Elon Musk is a smart businessman who has been around plenty of politicians. So the founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors surely knows that his Hyperloop plan for high-speed rail is, for now at least, a nonstarter in California. It will take more than brilliance to steer Sacramento away from its chosen high-speed rail scheme, clunky and overpriced though it is. It was completely predictable that Long Beach Democrat Bonnie Lowenthal, chairwoman of the state assembly’s transportation committee, would dismiss Musk’s blueprint out of hand. “I think it’s a fascinating concept,” she said last week, “but there’s a long distance between imagination and implementation.” If Musk follows through on his plan to build a prototype of the Hyperloop, though, he might prove that that distance isn’t nearly as long as skeptics like Lowenthal believe.
Lowenthal is right about what happens to most bright ideas—especially in the transportation arena, where they generally stay in the “imagination” file because they’re too expensive to put into practice. Engineers have cooked up cool plans for magnetic levitation, monorail, and hypersonic tube transport. But these almost never get built, or when they do, they’re prohibitively costly and limited in scope. As a result, new rail projects, including California’s current “high-speed” plan, rely on old-fashioned trains whose wheels roll on rails, just as they’ve done for nearly two centuries.
Musk’s plan is persuasive on paper. As he describes it, the Hyperloop system would consist of passenger capsules propelled by electric motors in a tube in which the pressure is lowered to cut air resistance. The tube and its supporting pylons account for most of the projected cost. Musk claims that a line from Los Angeles to San Francisco could be built for about $6 billion—or $7.5 billion for a beefier system that could carry cars as well as people. This is just a fraction of the projected cost for the rail line that’s now in the works; the lightweight tube system would be elevated and require much less land than a conventional train. And even if the real-world price of the Hyperloop is several times Musk’s estimate, the cost of building, say, a 20-mile-long prototype and buying or leasing the cheap desert land for it seems well within Musk’s reach. Musk is a billionaire entrepreneur who would have no trouble raising the capital to prove the concept. His own wealth is one source. His magnetism among investors is another.
If Musk could get his prototype up and running, it would certainly make a statement—and that’s clearly what he wants to do. In his blog post introducing the Hyperloop, he described it as the kind of project that a forward-looking, innovative state like California should be pursuing: “When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” he wrote. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL—doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars—would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
The flaws of California’s high-speed rail plan are already well known. Even under the most optimistic projection, the rail system won’t come close to matching airline travel times, while tickets would cost at least as much as air travel. Also, the plan has already far exceeded its original $38 billion budget. (The official projected cost is now $68 billion.) Even longtime supporters are turning against the plan, and whatever enthusiasm voters once felt for it has vanished. If anything, the train is becoming politically toxic. Last month, Republican Andy Vidak won a special election to the state senate in a heavily Democratic San Joaquin Valley district along the train route. He blasted the train as a wasteful boondoggle; voters seemed to agree.
Still, the bullet train chugs along, pushed by construction unions and contractors, Governor Jerry Brown, voter-approved bonds, cheerleading from the Obama administration, and inertia. Even a successful Hyperloop demo may not be enough to kill the project. Musk is trying something new and difficult here. Rather than innovating with government support, as he has done with electric cars and privatized space travel, he is bucking the system. But even if he doesn’t stop California’s slow-moving bullet train, he could do everyone a favor by ensuring that it’s the last of its kind. If the Hyperloop catches on—and others will be interested if California is not—the state’s “high-speed” train will be a museum piece by the time it’s finished at last.