Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea was just a ruse to kill California’s high-speed rail project

·4 min read

This just in: Elon Musk never intended to actually build his Hyperloop idea in California. He proposed it just to stop the high-speed rail project.

That was news to me when Paris Marx, a technology writer from Canada, wrote about Musk for Time magazine and posted on Twitter Thursday. He quotes Musk’s official biographer as the source.

Musk joins a long list of conservative politicians who have disrespected the California High Speed Rail project. Unlike the elected officials, however, the multibillionaire Musk has the capital to bring his fantasies to life, if he so chooses.

Musk floated the Hyperloop idea in 2013 as a way to transport people faster than either high-speed rail or even regional air travel. People would drive into a giant tube, and then be whisked at 700 mph to their destination.

As Bee staff writer Tim Sheehan wrote about the Hyperloop technology: “At its most basic, think of the pneumatic-tube systems at the drive-up service lanes of banks or drugstores — the ones that sucked a container from your car window to the teller or cashier inside the building. Ramp that notion up to a pair of sealed, low-air-pressure tubes, supported on pylons above the ground and big enough for a pod or capsule to carry up to 28 people at subsonic speeds between major cities.”

Musk envisioned the Hyperloop being used to take people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in an astonishing 30 minutes. Users could drive their cars — presumably Teslas, Musk’s electric-car invention — into pods for the ride.

At that speed and travel time, the electromagnetic-powered Hyperloop would be light years faster than the high-speed rail, which has people riding on trains and speeding along at just over 200 mph. Travel time from LA to SF: three hours.

For a few years, there was a concept by a Southern California developer to build a new city on the far western edge of the Valley and use a 5-mile-long Hyperloop to move residents through it. Quay Valley was to have 22,000 homes in the Kettleman Hills near Interstate 5. The short-trip Hyperloop would act as a pilot to test the technology. But finding a water supply and adequate financing for the project proved to be insurmountable challenges, and developer Quay Hays of Los Angeles withdrew his project.

Meanwhile, the high-speed rail project continues to be built in the Valley. While still seen as a electric-powered train system to take people from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and back, the current construction is for a Merced-to-Bakersfield segment.

The train project was never embraced by Musk, according to biographer Ashlee Vance.

“Musk told me that the idea (for the Hyperloop) originated out of his hatred for California’s proposed high-speed rail system,” Vance writes. Musk viewed HSR as too costly and too slow.

Musk said his Hyperloop concept would cost no more than $10 billion to build. Currently, the rail authority projects its full 500-mile system will cost $105 billion. When voters approved bonds in 2008 to build the high-speed-rail system, total cost was estimated at $33 billion.

The higher cost is why GOP politicians have steadfastly opposed high-speed rail, which was championed by former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

It has been a jobs generator for the Valley, however. Last Labor Day the rail authority celebrated 6,000 jobs created for the 119-mile-long segment under construction. Of those positions, 2,200 have been in Fresno County.

I have written before that no major public works project in the nation’s history has been free of controversy or opposition. But to think that the world’s wealthiest man floated an idea simply because of disdain over high-speed rail? That was a new one to me. Maybe instead of throwing shade at HSR, Musk could shower some of his dollars over the project to get it done.

Tad Weber is The Bee’s opinion editor. 559-441-6491

Tad Weber, opinion editor of The Bee
Tad Weber, opinion editor of The Bee