California’s Transportation Future Is Not A Series of Tubes
One of the more annoying talking points used by high speed rail critics is that HSR will somehow be “obsolete” by the time it’s built. The latest claim: that “some sort of tube” will move people from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in just 30 minutes.
It’s not just something out of Futurama – it’s also out of Elon Musk’s brain. Joe Mathews reports:
The biggest problem with California’s high-speed rail project may not be that it’s estimated to cost $70 billion — money the state doesn’t have. The biggest problem may be that, by the time it’s built in 20 years or so, high-speed rail may be obsolete.
So suggests one of California’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, Elon Musk, in an interview with the magazine Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Musk, best known for the private firm SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla, takes a shot at high-speed rail by way of declaring that he’s working on an alternative — a new, solar-powered technology that would get people from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in just 30 minutes.
If he pulls it off, it would be faster than planes, and five time faster than the high-speed rail project, which, according to current projections, would require nearly 3 hours for the same journey….
Musk, as is well known, is a big-thinking visionary whose companies have had trouble turning technologies into real products and advances. So skepticism about this scheme is highly warranted.
But it’s a reminder that the world changes fast, and technology is advancing. And a state that bets tens of billions of dollars on a technology — high-speed rail — that is already old could be making a historically bad bet. And not just because of all the money required.
I’ll play along and take this idea seriously for a moment. How exactly can you move a human being some 450 miles in 30 minutes through a tube? That’s a 900 mile per hour speed, or Mach 1.18. Are they moved in some sort of pod or on their own? How much does this infrastructure cost? How do you power such a system?
The fastest maglev speed recorded is 361 mph, well short of the 900 mph this tube idea would require. Supersonic aerial transport has been tried, namely with the Concorde, but the operating costs were too high and it proved to be extremely difficult to get permission to operate it over land (which is why it primarily served a trans-Atlantic route). I suppose there might be some way to hit 900 mph in a tube but I have no idea what that would be.
I’m not trying to harsh on Elon Musk’s idea, but this is not particularly realistic. Sure, there’s been a lot of technological innovation over the last 20 years, but it’s led to the iPhone, not to a series of transportation tubes.
I don’t quite know why, but a lot of people find it hard to accept that it’s high speed rail which is on the cutting edge of transportation technology. It’s energy efficient, usually makes an operating profit, and is a good use of space with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. Steel wheel high speed trains have shown innovation and technological advances, with France testing a ultra high speed train in 2007 at 356 mph.
Any number of investments we’re making today could be rendered obsolete by some massive leap forward in technology. But it’s hard to see where that comes from in transportation. High speed rail meets all the challenges we’re likely to see over the next decades. It’s a proven success around the world. And it’s proven adaptable and expandable, able to keep up with new technologies.
California should continue to invest in innovation and bold new ideas. It also needs to invest in sensible, functional, proven solutions that work well around the world. Maybe tubes will be the basis of transportation someday. But for as far as I can see, high speed rail is where California’s transportation future lies.