Billionaire big-thinker Elon Musk plans to announce designs to do this later today (watch this site for more details). He’s promised the system, called Hyperloop, could deliver a person from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than 30 minutes, would be cheaper than a bullet train, and power itself. Musk has described it as "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table."
Actually building such a big and bold plan would require raising maybe billions of dollars in funds and solving massive technical and logistical challenges, says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. If anything, Musk—who is founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors—has credibility when it comes to putting far-fetched plans into action and Puentes considers big ideas "exactly what the country needs right now." But considering all the questions that remain, from fundamental physics to how to buy the rights-of-way in a straight line, the futuristic system isn’t likely to be an option on Google Maps anytime soon.
There is no formal definition, but high-speed usually means at minimum 125 to 150 miles per hour, according to the WorldWatch Institute. The only high-speed line in the U.S. today, Amtrak’s Boston to Washington, D.C. Acela Express, maxes out at 130 to 150 miles per hour, but the U.S. is a big laggard in rail infrastructure and technology. In China, Japan and Germany, the fastest trains in the world today can exceed 300 mph—some are built, and some are under construction. However, Musk’s 30-minute SF to LA journey would require, in theory, speeds in excess of 700 mph. Here’s hoping.
While we wait on Hyperloop, here are a few examples of the best high-speed rail systems and routes that you can take today.
Japan built the first high-speed rail network, called Shinkansen, in 1964, and remains a leader in bullet train tech. Tokaido Shinkansen, its main line, is today still the busiest high-speed rail: It moved 143 million passengers in 2012 at maximum speeds of 167 mph. It connects the cities of Tokyo and Osaka in 2 hours and 25 minutes, which is about the same time it takes to fly if you include airport check-in procedures and transport. Puentes says that Japan’s system is notable because it is so interwoven into the fabric of major cities: "It’s where the people are. It’s not just connecting two isolated places."
In France and around the world, high-speed rail tickets are usually expensive. Based on the concept of budget airlines, Ouigo is a new affordable high-speed line launched this April that takes riders from Paris to Southeastern France for as little as 10 euros at speeds of 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour. The service claims to be the cheapest high-speed rail ticket in the world.
The Shanghai Maglev Train ensures that travelers to and from the sprawling city can reach the airport quickly. The 18-mile trip, at operational speeds of more than 260 mph, lasts only eight minutes. The train can fly up to 311 mph, making it one of the fastest in the world. China has been building high-speed rail at furious pace. According to the World Resources Institute, it now has the world’s largest network with almost 6,000 miles of track. That includes a 1,428-mile line from Beijing to Guangzhou, which is the longest in the world. Safety can be a concern, however—the world’s first fatal crash on high-speed rail occurred in China in 2011.
Vacationers in Europe love taking the train to travel the continent. Spain may be a good choice to visit, because it runs the biggest high-speed rail network in Europe, according to the World Resources Institute, with more than 1,900-miles of track and 1,100 more under construction. Its top-speed train goes about 186 mph and can get you from Madrid to Barcelona in less than 3 hours.