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Supersonic tube travel challenges high-speed rail

Posting in Cities

Travel could become like a series of tubes

California's plans to a build high-speed rail system are being challenged by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk who thinks that it's a better idea to fire people through tubes. Traveling from Los Angles to San Francisco as a human projectile would take just 30 minutes.

Musk, who co-founded PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, is miffed at how much the proposed railway would cost per mile and how slowly its trains would travel in comparison to other mass transit systems worldwide. Silicon Valley, which he says is "doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars," should be investing in a better alternative. He laid out his Hyperloop "tubes" proposal today to challenge the status quo, and it's not out of the question if it could really be built within the cost Musk has projected.

The Hyperloop system that Musk has suggested would cost between US$6 -$10 billion to build and provide passengers with a group-based supersonic form of travel at rates of about $20 per trip. It would work by launching people pods through a vacuum-like tunnel (just think of the old pneumatic tubes for mail).

The idea does have a basis in engineering reality. ET3 and RAND Corporation have already outlined some ideas for so-called vacuum trains between cities, Musk noted. A company called Scramjet has likewise proposed a system that would make travel from coast to coast happen in under and hour by traveling at speeds of up to 4000 mph. There's practical benefits too beyond the obvious time savings for travelers.

Musk stated that the Hyperloop system could be more resilient against weather and natural disasters such as California earthquakes. I have encountered major delays on the New Jersey Transit system between Trenton and New York  due to rain. That wouldn't happen with Hyperloop. Musk also believes that the Hyperloop can be built while being less disruptive to landowners than laying down new railroad tracks.

Your chariot awaits

In contrast, the California High-Speed Rail project has already been allocated a combined budget of over $7 billion by the state and U.S. federal government. The total cost of the system will be in the tens of billions. Passengers would pay more than under the Hyperloop plan (prices may range between $50-100 each way) and travel at around 200 mph. The journey between LA and San Francisco would be around 3 hours by rail, which still has a lot of merit given how long the freeways take.

Musk views tube travel as a new category of transit that should be taken just as seriously as planes, trains and automobiles. It's also much safer and more efficient, he says.

"The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion, the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart. Around that inflection point, I suspect that supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper. With a high enough altitude and the right geometry, the sonic boom noise on the ground would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn't a showstopper. Also, a quiet supersonic plane immediately solves every long distance city pair without the need for a vast new worldwide infrastructure," Musk wrote.

Image credits: Tesla

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— By on August 12, 2013, 9:06 AM PST

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure