Dissatisfied with the price and worth of high-speed rail in California, Elon Musk turned some of his SpaceX and Tesla engineers loose on the idea of regional transport between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their white paper describes a pair of seven-foot diameter steel tubes mounted on concrete pylons along Interstate 5. The tubes are pumped down to 100 Pascals, or, as Musk’s team prefers to call it, 1/6 the atmospheric pressure of Mars. Inside the tubes, 28-passenger vehicles riding on air bearings would run the 350-mile route in 35 minutes, 70% of the time at near-sonic 760 mph.
As a fluid dynamicist, I enjoy the centrality of airflow in the concept, and that part of the plan looks reasonable. The estimated construction cost for the tubes, pylons, and vacuum pumps is put at $4 billion. The whole system is $6 billion before operating costs.
Musk doesn’t have any personal plans for the concept beyond getting the idea out there (Washington Post article). I wonder what useful shorter routes could test the concept and show that it really can beat high-speed rail. Further, I wonder about its worth as an updating of the trolley lines that suburban developers put down a century ago. If a low-cost, 15-minute ride were available to travel the 120 miles from Hiko to downtown Las Vegas, and another for the 130 miles from Beatty, living on a desert spread and working in town would be a new kind of possible. Of course, that kind of thing is always a mix of welcome and otherwise. I hang on to an irrigation share in the Moapa Valley that I can’t stand the idea of parting with. The Moapa Valley is 60 miles from Las Vegas, and most people with jobs drive to Las Vegas. I worry that some year transplants to Nevada from places with two-hour commutes are going to discover the place.