For some reason the politics of developing infrastructure in the USA is tortured and this project is no exception. It has the economic and environmental objections which we have all begun to get to grips with as the national debate about HS2 begins to take off. In California this debate is exacerbated by the US’s unhinged dislike of government and taxes.
The Hyperloop has been articulated as a contribution to the Californian debate by Elon Musk. In a blog article, called in an eponymous title, Hyperloop, he proposes an alternative technology to a railway, he argues that,
‘When the California “high speed” rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world? ‘
Looking at the investment in these terms, that of cost per passenger mile, and speed is interesting. I wonder how HS2 stacks up, although in all these cases both the opportunity costs and external benefits are an important part of the business case, undervalued in the US and not understood in the UK.
The Economist takes a typically, seemingly balanced view of the project and summarises the pros and cons, although not in a way that helps the English debate. It details the price tag as $68bn. A site called californiawatch.org published an article called, “Spain’s high-speed rail system offers lessons for California”, which most importantly illustrates Spain’s perceived advantages in making high speed trains work, and the difficulties despite the advantages of geography and political commitment.
Musk’s article goes on to propose a mag-lev accelerated bullet/tunnel solution. Some consider the proposal a fictional spoiler and this article in the New Yorker describes the potential plans and disadvantages, one of the most critical being that he has no plans for central city stations, the second one being that despite the conservative nature of the technology choices, it’ll take a long time to build and obtaining the land is no easier. There is little doubt that the huge advantage that Eurostar has over air travel is that the time to get on the train is trivial compared with traveling to and across Heathrow and Charles De Gaulle and you end up in the city centre. On the other hand, Britain’s Dail Mash considers Farts to be the most serious challenge to the proposal’s viability.
On reading the Economist and New Yorker articles, the need to start and end journeys in the city centre seems a piece of critical competitive advantage possessed by the trains. I came to hate driving in California so much that I used Caltrain’s San Jose/San Francisco route to travel between SFO and Palo Alto and just the once traveled all the way to San Francisco. But do US Cities work the same way as in Europe? I reckon the US cities are better suited for car use, with wider roads and more, often free car parking but there are large external economies of scale in using the train in both continents, saving travelers time; the last time I drove to the City of London from my home 50 miles from the city centre, it took me three hours to get in and four hours to get home, and money; I also had to pay a congestion charge fee, but avoided the need to pay for my parking, which would have cost about the same as a return railway fare. Land is scarcer in European cities. Roads are narrower, and there’s less car parking and car journeys are slower. Surely even a train pollutes less per passenger mile than the equivalent number of cars.
Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop a Pipe Dream?
The story has been running for a couple of days, but what really brought my attention to it was this article, by Molly Woods at CNET where she decries the lack of imagination and courage of today’s politicians and entrepreneurs. She locates this in California since she is a resident of the State. She suggests that the citizens of the US are frozen from further action by fear and money, and that the have lost the appetite to continue to innovate and improve. I am not sure that the Hyperloop is so massively innovative and it so its struggle to gain acceptance seems like the developed world’s renewed fight between nuclear and sustainable energy. The amount of capital already invested in both plant and capital productivity makes a disruptive investment hard.
In the US, the public sector involvement is a massive disincentive to large parts of the political spectrum. I believe in the UK it was an axiomatic belief in the 1970’s that in cases where there were large external public good benefits and the time horizons for a positive return on investment were so long as to be a disincentive for the private sector, then the public sector should act.
If Woods is right, and these factors are true, then the reason the US may be overtaken as an economic power, will be the loss of will and the increasing decadence of the ultra-rich who’d prefer to invest in,
…most of the tech industry [which] seems obsessed with finding each other at restaurants and ranking their own influence,
Carlotta Perez in her book Technological Revolutions & Finance Capital predicts that we are about to enter the Silicon Revolution’s “golden” deployment phase; let’s hope we get beyond ranking restaurants and the ‘liking’ of celebrity. Her theories also predict how the dominant technology becomes global, it’s much weaker on explaining how the epicenter for technology growth moved from the UK to the USA, which occurred in the later parts of the 18th Century as England, Germany and the USA contended for world economic leadership, visibly through empire, but more importantly in technological supremacy in the steel, manufacturing and machine tool industries.
As I said, I am not sure how revolutionary the Hyperloop is compared with the Channel Tunnel or the Oresund Bridge, but in California a Judge has ruled that the current plans are ultra-vires. This is unlikely to stop the plans, but it will certainly delay them, which since the first passenger trains aren’t planned until 2029 isn’t good.
See also http://www.ca4hsr.org/, a site belonging to a campaign for the railway.
I originally wrote this on the 20th August, and prematurely published it, I took it private and finished it, by completing the section on Perez and Woods about collective will and global macro-economic leadership on the 24th. I also found and inserted the picture of the Oresund bridge on the 24th. There are obviously lessons for the HS2 debate in the UK, but I lack the research resources to pursue it.