Happening Now

Transportation problems require real solutions, not the rule of cool

January 27, 2014

Written By Colin Leach

Opponents of California’s high speed rail line are fond of labeling the project “unrealistic,” arguing that while connecting the state’s major cities via a zooming 220 mph train would be fantastic, Californians simply cannot afford to do so right now. However, noted tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has found an interesting way to spin this narrative by opposing the project for not being fantastic enough.

Last summer, the founder of both SpaceX and Tesla Motors proposed a new form of passenger transportation that he termed the“Hyperloop”. Based on the use of vacuum technology to propel a passenger vehicle through a sealed tube, Musk believes that “Hyperloop” could connect passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a mere thirty minutes—one hour and fifty minutes shorter than the proposed high speed rail line. Furthermore, Musk also believes that his proposal could be built for $6 billion- a mere fraction of the $91 billion envisioned for high speed rail.

However, it must be said that Musk’s proposal has never been tried in any practical sense. While engineers have pondered the theoretical application of vacuum tube technology for transportation since the turn of the 20th century, no attempt has been made at building a full-scale prototype. Indeed, the only projects conceptually similar to Hyperloop were demonstration “pneumatic railways” built in London and New York in the mid-19th century. Ultimately, these projects were rejected in favor of more conventional projects because of prohibitive costs and technical inefficiencies.

Why, then, does Musk argue that Hyperloop should be favored over high speed rail? His own cost and travel time projections aside, Musk argues that high speed rail is “going backwards”, likening it to adopting the old DC-3 airliner over the Concorde. That said, he says that he does not oppose high speed rail entirely, but wishes that planners would instead look to build a rail line that would surpass the Shanghai maglev in capacity and complexity. Most succinctly, Musk argues that he is not interested in any particular solution, even Hyperloop, but he merely wishes for the United States to have a “badass” transportation system. What this means, however, is a subject for debate.

In essence, Musk maintains that America’s transportation needs should be satisfied by what fiction writers have long termed the “rule of cool”. This convention argues that readers or viewers should suspend disbelief about implausible plot elements simply because said elements are either “cool” or “awesome”. This convention can also be successfully applied to Musk’s proposal for Hyperloop and his overall attitude towards transportation. Rather than embracing the most advanced forms of proven technologies, Musk instead proposes a completely new, untried system with uncertain costs.

What happens to these sorts of systems? More often than not, they flounder and cannot compete with proven, cost-effective technologies. Consider, after all, that there remain many Douglas DC-3s in revenue service nearly eighty years after their original introduction into service. The Concorde, on the other hand, hasn’t flown in more than a decade, and there are no plans to introduce similar supersonic airliners in the future. The reason is simple: the DC-3 is much more cost-effective to operate on a wide variety of services, whereas Concorde was limited exclusively to premium trans-Atlantic services.

The same argument can be made about Hyperloop. First, it must be observed that Musk has likely significantly underestimated the costs of building the system. Dan Sperling, a professor of engineering at at the University of California, Davis, contended that there was simply “no way the economics on that would ever work out”, arguing that capital, labor, and manufacturing costs would be far in excess of Musk’s projection. Michael Anderson, a professor of economics at University of California, Berkeley, said he believed that a one way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would likely cost upwards of $1,000, and that the total cost for construction would be in excess of $100 billion.

Furthermore, the very nature of Hyperloop as a transportation system should be considered. By design, the service will only connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. But what good will this do for residents of cities such as Bakersfield, Fresno, San Jose, Fresno, and others? Building a transportation system that only serves major cities exacerbates problems caused by lack of transportation options in smaller markets. California’s steel-wheel-on-steel-rail high speed train will also have the benefit of compatibility with existing rail infrastructure, with blended endpoints allowing for high speed trains to run side-by-side with existing commuter and Amtrak services, offering travelers a wide variety of choices.

As we have long maintained, both conventional and high speed passenger rail offer unique opportunities to foster economic growth and development in big and small cities alike. Given the unique nature of railroad operations, conventional and high speed services can be structured to accommodate both express trains that serve only major cities as well as trains that serve smaller communities in between. This principle has been well proven by more than 180 years of successful passenger train operation. Whether on the first steam-powered train from Baltimore to Ellicott City in 1830, or on the Cascades between Seattle and Portland in 2014, passenger trains are uniquely placed to efficiently and cost-effectively serve large and small communities.

But all of this should not be taken as a total condemnation of Mr. Musk, or his enthusiasm for improved transportation. NARP has been and continues to be an advocate of a balanced transportation that will serve all Americans now and in the future. Nevertheless, we insist that this network must be built on the basis of technologies with proven results, not conjecture. And that’s why we continue to defend the promise of California High Speed Rail, just as we’ve consistently defended conventional long-distance trains.

We know the results that investment in conventional and high speed rail services can bring, just look at Europe or Japan. We need not look to theoretical, “cool” possibilities for transportation solutions when we have several at our fingertips.

Written by Colin Leach with assistance from Sean Jeans-Gail.