While high-speed rail, California’s monument to folly, mocks itself with unfinished concrete pillars rising toward the sky like empty hands and tracks leading to nowhere, a tunnel burrowed by entrepreneur Elon Musk beneath Los Angeles might be the forerunner to a transportation system that’s faster, cheaper, and safer than a bullet train.
California’s high-speed rail project is a much-troubled enterprise. We’ve documented here, here, and here its many problems, not the least of which is its cost, estimated now to be nearly three times original projection of $33 billion.
If a transportation artery linking Northern and Southern California must be built, a hyperloop is the far better option. Best described as a chain of railroad car-like pods that flow smoothly through airtight steel tubes, a hyperloop might not be as romantic as a bullet train. But it makes more sense.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies of Culver City says a hyperloop route between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost about $16 billion. Not only would it need fewer public funds — in a perfect world, it would be a fully privatized business, which is the goal for some in the industry — a hyperloop would be far more efficient. Musk, who wrote a white paper on hyperloop systems in 2013, and will open his proof-of-concept tunnels to the public in early December, sees a future in which travelers can in effect be shot from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes. Not even jetliners can’t achieve compete with the projected speed of a hyperloop.
It is expected to carry fewer risks than a bullet train. One hyperloop executive has said such a system could be 10 times safer than an air travel.
Musk’s tunnel, which stretches one mile starting beneath SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters, was hollowed out by his Boring Company, another of his “hobbies.” It might be the groundwork, literally speaking, for even grander hyperloop projects, including one connecting Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Southern California.
The Boring Company is under contract to build a modified hyperloop in between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago that would complete one-way trips in only 12 minutes. Wired magazine reported earlier this month that other companies “with more than $300 million in funding” are competing to get out ahead of Musk and build the first operating hyperloop.
Live projects that could have a bearing on California’s transportation future include a test track being built in France by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in Culver City, which has also assembled a passenger capsule to be used on the track; and a test track north of Las Vegas built by Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One. Two other California companies, Arrivo of Los Angeles, and Santa Monica’s Hyper Chariot will also help push the technology and development of hyperloop transportation.
The future of hyperloop transportation is admittedly uncharted, since it’s still in the concept stages. But it can’t be denied that the California high-speed rail has a cloudy future. Everything associated with it, from construction costs to funding to ride times to passenger fares to its completion date, remains unsettled. At this point, the Golden State bullet train seems more of a fantasy than a California hyperloop.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.