Yesterday, Elon Musk – the billionaire CEO of Tesla and the space transport company SpaceX – unveiled plans for the "Hyperloop," a high-speed transport system that, at least on paper, will enable a person to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in roughly 35 minutes. The idea is to shoot 28-seat pods through tubes using air pressure, allowing the pods to travel at almost 700 miles per hour; the tubes would be built along California's Interstate 5 highway.
Musk has no plans to actually attempt to build the system, but is publicly releasing the idea in case anyone is willing to give construction a shot or to improve on the design. And in theory, it all sounds great! San Fran to L.A. in the time it takes to watch an episode of a sitcom! (But already, some cold water has been tossed on Musk's design.)
The kicker is that Musk estimates building the Hyperloop would cost $6 billion to $10 billion, just a fraction of the $68 billion that California's proposed high-speed rail line linking the same two cities is expected to cost (and the Hyperloop would travel much, much faster). And therein lies the real problem: America's transportation infrastructure is so behind the times that unfunded, potentially unworkable ideas set our collective imagination atwitter, because the reality of what we're stuck with today is pretty lame.
The U.S., according to the latest statistics from the International Union of Railways, has just 362 miles of high-speed rail either in operation or under construction. That compares to 3,914 miles in China, 1,655 miles in Japan, 1,278 miles in Spain and 798 miles in Germany. The only truly "high-speed" rail line in the U.S. is the Acela, which travels between Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. But the Acela's average speed of 68-82 miles per hour – along with its top speed of 150 mph – is dwarfed by other rail lines around the world.
And it's not that there is no demand for rail service in the U.S. Amtrak set a ridership record last year with 31.2 million customers, which is a 55 percent increase in the last 15 years. The previous record was set, not surprisingly, the year before. If current trends hold, passenger traffic in the Northeast alone could top 40 million passengers annually.
Yet getting new money for passenger rail out of Congress has become akin to pulling teeth; House Republicans and Mitt Romney last year both threatened to slash Amtrak funding, despite the ridership record the company was setting. Here's a depressing look at how the U.S. has allocated its transportation dollars over the last half century, courtesy of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy:
As you can see, highways have been a definite priority; rail, not so much. But it's not just passenger rail that could use a lift. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, deficient public transit systems cost the U.S. economy $90 billion in wasted fuel and lost time in 2010 alone, which will increase to $570 billion by 2020 and $1 trillion by 2040, if current funding trends hold. A smaller percentage of U.S. households report having access to public transportation today than in 2001.
So while it's all well and good to fawn over the Hyperloop – and imagine what zooming over California in a series of tubes would be like – it's worth remembering that there are plenty of ways to make America a much better and more pleasant place to travel without building the train of the future. We just need to invest in actually building some of the trains (and other transit systems) of today.