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Is Elon Musk Already Killing California's High-Speed Rail?

The slow death of the bullet train.
September 11, 2013, 1:45pm

It’s only been just a month since Elon Musk unveiled his plans for Hyperloop—a superfast vacuum train that would theoretically make California’s delayed high-speed rail system obsolete—but his futuristic transit vision already seems to be having its intended political effect.

On Friday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that makes it virtually impossible for the state’s high-speed rail authority to build tracks through communities in the Bay Area’s tony peninsula, a tech-heavy slip of land that includes towns like Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto—incidentally, the very same towns where Musk and many of his techno-libertarian friends have amassed their fortunes. (Musk now lives in L.A., but his electric car company, Tesla, is headquartered in Palo Alto.)

Bowing to political pressure from wealthy peninsula voters, state officials have now agreed to operate the California High-Speed Rail on the same track as local commuter trains, a move that has the dual benefit (for peninsula residents, at lesat) of preventing the state from seizing additional land for the train’s right-of-way and diverting money to their cash-strapped public transit system.

While the new law doesn’t kill the CHSR system outright, it is a huge setback for the project, fundamentally altering the plan approved by California voters in 2008, said former CHSR chief Quentin Kopp, who is now a vocal critic of the project. Kopp told me that the new “blended approach” will slow train speeds and decrease the number of trains that can run on the high-speed rail system. The result, he said, is that the system won’t generate enough ridership and gross revenue to pay the trains’ operating costs. And that means taxpayers will have to subsidize the high-speed rail after all, despite the state’s promise that the trains would pay for themselves.

“The project has been mangled—it's been completely mangled,” said Kopp, who authored the original 1996 bill that set up California’s High-Speed Rail Authority and served on the agency’s board from 2006 to 2011. “High-speed rail cannot operate sharing track with any other rail system. High-speed rail, by definition, must run on track dedicated to high-speed rail. It must do that in order to achieve speeds promised voters.”

“The plan that was adopted by the governing board is not high-speed rail, it’s a seizure of high-speed rail bond proceeds by commuter rail,” he added.

To be fair, none of this is Musk’s fault, per se. The CHSR project has been plagued by funding issues and bureaucratic wrangling since it’s inception, and state lawmakers were kicking around the “blended system” idea long before Musk unveiled his space-age train pods.

But the Hyperloop created a perfect foil for the CHSR—a cheaper, faster, shinier future train of the future to contrast with the government’s outdated, bureaucracy-laden model. With public support for the CHSR already dwindling, Musk may have accelerated the process: Every story about the fuckups and general pokiness of the high-speed rail will now be accompanied by nods to Musk’s declaration that he can do it better. And that may have been Musk’s goal all along.

Looked at cynically, the Hyperloop was just a cleverly-disguised piece of anti-CHSR propaganda, an ostentatious display of Musk’s genius and billions masking average NIMBY-ism. Musk himself has acknowledged that the Hyperloop will probably never materialize. The 42-year-old Tesla CEO, who is currently focused on commercial space transport, seems to have little interest in actually building his superfast train, much less in navigating the bureaucratic landmines of building a mass transit system across California. But his idea has drawn attention to California’s high-speed rail clusterfuck, and sparked new debate about the future of mass transit.

Kopp, for one, doesn’t think much of Musk’s new take on the bullet train. And while he disapproves of the way California is handling his beloved high-speed rail, he is skeptical of Musk's claim that the private sector could do it better.

“I don’t know Mr. Musk, but I’m not impressed,” Kopp said. “Aside from the technical concerns, what Musk has described is completely privately financed. That would be wonderful—Musk is a clever person, he’s smart, but I’m skeptical of his ability to do something like this privately.”