When it comes to high-speed transportation the United States falls short compared to the rest of the world. Currently in California there is a need for a mode of transportation that can get passengers around quickly and at a reasonable cost. The ideal mode of transportation to solve the problem would be either a high-speed train or a Hyperloop system. Given the manufacturability, increased efficiency, and reduced costs of the Hyperloop it would be the right choice for California to solve the transportation problem. The introduction of the Hyperloop to California would benefit businesses by allowing their employees to live in an area of lower living costs. Companies would also be able to move packages quickly as well as meet with other companies for face-to-face meetings.
High-Speed Train Background
According to the UIC, the International Union of Railways, there is no single standard definition of what constitutes a high-speed train. However, they define a high-speed rail based on three elements infrastructure, minimum speed, and operating conditions. Each element has precise criteria that can be broken down as follows. Infrastructure requires that the track be built specifically for high-speed travel or be specially upgraded. The minimum speed is 155 mph for trains running on track designed specifically for high-speed trains or 124 mph for trains running on upgraded rails. The infrastructure requires that the rolling stock, the powered and unpowered railway cars, must be designed alongside the infrastructure to ensure safety and compatibility.
Current High-Speed Trains
High-speed trains are a relatively new technology in the world of railed transportation with the first high speed train, also known as the bullet train, being completed in 1964 and traveling from Tokyo to Osaka in Japan. In total there are currently around 3600 high-speed trains in operation totaling nearly 18,500 miles of high-speed rail. A majority of the high-speed rails in use are located in Europe and China. All of the high-speed trains in operation meet the minimum speed requirements but not all of the trains can operate at their max speed for very long distances. The main reason for trains not travelling at their max speed is due to the tracks running through highly populated areas. Speeds are typically limited in areas of dense population for safety concerns and noise limitations.
The Hyperloop was a concept created by Elon Musk and outlined in a whitepaper that he and other engineers from SpaceX put together. The idea for the Hyperloop came about after a proposal for a high-speed train was introduced in California to link Los Angeles and San Francisco. The concept for the Hyperloop is to have a passenger pod travel through an enclosed tube using magnetics for levitation and propulsion. A vacuum will be used in the tube to reduce the pressure and therefore reduce the drag on the tube that in return will increase the pods speed and efficiency. By using an enclosed tube the train will not be subjected to the same speed limitations as a traditional high-speed train.
Instead, the speed limitations will be based on the curves that the tube must take and the distances need to have a smooth transition during acceleration and deceleration. Also, based on the enclosed tube design, near vacuum, propulsion device, and other technologies used, means that the Hyperloop will be very energy efficient when compared to other modes of transportation, as shown in figure 1.With the Hyperloop being a new technology there is still design work that needs to be finished. The SpaceX whitepaper has outlined the major design points but there are still many details to be worked out. Once those details and the budget have been worked out the project can begin construction.
Figure 1. Energy Comparison Source: Hyperloop Project Presentation
California High Speed Train Proposal
In 2008 a proposition for a high-speed train got passed which allocated funds for a high-speed rail. The proposal was for a multi phase construction of a high-speed rail that had 24 stations and approximately 800 miles of rail. The main portion of railway path would travel up California’s Central Valley and split off as it traveled up the state. The train will travel up to 220 mph and make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes. The first phase of the railway began construction this year and is planned for completion in 2029. Phase one of the proposal would include a total of 520 miles and extend from San Francisco to Los Angeles and include multiple stations.
California Hyperloop Proposal
The current proposal for the Hyperloop is to have a track that will travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco non stop. The current path will see the Hyperloop traveling parallel to Interstate 5 through the Grapevine and up the Central Valley as seen in figure 2. Once in between the Modesto and Stockton area the track will then cut over or through the hills into the Bay Area. With the outlined path it is estimated that the Hyperloop will travel between 300 and 760 mph depending on the curvature of the path. Based on the speeds and distance the pod would travel the estimated travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be approximately 35 minutes.
To optimize the speed and comfort of the passengers the tube would need to be placed on elevated pylons. The proposed building scheme also needs to work around all existing structures, which the elevated pylons would help with. After the initial track is completed there could be additional tracks added to connect other cities such as San Diego and Las Vegas. In addition to carrying passengers, there is also a proposed cargo pod that would allow the movement of cars between cities. Therefore, passengers would be able to drive their car to and from the train station, which would increase the distance that they could live from the station.
Figure 2. Proposed Hyperloop PathSource: www.spacex.com
The current plan for a high-speed train running from Los Angeles to San Francisco is estimated to cost around $65 billion. The cost for the high-speed rail is for phase 1 which includes multiple stops with the main section going from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In contrast the outlined plan for the Hyperloop is estimated to cost between $6 and $7.5 billions dollars. In contrast the cost of the Hyperloop is estimated to be a tenth of the cost of the high-speed train. However, the cost of the Hyperloop does not include the additional track distance that the high-speed train does. Even if the Hyperloop price were doubled to cover the same distance as the high-speed proposal it would still only be a fraction of the total cost. Therefore, due to the design of the Hyperloop the overall cost of the project would be less when compared to the more expensive high-speed train design.
Hyperloop and High-Speed Trains Vs. Other Transportation Modes
While high-speed trains and the Hyperloop but have their own benefits, they also have some downsides that limit their usefulness. The distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco as proposed for the Hyperloop is around 350 miles. Any greater distances than 400 miles starts making the high-speed modes of transportation inefficient. Given the speeds that airplanes fly they become the more efficient mode of transportation for longer distances even when other factors are taken into account.
While the flight time from the San Francisco to Los Angeles is less than an hour, when the total trip time is considered it is easily closer to three hours. When traveling by planes the time to go through security, pre-board waiting, check-in time, and the wait for baggage. There is also the issue with delays when travelling by air travel, as there are some things outside of human control when flying. Trains, including the Hyperloop, are modes of transportation that are very predictable for timing and suffer from less time delays through out the day.
When comparing the Hyperloop and the high-speed train it is clear that the Hyperloop is the clear choice to fulfill California’s need for a quick and cheap transportation method. While the Hyperloop is a relatively new, unfinished design, it has many advantages over the older high-speed train design. It has a top speed over three times the speed of the proposed high-speed train as it travels through a near vacuum. The higher top speed means that the Hyperloop can make the same trip as the high-speed train in a fourth of the time.
Most importantly, the Hyperloop is a fraction of the cost of the high-speed comparison that has been approved to begin construction. In the end, it is important for businesses from the Los Angeles and San Francisco area to back the completion of the Hyperloop due to its manufacturability, increased efficiency, and reduced cost. By backing the Hyperloop, businesses will open up their employee base to people from either city and also allow their employees to live in areas that have lower living costs.