In cities and towns across the world, Elon Musk and Virgin’s Hyperloop has been taken far too seriously by current leaders. The project, which is an unsightly above ground tunnel, in some cases a super-deep tunnel, in others with Tesla cars inside, is not only a terrible idea but is detracting from serious conversations about improving transportation in polluted airspace and congested streets. When the first test runs with humans inside commenced late 2020, riders reported an extremely uncomfortable ride at a fraction of the speed promised. Rather than take a chance on a technology that clearly is not advertised honestly and has so far proven to be functionally unimpressive, the United States must join the rest of the world and develop a world-class high-speed rail system which has proven itself for decades.
High speed rail is a concept that has been in practice since the Japanese Government undertook a massive plan to shift transportation mode in the country away from air and car travel in the 1960s and quickly had their Shinkansen trains running at around 200 miles per hour in all directions. The trains are extremely comfortable with low fares and extremely fast service. One can even balance a quarter on its side and it won’t fall over—that’s how smooth the ride is. If we had high speed rail of the same caliber, one could reach Chicago from New York in just over four hours. Currently, the rail journey clocks in at an average of fifteen hours not accounting for frequent delays due to freight trains. The flight, including time to and from the city airports as well as waiting and security time is approximately six hours. The rail journey, of course, would be far less of a hassle as the train would go directly to the city centers saving travelers additional time and money. The dreaded TSA security line is also not part of rail travel of any kind, subways or long distance, in the United States today.
Instead, Chicago has chosen to take Musk seriously and build a scheme that has never been tested and has the same issues that interstate highways suffer from. Likewise, the pollution would not be impacted in the most meaningful way, since the United Nations and other inter-governmental agencies have published studies saying the worst of the pollution from cars is brake and tire dust—two areas that will be increased with a Hyperloop implementation. Such pollutants lodge themselves deep in our lungs and cause horrible breathing problems like asthma and lung cancer. Not to mention, the Chicago plans take the same route as one of the city’s existing rapid transit lines—and it’s to the airport no less.
While the airline industry controls the long-distance travel market in the US, journeys of less than 400 miles have proven to be areas where rail transportation can play a significant role. For many years the airline industry dominated travel on what Amtrak calls the Northeast corridor: a mega-region that spans from Virginia and Washington, D.C. through Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, New Haven, Providence, and Boston. After significant track and station upgrades, Amtrak now dominates travel along the corridor and is responsible for more trips than all modes excluding personal automobile. With increasing taxes as localities shift from per gallon fuel taxes to vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and congestion pricing being implemented in New York City, we are likely to see the mode share shift more in favor of rail. What could accelerate that shift is a massive investment in proven technology: high-speed rail.
Instead of waiting for the next new thing to fix our problems, leaders in American cities and states need to step up and implement solutions that we know work incredibly efficiently. Given that Japan and parts of Europe have had high speed rail for more than half a century, we are already miles behind the rest of the world with non-US countries having approximately 50,000 miles of completed and operational rail service. If you hear that your state or city is looking into Hyperloop, write your representatives and tell them how you feel about the plan—it matters now more than ever.