Hyperloop + TSA

Let’s take it as premised that the hyperloop can basically work at no more than a modest x4 cost overrun (ie, $28 billion, ie at least 3x cheaper than HSR).  In this world, Tyler Cowen asks, what’s the point?  It takes 35 minutes to take the hyperloop from SF to LA, and you could fly in an hour.  You save 25 minutes.  And it’s not actually 35 minutes vs 1 hour, he says, it’s maybe 2.5 hours (30 minutes get to airport, 1 hour leeway to do ticketing and checkin and mostly security, 1 hour actual transit), versus a bit over 2 hours (30 minutes to get to hyperloop terminal, 1 hour leeway to do ticketing and checking and mostly security, 35 minutes actual transit), and do those 25 minutes really matter?

So, okay, a few things:

  1. Even if the TSA is exactly as onerous in the hyperloop terminal versus the plane terminal, you don’t have to arrive quite as early.  With planes, you build in extra leeway to make your specific plane, and usually end up sitting around in the boarding terminal for at least 15 minutes, and often more than 30 minutes, because you need to take that particular plane, and the next one isn’t for, best case, another hour.  The hyperloop notionally sends identical cars away from the terminus every 30 seconds.  When you get through security, you’re done.  You just get on a pod.  So that actually increases the advantage of the hyperloop — you probably save an extra 15 minutes to 30 minutes on your total trip.  (This is an advantage over rail as well).
  2. Some of Cowen’s commenters point out that you don’t need to screen people for things like box cutters on the hyperloop, because there’s no pilot to hijack and run into a building.

Point two is true, but…  at risk of pointing out the obvious, we don’t actually need to screen people for box cutters on airplanes, either.  The single actually effective safety measure that came out of September 11th is that there’s a strong, locked door between the pilots and the passengers.  It is no longer possible to hijack airplanes with box cutters.  Frankly, it’s probably not possible to hijack them at all.  Blow them up, yes.  Hijack them, no.

As to blowing things up:  I get on BART and Caltrain every day.  There is no security on either.  Today on Caltrain, a guy jumped off to tag his Clipper card, and left his backpack behind.  As the train pulled away from the station, the concerned passengers around his former seat opened his backpack up and checked to see if there was some way to contact him.  Nobody remotely suggested calling a conductor.  (He got onto a different car, came back, and reclaimed his backpack).

The fact of the matter is, the TSA is and always has been security theater.  Nothing about the ridiculous security screening that we go through is actually making us safer.  If there were terrorists in the United States interested in blowing things up with bombs left, right, and center, they have an enormous number of totally unsecured targets.  The security at airports is not a rational response to threats, it’s a political gesture.

Which makes it hard to say how it would be applied to a hypothetical hyperloop.  Would we absurdly screen people for boxcutters?  Maybe!  We screen people for boxcutters on airplanes, despite the fact that they absolutely can not hijack a plane with them.  We screen people for liquids because somebody who didn’t understand chemistry made a half-assed attempt to create a binary liquid bomb that was absolutely impossible.  Because the TSA security measures are based on insane fantasy, it’s hard to say how might security would be applied to the hyperloop.  Maybe none, like the crammed-full 40mph Caltrain cars that I ride on every time there’s a Giants game, where a competent bomb would conservatively kill hundreds.  Maybe full-on-craziness, like the airport.  Who can say?


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