Will the train of the future be a high-speed tube, not a railroad? That’s inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s and others’ vision. And Musk, the man who brought us the
Tesla (all-electric car) and SpaceX (for-profit space rocket company), is putting his own money behind a proof-of-concept project for what he calls Hyperloop. The concept sounds simple: move passengers in a sealed tube through a series of giant pipes propelled by air pressure at speeds up to 700-plus mph. That would mean a trip from New York to D.C. would take 20 minutes.
But this is not a new concept. In fact, the first experimental “subway” in New York City, Alfred Beach’s “Pneumatic Transit,” proved back in 1870 that it would work. Despite political opposition, Beach secretly built a 300-foot-long subway under Broadway near City Hall, offering daring passengers a round-trip ride in the system’s only rail car, pushed and pulled by air. The system ran for almost three years and carried more than 400,000 riders, 11,000 alone in the first two weeks. The fare was 25 cents (equivalent to $18 today). Competing elevated railroad owners eventually won the city’s franchise and Beach’s system was abandoned.
Even Beach’s idea wasn’t new, as vast underground pneumatic tube systems in Paris and London were already delivering telegrams and mail by the 1850s. As recently as the 1960s, office buildings in major cities were designed with pneumatic tube systems for inter-office mail. Some older department stores still use the tubes to record sales and make change from a centralized money room.
Hurtling through a tube may be fine for mail, but what about humans? As a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, the psychological factor of being enclosed in a sealed tube, traveling 700-plus mph, is not that much different from flying in a jet … maybe just a bit more claustrophobic. Whether by train or plane, I always like to look out the window. Seeing where we’re going is half the fun, even on a familiar route. But wrapped in a metal tube inside a giant pipe affords no views at all. Riding 31 miles in the Chunnel under the English Channel takes 20 minutes at today’s speeds, and that’s more than enough time for me, thank you very much.
Of greater concern are the propulsion methods and the sheer physics of accelerating and braking from near-supersonic speeds. But the biggest challenge of all would be where to locate the “pipes” and how to acquire necessary land. Like high-speed rail, it would make no sense to follow the median on Interstate 95 or the Metro-North/Amtrak rights-of-way with all their twists and turns. And anyone crazy enough to invest in any project along the coastline with the inevitability of rising sea levels should probably think pontoons, not pipes.
It will be interesting to see if Musk’s and others’ Hyperloop concepts get off the ground (pun intended), but I don’t expect to ride such a system any distance in my lifetime.
Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.