Sorry, Elon Musk. California’s Future Belongs to High-Speed ​​Rail

Last week at Tesla AI Day 2022, CEO Elon Musk revealed the company’s new humanoid robot, dubbed Optimus, with the goal of creating “a useful humanoid robot as quickly as possible.”

While it’s unclear where this proof-of-concept will lead, it couldn’t be more disappointing than the tech billionaire’s foray into mass transit.

In 2013, Musk proposed a Hyperloop system that would suck passengers in pods through a vacuum tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco at 760 miles per hour – more than three times faster than the state’s high-speed train. then under construction promised and at a fraction of the cost. Musk 58-page Hyperloop proposal caused a stir, causing many in Silicon Valley and across the state to wonder if California’s monumental project had become obsolete.

Then he came to light that the richest man in the world never intended to prove the futuristic Hyperloop technology or build the proposed suction tube. Musk would have told his biographer, Ashlee Vance, that the Hyperloop proposal was prompted by “his hatred for California’s proposed high-speed rail system”, which he felt was too slow, outdated and expensive. “Hopefully the bullet train would be cancelled,” Vance wrote.

But whether Musk likes it or not, high-speed rail is the future of transportation. Instead of trying to sabotage it, he could help shape it.

Americans love their cars, and Musk delivered breakthrough innovation with the Tesla. But vehicles, whether electric or gas-powered, remain a low-capacity and insecure mode of transport. If we double down on the car’s monopoly on the surface transportation system, we are headed for a future of increasingly severe congestion that chokes our economy, delays our fight against climate change and keep killing some 40,000 people on the roads each year.

Musk’s alleged effort to kill California’s high-speed train recalls the infamous attack by General Motors, Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), and Firestone Tire on streetcars and electric carts in Los Angeles and across the country in the 1930s and 1940s. Dubbed “The Great Transportation Conspiracy” per Harpers Magazine, GM, allegedly seeking to wipe out its main modal competitors, acquired and ripped off popular streetcars and replaced them with inferior bus systems. The campaign has helped pave the way for a lifestyle dependent on the cars and oil we have, which is draining our wallets and fueling climate destruction.

Fortunately, when finished, the California State Rail Plan erase that legacy with a comprehensive public transit system that is set to increase train journeys 10-fold to more than 1.3 million per day by 2040, driving major shifts away from polluting cars and short flights. For the perspective, it would be necessary 3,000 Boeing 747s move as many passengers every day. The plan would also divert 88 million passenger-miles a day from highways to rail.

California is building one of the most advanced high-speed rail systems in the world, capable of reaching speeds of up to 220 mph – faster than the majority of the world’s high-speed rail systems currently in operation. The trains include the latest technological advancements – from proven automation systems and precision guidance to advanced power deployment and durable materials. Once operational, California’s high-speed rail system will be the most sophisticated electric vehicle in the world.

Meanwhile, nine years after Musk’s proposal, Hyperloop technology is still unproven and far from operational. His greatest achievement to date: a tunnel under the Las Vegas Convention Center, where Teslas shuttle riders 1.7 miles from one end of the center to the other.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of kilometers of high-speed rail lines operate all over the world, carrying billions of passengers every year.

Ultimately, Musk failed to derail California’s visionary shift toward a balanced, electrified transportation system with high-speed rail as its backbone, along with electric vehicles, local transit, and walkable and bike-friendly communities.

In June, the California legislature approved a $4.2 billion credit to help complete the first operating segment of the project, as well as another $7.65 billion for rail transportation. The California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority continues to seek federal funding to advance the project. Voters’ support for high-speed rail remains strong.

In April, Musk tweeted that his Boring Co. would attempt to build a working Hyperloop. Whether that intention leads to anything more dynamic than another tunnel for Teslas remains to be seen.

Although Musk once proclaimed public transport “fears”, it’s not too late for him to pivot and work to create practical, real-world solutions to America’s transportation challenges. Yes, Teslas and other electric vehicles have an essential role to play, but investing in high-speed rail is essential.

Andy Kunz is president and CEO of the US High Speed ​​Rail Association. Ezra Silk is the political director of the US High Speed ​​Rail Coalition.

Jose P. Rogers