycoon like Musk can’t finance something like that out-of-pocket. California voters set aside $9 billion in state bonds for the rail project; to level the playing field and jumpstart the market for a next-generation land-based mass transportation system, we need an incentive prize like the Smog to Fog Challenge.
If the California High Speed Rail Authority finishes first, great—winning the prize would reduce the cost to taxpayers by $10 billion. If some hypothetical Hyperloop Consortium wins (I’m seeing a collaboration between Tesla, Bombardier, and Lockheed Martin in my crystal ball) then we end up with a really cool way for hipster documentary-makers in San Francisco to zip down to Hollywood for the Academy Awards or for Angelenos to grab dinner at the Slanted Door.
But who could fund such an enormous prize? I’d like to nudge the big Los Angeles and Silicon Valley biotech, defense, Internet, and computing companies, who have a vested interest in the quality of life in California, to step up. For if nothing else, a system as fast as the Hyperloop could be seen as a really fat data pipe. Musk thinks a Hyperloop capsule will be able to carry passengers and luggage weighing up to 2,800 kilograms. If you replaced all of that weight with 1-terabyte hard drives and rushed them from L.A. to San Francisco in 35 minutes, you’d get an effective bandwidth of 4.8 terabits per second. That’s about 50 times faster than today’s state-of-the-art 100-gigabit Ethernet networks.
So that’s my proposal. I went into my study of Musk’s design document thinking that the Hyperloop was, well, loopy, and that the hordes of instant critics this week were probably right. I came out thinking that the concept might just be feasible—and hoping that Californians, and Americans, haven’t lost the ability to think big. Let’s keep moving forward on high-speed rail—it’s one of the only audacious projects on the docket right now. But let’s also give Musk some room to put the Hyperloop to the test.
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