High-Speed Rail Reality and Hyperloop Dreams

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It's kind of startling. Out there in the San Joaquin Valley, work is proceeding on California's first high-speed rail route. And by work, I mean actual concrete and steel. Workers are creating tangible infrastructure -- for instance, a series of bridges designed to carry a future bullet train across the San Joaquin and Fresno rivers and other waterways.

The slow and steady progress of construction in the valley is startling mostly because the actual presence of a train I could climb on and ride, even for a trip between beautiful Madera and even-more-beautiful Bakersfield, seems so far in the future. The state's high-speed rail agency says in its 2016 business plan that service could begin, somewhere, by the middle of the next decade.

In the meantime, the project remains fraught with political and practical hurdles. By this point, many Americans have gotten to ride on very, very fast trains in Japan, France, Germany and elsewhere, and are wondering why something similar can't happen here.

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As the bullet train's route takes shape in Madera, Fresno and Kern counties, another high-speed travel dream is unfolding: the Hyperloop.

Yes, that's Elon Musk's vision for a system that would be able to propel passenger pods at near-supersonic speeds through closed tubes. The system would make it possible to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour. If that's not an amazing enough travel value, the pods will be sealed so tightly and going so fast that you'd never smell Harris Ranch, aka Cowschwitz, as you whiz past.

Hyperloop believers say it will not only be much faster than high-speed rail, but that it will be cheaper and faster to build. Already, one startup, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One, has begun open-air testing of its technology at a research facility near Las Vegas.

But just as the California bullet train has been subject to criticism that it will turn out to be an expensive boondoggle, skeptics have argued the Hyperloop is little more than a costly, harsh-riding distraction from building more basic and technologically accessible infrastructure.

This is the point where I say, "We'll see." -- Meaning yeah, sure, maybe this will happen. Just like hypersonic airline travel.

But in this case, there's a possibility that we'll see some version of a system before another two or three decades have passed. Hyperloop One is moving ahead with a feasibility study for a system that would run the 100 miles from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, a trip that would take about 12 minutes.

There's one Achilles' heel on display in the vision: It suggests pods will merge into city traffic to complete their trips. Maybe they don't have gridlock in the U.A.E.

The video above shows Hyperloop One's concept for its Abu Dhabi-Dubai route. The one below shows my favorite visualization of future travel.

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