Hyperloop vs. High-Speed Rail: An Overview

In response to California’s proposed high-speed rail, entrepreneur Elon Musk has conceptualized an inexpensive alternative for travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

With past success in the industry, Musk has developed and introduced transcendent modes of transportation including SpaceX and Tesla Motors (TSLA) called the Hyperloop. This tunnel-based transportation system propels passengers and cargo at incredible speed in an almost straight line.

In contrast, California introduced a high-speed rail system working in much the same way, ferrying passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco, albeit at a much higher up-front cost.

Key Takeaways

  • Elon Musk has leveraged his success with SpaceX and Tesla to introduce a high-speed travel tunnel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The estimated cost is between $6 and $7.5 billion.
  • California broke ground in 2015 on a high-speed rail system. Projected costs are around $70 billion.
  • The proposed Hyperloop travel time is around 35 minutes one-way, while the high-speed rail system takes around 2.5 hours.
  • Many experts feel the Hyperloop concept is too dangerous and not economically feasible, and the idea of a $20 one-way ticket will be impossible to achieve.

Hyperloop

On the west coast, the strip between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the most traveled corridors in the state. Currently, people can cover this distance by road, air, or railway. Roads and railways tend to be slow, while a flight, though fast, tends to be expensive. Musk’s Hyperloop system would cover the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes and cost a proposed $20 per ride. 

The Hyperloop would consist of capsules transported at high speeds through the length of low-pressure tubes that are elevated off the ground. To simplify the science, reports suggest the pods would work similarly to an air hockey table. The capsules are supported on a cushion of air and travel at average speeds of 600 mph, reaching a top speed of 760 mph.

Undertaking a project like the proposed Hyperloop can be a large financial burden. It is already anticipated that the 350-mile trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco will cost $20 each way. However, to build the extravagant tube system, Musk estimates its costs will be between $6 billion and $7.5 billion. His $6 billion estimate is for two one way tubes and 40 capsules with no cargo space, while the higher end of the estimate would carry cargo.

The proposed travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco for the Hyperloop is a mere 35 minutes.

With tubes departing every 30 seconds and carrying 28 passengers each, a single tube would be able to transport 7.4 million people per year. By simple multiplication, the proposed two-tube structure could carry roughly 15 million people per year. At $20 per ride and an estimated 15 million trips per year, the Hyperloop would have the potential to gross $300 million in annual revenue.

California High-Speed Rail

Delayed for the initial years, in 2015 California broke ground on one of the largest high-speed railway systems. Designed to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the costs of construction are estimated at $77 billion, according to CNBC. Travel time between the two cities is expected to be around 2 hours and 30 minutes with speeds over 200 mph.

The high-speed rail is significantly faster than traveling by car but still slower than traveling by plane. An average ticket is expected to cost $80 to $90. Besides its economic impacts, the California High-Speed Rail is expected to reduce the number of vehicular miles traveled, improve air quality, and reduce greenhouse gases.

Special Considerations

Criticism of Musk’s Hyperloop comes from doubts about the technology and the project's economics. In Musk’s proposal, he initially estimated the total cost of the project to be roughly $6 billion. Many believe the expected costs are drastically underestimated with the entire project forecasted closer to $100 billion.

Despite its optimistic construction costs, the proposed individual fares of $20 per person have also been criticized as impossible. Finally, compared to the California High-Speed Rail estimated costs of $68 billion, the Hyperloop’s proposed price tag of $6 billion is considered dubious.

Costs aside, the technical aspects of the Hyperloop have raised doubts. Speeds over 700 mph would surpass any commercial mode of transportation currently available. These extreme speeds would subject passengers to uncomfortable and frightening forces rendering the system unrideable, and potentially extremely dangerous.

What's more, the Hyperloop is capable of carrying just 3,360 passengers each hour. Comparatively, a freeway lane can carry 2,000 cars per hour, a subway transports 36,000 passengers per hour, and the California High-Speed Rail is estimated to carry 12,000 passengers per hour.