Elon Musk says that he will publish his long-hinted at idea for a “hyperloop” on August 12. Some background: Musk claims that the hyperloop will enable travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or back) in 30 minutes, and will have a laundry list of desirable features like energy efficiency, safety, etc.
I am, of course, skeptical. I don’t think that any airborne supersonic system can be safe or energy efficient enough, and I don’t think that any kind of tunnel system will be practical to build considering the long distances. Turning radius will be a problem for 100% of any ground-based very high speed systems, and the engineering challenges that plague high speed rail are very likely to be worse for anything with the parameters of the hyperloop.
That said, if the hyperloop proves to be anything that’s not completely insane (and Musk’s track record argues that it will be ambitious but not completely insane), then even if it’s not really practical for SF to LA, I’m going to be a lot more excited about it than California’s silly High Speed Rail project, because unlike rail, it has a raison d’etre: Actually improving service from SF to LA. Even taking away the obscene cost of HSR, the many technical impediments to its completion, it proposes to take the well-serviced air corridor, taking about 1 hour of flight time, between SF and LA and supplement it with a rail version that takes more than three hours.
If there are two crazy, expensive, unlikely-to-be-completed projects, one of which proposes to halve the travel time between these cities, and the other to triple it, I know where my sympathies lie.
And if the hyperloop is untenable between SF and LA, it might not be so untenable in other locations involving shorter distances, more forgiving terrain, or lower land costs. It’d be great to be able to get from SF to LA in 30 minutes, but if we can’t, but can get from Dallas to Austin in 15 minutes, well, that’s a nice consolation prize.