The Future/End of the Railroad Industry?

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One of Elon Musk’s more recent ideas is the Hyperloop. If you haven’t heard of it, its supposed to be a pneumatic tube that transports pods across California (then across the country if it works).  In theory, using the Hyperloop, passengers could travel from Northern California to Southern California in a little over 30 minutes by traveling at 760 mph, slowing down only at exit and entry like a ski-lift.  Not only is it faster (significantly) than modern day trains, but, according to Musk, it could be made for a fraction of the cost of building high-speed railways between cities.  If you think its crazy, so does Craig Hodgetts, the man heading the research team behind Hyperloop.  “Its pure science fiction”, Hodgetts has said, referring to the idea of transporting passengers that quickly and efficiently in a tube.  However, Hodgetts does relent that the physics behind the idea are conceptually sound.  The main hurdles facing Hyperloop right now are environmental and regulatory concerns and how to integrate the tubes into cities. Musk has said that he would like to make the Hyperloop stations easy to navigate and get to, unlike most airports whose inconvenience may deter some travelers from using air travel.  The other main issue is how to transport people at 760mph without making them want to throw up.  Regardless of these issues, Musk and his team have already mapped out a main route for the Hyperloop, along with branch routes and stations that make their way eastward. It is hard to tell how far away we are from seeing a prototype of the Hyperloop, but it is not entirely crazy to think that Musk’s idea is the future replacement of the railway.

3 thoughts on “The Future/End of the Railroad Industry?

  1. Yep, science fiction describes the Hyperloop pretty well, although the fiction part seems to be fading somewhat, since lots of really smart people have looked into such things for many years* and continue to think it can be done.

    I know one thing: leading-edge technology development takes lots of time and incredible persistence on the part of the promoters to actually introduce a new product on the order of a Hyperloop. My chosen technology field, magnetic levitation transportation, is a testament to those points.

    Laurence E. (Larry) Blow
    MaglevTransport, Inc.
    Arlington, VA

    * The Business Insider article at http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musks-hyperloop-science-fiction-2013-7 includes a short summary of the basic concept of fast tube travel going back to the 1800s.

  2. I read that many of the stations for the hyperloop and the supporting structures along the way will have charging stations that are compatible with Tesla vehicles. It may have changed since Musk initially released his designs, but it was conveniently snuck in there during the initial publication with few people noticing. Obviously the construction of the hyperloop would then be enormously beneficial to Tesla (and therefore Musk). Even if there is a bit of vested interest for Musk in the construction of the hyperloop, it would still be extremely beneficial for society if it was feasible. Musk said he doesn’t have the time or resources to push the project, and I would venture that only the government would be able to push a project of this magnitude.

  3. Scientific American had an article on a version of this idea sometime in the 1960s … underground and running in a vacuum on one side, using air pressure and gravity to accelerate.
     
    Now rights-of-way are a huge barrier if it’s above ground. And how robust would it be to an earthquake? In any case, the charging station thing is irrelevant, Tesla is dead if they wait until the hyperloop some decades from now.
     
    Finally, from an opportunity cost perspective, wouldn’t money be better spent on existing train lines (and pothole repairs!)?
     
    PS: I’ve ridden the Shanghai MagLev, but as with many rail projects, the terminus is not in a convenient location. A taxi can be quicker! The World Bank has a paper looking at this in the context of high-speed rail, where some projects put stations on the outskirts of cities to save on construction costs, which undid much of the speed advantage relative to the older trains that leave from “legacy” city center stations.

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