The Hype Behind California’s High-Speed Rail and the Hyperloop

highspeedtrainCalifornia High-Speed Rail is a high-speed rail system currently under construction in the state of California traveling at speeds of up to 250 mph.  Current estimates of the cost for just the first phase of this project are close to $70 billion. The Hyperloop is a concept, publicized in 2014, by Elon Musk in which capsules holding up to 28 people would travel in a near-vacuum tubethat had a small amount of air in it. The capsule would ride on a little cushion of air, kind of like an air hockey table, except the air would be coming out of the puck in this case (the bottom of the capsule), at speeds of approximately 700 mph.  It would be powered by solar energy and cost about $7 million.  Funding for the rail system was approved by California state voters in 2008.    Voters were never asked about the Hyperloop; it’s concept didn’t exist back then.    So should California switch gears and move towards this concept?   Consumers actually might have a stake in the answer, as the cost of travel within California could drop or increase based upon which project is developed.

The arguments for a high-speed transport investment in California are compelling.  As outlined by author James Fallows, doing something is important.   However, what that something is gets a bit trickier.  In Phase 1 of the Rail project, the route will connect Los Angeles with San Francisco.  The construction began in the Central Valley north of Madera, and is proceeding south towards Bakersfield at the south end of the valley. It will then continue south into the high desert and the city of Palmdale,and then into the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, terminating in Anaheim. Construction will continue from the north end of the tracks above Madera to the San Francisco Bay Area, and terminate in downtown San Francisco.  The project’s cost is subject to significant increases since approved by voters and the availability of right-of-ways has proven to be difficult.   Moreover, numerous lawsuits have caused delays with perhaps the most challenging lawsuit awaiting argument at the California Supreme Court:  do California’s environmental protection laws apply to this partially-federally funded project?

According to Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban, the Hyperloop would be a project that is built in the median of the existing Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles.   It would theoretically take 35 minutes to travel between the two cities (compared to 2.5 hours on the Rail Project). Solar panels would be mounted on top of the tube, which would generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate. And propulsion would happen in the same way it does for the Model S—electrical induction. In this case, instead of a round, pigs-in-a-blanket motor, you’d have it “rolled out flat” so that there would be stator panels on the inside of the tube which would “push” on rotor panels on the outside of the capsule to fling it forward. These “motors” in the tube would only need to be in sparse locations. With very little friction, most of the time the capsule would just be gliding on inertia.  The result, Urban claims, would be the lowest energy cost per passenger in history to get people from LA to SF — far cheaper than even a motorcycle.

The High-Speed Rail project has commenced its work — governed by a publicly-appointed Board of Directors and partly funded by federal transport funds.   Meanwhile, group of investors and engineers came together to form Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company with a mission to make the Hyperloop a reality. Their first crack will be to connect LA with Las Vegas (using the route along the highway I-15), something they predict can be finished by 2025, four years before the CA high-speed railway is complete.  And in mid-June,  SpaceX launched the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, geared towards university students and independent engineering teams, to design and build the best Hyperloop pod.  SpaceX is building a one-mile test track at the SpaceX headquarters in LA, and teams will get to demonstrate their prototypes on the track one year from today, in June 2016.

In reality, it is unlikely that the High Speed Rail project will be abandoned.  Nor should it.   The first phase will serve the state’s Central Valley, which could benefit from a high-speed rail transport system to assist with transport of foods and other products from that valley.  The Hyperloop, in contrast, is a high-tech people mover that should be better positioned to serve high-density parts of the state.   We’d hope that the California High-Speed Rail Authority might consider a Hyperloop installation to serve the SF-LA route, as well as perhaps San Diego and Los Angeles, via Orange County.

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