Do Newer Technologies Threaten High Speed Rail?

So many lies were told to convince voters to approve the High Speed Rail project six years ago, that most Californians have soured on it. They are appalled that the estimated cost to build, the time to build, the time between destinations and the price of a ticket have all nearly doubled since voters approved a $10 billion bond to kick start the project.

Add to this that the private investment that backers promised would limit taxpayers’ liability is nowhere to be seen and it is little wonder that even the former Chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, respected independent Quentin Kopp, has excoriated the project as it has morphed into something wholly unrecognizable from what the voters approved.

It is somewhat ironic that Governor Brown, who fancies himself as a futurist (as Governor in the 1970s he thought California should have its own satellite) wants to commit Californians to spending billions of dollars on what is increasingly apparent to be an aging technology. Today’s futurists and tech savvy interests are suggesting that investing in High Speed Rail might be tantamount to buying stock in a chain of blacksmith shops in 1910 just as the automobile began replacing the horse as the dominant form of personal transportation.

The first successful powered railroad trip is said to have taken place in the United Kingdom in 1804. More than two centuries later, the train remains the best way to move large quantities of heavy goods. But for moving people, is the huge amount of capital investment in equipment and track that impedes the crossing of vehicles and pedestrians, destroys neighborhoods and farmland, and degrades wildlife habitat, really essential?

Elon Musk, who heads successful high-tech companies Tesla Motors and SpaceX, believes there is a better way to move people. Musk favors the Hyperloop, or something similar, that would whisk travelers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in as little as 35 minutes. Compare this with a drive time of six hours, a bullet train time of about four hours, and an hour by air.

The Hyperloop is a hovering capsule inside a low-pressurized tube, supported by pylons, which can reach speeds of up to 760 mph. According to Hyperloop CEO Dirk Ahlborn, within about 10 years and with about $16 billion, Hyperloop could become a reality. He believes it would it would be easy to put together, the challenge is to come up with a good business model.

As with High Speed Rail, there are many unanswered questions and hurdles with Hyperloop. However, it does appear to be cheaper, faster and able to be completed more quickly than the bullet train and would be less environmentally intrusive.

Moreover, for taxpayers, it doesn’t appear that public dollars are being spent on the design of this project. Unlike High Speed Rail, the Bay Bridge and the Twin Tunnels projects, keeping this project in the private sector – at least in the concept and design stage – is resulting in some fairly notable progress in a short period of time.

In addition to the Hyperloop concept, rapid advances have been made with driverless cars. Fuel efficient personal vehicles directed by computers show great promise and the technology is no longer theoretical. Google has already built a prototype. And best of all, they can operate on an existing infrastructure project which we call roads.

High Speed Rail’s cost dwarfs all other public infrastructure projects by many factors.  Before we commit more money to this project – whose funding is very much in doubt – shouldn’t we be sure there isn’t a better and cheaper alternative?

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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