Shocking news! In an incredible breakthrough for American mass-transit engineering, the transportation technology company Virgin Hyperloop this past weekend successfully moved two people 500 meters across the barren Las Vegas desert at a top speed of just over 100 mph, setting a new world record for the absolute most pitiful thing anyone not named “Elon Musk” has ever tried to pass off as “high-speed rail.”
Here’s video of the shameful display:
Virgin Hyperloop, an American company despite the Richard Branson branding, proposes to use a combination of magnetic levitation, or “maglev”—a decades-old technology that has been in commercial operation moving real trains filled with real people in, for example, Shanghai, China, at speeds up to 268 miles per hour, for 17 goddamn years—and “vactrain,” a concept design for an enclosed, artificially evacuated tunnel where air resistance may be as low as in the upper parts of Earth’s atmosphere, theoretically allowing for much higher top speeds at much lower levels of energy consumption. It is so goddamn embarrassing to type this. France’s electric TGV system has been in regular commercial operation for nearly 40 years; in April of 2007 one of its trains hit 357 miles per hour in a test.
CNN’s article about this event paraphrases a Virgin Hyperloop executive claiming that the hyperloop pods “can travel at the speed of aircraft.” Which is true, in the sense that commercial aircraft with dozens if not hundreds of people aboard do sometimes travel at 100 miles per hour, on the ground, for seconds at a time, during takeoff or landing, when they are going only a fraction as fast as they’re capable of going. It is also true in the sense that, strictly speaking, a paper airplane is a form of “aircraft,” and you can really whip some of those suckers across a room. A more accurate but perhaps less flattering claim would be that my Honda Odyssey can travel at the fastest speed Virgin Hyperloop has yet attained, and with four times as many people riding in it.
Hell, for that matter, as a Twitter user helpfully pointed out, a freaking steam locomotive hit 126 miles per hour in England, 82 years ago, in 1938.
Yeah, but, when it’s done, it’ll go 600 miles per hour, you’re whining, and it’ll have 25 to 30 people in a pod! When exactly will that be? France opened the TGV in 1981. Japan’s oldest high-speed line debuted in 1964—1964!—and was better and faster then than Amtrak’s Acela trains go now. Shanghai’s maglev train has been operable since John Kerry was campaigning to unseat George W. Bush as president. Measure speed by the number of riders the respective services will have moved by, say, 2050. Measure it in carbon emissions. By the year 2020, the best-funded and most sophisticated high-speed rail developer in the United States moved two (2) people 500 meters.
The United States is generations behind much of the rest of the wealthy, industrialized world in this area. For all but a very narrow corridor along the East Coast serviced by the weak half-a-loaf shit that passes for high-speed rail in this country, the best an American commuter can hope for in intercity rail options are crappy and ancient diesel Amtrak trains that top out at around 80 miles per hour. Most American cities simply are not serviced by any intercity rail network at all. The U.S.’s shameful mass-transit situation—and thus its shameful dependence on personal vehicles, and all the downstream bad shit that comes from that—could be improved a zillion percent by just aiming for the level of railroad sophistication French people considered normal before the median 2020 French person was old enough to ride a bicycle. And here are these Professor Frink–ass Hyperloop dinguses, dumping resources beyond counting into inventing some shit that already exists when for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time they could just purchase or at the very least copy what is already working just fine even in backward-ass doofus countries like freaking Italy. It wouldn’t need test tracks! It wouldn’t need years of iteration and development! They already did all that shit, all over the rest of the world!
In a vacuum (a figurative one: an alternate universe in which the rest of the post-industrial world were not absolutely goddamn bursting with operating networks of authentic high-speed rail; where high-speed rail were not already such a well-developed form of transit that the TGV system, which routinely moves huge numbers of day-to-day commuters across large distances of France at speeds well more than twice that achieved by this sad two-person billion-dollar pod going from nowhere to nowhere across a tiny patch of worthless desert, were not both infinitely better and more sophisticated than any presently available commercial rail in the United States and fairly outmoded in comparison to newer [yet still not all that new!] systems in China and Japan and elsewhere) the Virgin Hyperloop could almost look like an impressive accomplishment. Alas, here in the world of context, its only real accomplishment is a promotional one. The business of the American technology sector and its attendant courtier press is to continually recreate and exploit something like a vacuum in the public’s awareness of what the larger world is like, so that clueless observers will congratulate a bunch of boobs for “inventing” a shittier, more expensive version of something that is already regarded as boring and normal—fast, energy-efficient rail service!—pretty much everywhere outside of this stupid and embarrassing country.
Everything about the broken incentives and hollowed-out capacities of American society is crystallized in this dumb pod moseying its way along a track to nowhere in Las Vegas. The United States has a problem: It is too dependent on inefficient, dirty, and expensive forms of transportation, because the vast majority of its people have no practical access to other kinds. Its infrastructure and the health of its communities are all jacked up by the necessity of splattering asphalt all over everything in order for people to drive their big dumb cars to, and park them near, anywhere they’d decide to go. It cannot achieve efficient levels of density or make meaningful turns toward environmental responsibility for as long as this is the case. Thankfully, a solution to this problem already exists and is in operation throughout other parts of the world with comparable levels of wealth and technological capacity: Trains! Networks of fast-moving trains that do not need internal combustion engines in order to move lots of people very quickly along their tracks! Companies and agencies make and install and operate these train systems, and have been doing so for a long time, longer even than the lifetime of the graybeard crap-bag writing this blog. They know how to do it! They can probably just be hired to do it. At some level somebody can probably just buy some of those trains, and install them, and turn them on, and take people from here to there on them.
But who could make it happen? Broke-dick, systematically impoverished municipalities, lashed to budget-balancing like a cinderblock tied to their feet? Close your eyes and try to imagine how a sane and obviously good decision like Just import the TGV and run it between the big American cities instead of spending years and fortunes inventing maglev from scratch for no reason could get made in these United States. Imagine who’d make it, and what their goals would be, and where the money would come from. It simply can’t get made on those terms. It can’t get made at all. No level of American society even has a mechanism for that anymore. If it doesn’t require a messianic assbrain with a Steve Jobs cosplay fantasy pitching some sleepy billionaire or venture capital firm on the possibility of cornering the market on a brand-new technology that will conquer the world, then it will not get done. If it merely delivers a profound benefit to the common good rather than the promise of extravagant enrichment to a shrinking class of hyper-powered parasites, then it simply cannot exist.