Shocking as it may seem, people enjoy not vomiting.
The Hyperloop is the Donald Trump presidential campaign of transportation technology: it seems certain to fail at any moment, and yet somehow not only lives on but gains strength.
It’s been a couple years now since Elon Musk whipped up plans to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 30 minutes via travel pods capable of going 760 mph—all at a fraction of the cost of high-speed rail. A half hour would seem like the proper amount of time for an idea like that to indeed run its course; instead, there’s now a “a good-old fashioned race on” to build the system, according to Gizmodo. In addition to Musk’s SpaceX operation, two other companies are actually moving forward with a test track.
Here’s the latest test project video, via Hyperloop Technologies. Not pictured: massive amounts of passenger vomiting.
The peculiar skepticism that Americans hold toward high-speed rail seems to end precisely where the Hyperloop begins. First, the costs. Much of the Hyperloop buzz centers on its cost, supposedly far lower than HSR. But Musk’s initial estimate of $6 billion for the L.A.-S.F. line has been battered, and mathematician-blogger Alon Levy finds that reported costs for one of the test companies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which plans to build its practice track in Quay Valley, California, are also about a wash with HSR:
The per-km cost of this scheme is about $19 million, which if costs don’t run over is reasonable for HSR flat terrain, if anything a bit low. California HSR’s Central Valley segments, in more urbanized areas, are about $24-27 million/km, ex-electrification and systems (which don’t add much). This, in principle, suggests the system could be built for about the same cost as conventional HSR.
Cost aside, there’s the comfort factor. You don’t need to understand lateral acceleration or canting or g-force (fortunately) to realize how unpleasant it will be to ride the Hyperloop. There’s a reason more people prefer the train in the U.S.’s Northeast Corridor, even though the plane is slightly quicker (and often slightly cheaper): it’s a more comfortable, productive ride. The Hyperloop would be faster than HSR, but not much faster once you factor in terminals outside downtown areas, and travel time saved is only worth so much if it’s spent feeling sick.
The tech industry can spare a few dreamers, and even a few billion dollars, to pursue the Hyperloop if it so desires. But why such a fantastical project would spark a race of rich resources and sharp minds while a conventional high-speed rail effort (not to mention basic bus service in cities) struggles to secure public support is a bit of a curious case. Then again, the same can be said of Trump’s poll numbers.