San Francisco to New York in 45 mins? Maybe

Since Elon Musk (the mind behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX) quipped about a new “hyperloop” high speed transportation system last week, futurists and techies have been abuzz about a new mode of transportation that could eclipse air travel one day—cutting travel time between San Francisco and New York to just 45 minutes, or between New York and Beijing to just two hours.

One company called ET3 is apparently working on a plan for “Evacuated Tube Transport” which is loosely based on pneumatic systems once used in banks, offices or hospitals (for those old enough to remember) to transport documents within buildings using capsules inserted into suction tubes.


Six person capsules include luggage bays (ET3/YouTube)

ET3 says that its tubular network could transport 6-passenger, automobile-sized capsules up to 4,000 mph in a frictionless environment inside tubes using magnetic levitation. The company claims that ET3 can be built for a tenth of the cost of high speed rail, or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, and provide 50x more transportation per kilowatt than electric cars or trains. Tubes could be built along US interstates, could travel across Alaska to reach China or even go underwater.


Travel by tube? (ET3)

Is this the answer to carbon spewing aircraft…or how we’ll be traveling when we run out of fossil fuels? Who knows? But it’s certainly an interesting thought and likely something we’ll be hearing more about.

While Musk was short on details, he has described the technology as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” He hinted that he might have more to say about it later this month.

How would you feel about a 45 minute hop to NYC for lunch? Should we be building a hyperloop instead of a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and LA? 

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do! Stay tuned for a “Catching up with Bay Area Travel News” issue later this week, which will include United’s new boarding procedures at SFO, Virgin’s new fast lane, the newest United Club, slow progress on new PS flights to NYC and much more! 

Chris McGinnis


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  • Paul S.

    You can’t save energy cost until you get rid of wind resistance. The only way around the cost of shoving something through the air, either to put it in space, or create an evacuated tube. If you put it in space, you have to pay the price for the amount of energy it takes to get though the atmosphere and up to the level where you can travel without resistance. That’s really expensive to do. So, evacuated tube. The only reason this hasn’t been done before is because of economics. While fossil fuels were cheap, we could just burn them to push big metal tubes with wings through the air from airport to airport.

  • Paul S.

    How do you figure? Once the tube is evacuated, you could have pretty much as many cars in the tube as you want… You could have huge convoys of cars much longer than a train.

  • Paul S.

    Wow! Gotta agree with librtee on this one. Sebastian, you do realize that there is a continuously populated space station orbiting the earth, and that satellites orbiting the earth are beaming information back and forth between people all over the world and letting us locate our position on the planet to within a couple meters, and there are robots roaming around on the surface of mars, and the voyager just recently became the first man made object to exit the solar system, and we’ve taken pictures of the surface of moons orbiting Jupiter, and we have satellites in outer space which have measured the age of the universe to be 13.8 billion years old, and we can take pictures of the inside of your body by flipping the spin of the protons that make up who you are, and we can accelerate beams of particles to nearly the speed of light and zap those cancer tumors inside you to avoid invasive surgery, and… well. Maybe your right, we humans just aren’t very good at figuring things out, like making things go fast through tubes.

  • Paul S.

    And why not have a toilet small toilet? and lights, and screens, and cover the inside surface with sound absorbing materials… Nothing you mention is a very difficult problem to overcome. What would be interesting in the long term though is how this would interact with urbanization. It’s not like a freeway where you can hop on and off every couple dozen miles. Perhaps towns would start to disappear as people congregated more and more in mega cities. Vast regions of the US might depopulate and become either solely farm land or perhaps wilderness. Traveling across the US could revert back to something more like the wagon trains. Maybe we could even give Native Americans some of their land back…

  • smadanek

    Shades of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Atmospheric railway in Devon and Cornwall of the 1840’s. Patent now expired.

  • FrankensteinsMonster

    Not the first to promise utopia.

  • ubidubster

    There were two quick problems I though of after reading this. First problem is that if there was a hole in the tubing that could cause a big problem. Protecting a 2000 mile long tube could be pretty difficult, and although some previous posters suggested that redundancy might be the answer, there would not be redundancy at first. When the first trains appeared in america there were only one or two tracks which went across america, so if a track lost a rail, deliveries were halted until it was fixed. The same would be true of this system until many years after it is created when there is a full network of tubes.

    This probably would not be that big compared to the second problem. It would be rediculously hard to establish a vacuum in a tube that big. You need a full sized jet engine to establish anything close to a hard vacuum in a decent sized room. Sticking a jet engine to the track every 50 meters is not a good solution as it would use more power than a 1000 airplanes. Sticking an engine to the front of the train and segmenting the track probably wouldn’t work because it takes a while to depressurize an area.

    I’m not saying its impossible, just that it would be very hard.

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  • jhauck91

    I imagine that the materials used to construct the pathways will be much less then the amount of rail or asphalt it takes to lay train tracks or freeway, if their numbers hold true. Also, in a friction less environment an object in motion stays in motion without an opposing force to act upon it, so besides getting the cabin up to speed zero fuel or energy will be expended until it needs to slow down and stop, resulting in waaaaaay less fuel consumption then cars or trains.

  • Jhauck91

    well said lib. also, ever been on an airplane john? when the cabin is pressurized and sealed, you are now in a giant flying tube! exactly how the ‘vehicle’ in the tube will act in terms of acoustics. oh, and if your afraid of the dark then bring a flashlight (though i expect if this thing ever comes to fruition then the cabin will have lighting.)

  • William J Wilson

    The comments here assume that a very simple hurdle can not be overcome. That if there’s a hole anywhere in the system, that the entire system will fail. This thought process is the same as thinking that if a section of track in a rail system fails, that the entire system fails. The solution is to shut down that section, reroute traffic around the breach, continue as normal. The idea that a single tube will be built and used is unrealistic and narrow minded. One would expect, even without prior or intimate knowledge, that a series of tubes would be built and used. We live in a world underscored by the importance of redundancy. Commercial planes have redundant systems. Airports have more than 1 runway. Trains use more than 1 engine car and the list goes on. We do not live in the 1800’s. The tunnels would likely be monitored by a series of automated systems that would monitor thousands of tunnel sections. Upon discovery of a vacuum breach or other functional defect, the system could automatically shut down that section and re-route traffic around the affected section until the breach or defect is resolved. The “cars” would likely have some means of manual locomotion such that in the event of a vacuum breach, the “car” would then travel at a reduced velocity to the nearest switching station and be transferred back into the rest of the functional system.

    Simply crying that there are too many hurdles without using the creative centers of the brain to attempt to come up with solutions is dysfunctional at best and socially, morally and progressively lazy at worst.

  • Yves D
  • FarmerJiggleParts

    Why not build it underground..maybe?

  • Just Listen

    Should we be building a hyperloop instead of a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and LA? ~ HELL YES! If the high speed train is built, it will be the slowest high speed train in the world.

    We need some new innovative advances in transportation.

  • passerby

    > On stilts,

    … any ass with a slingshot can poke a hole in it.

    Which may make travellers nervous.

  • Jello

    Actually, survival rate in a plane crash is very very high. Over 95%.

  • Joshua K

    OMG! 4,000 mph… that’s insane!

  • Tanker74

    All it will take is some fat cat environmental profiteer to make the right political donations to get the taxpayers to pick up the tab for this system.

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  • Han Chueh

    it’s more efficient energy wise but probably not mass/time wise. More energy is saved to transfer people but the number of people transferred over time is less.

  • masimons

    Was on Discovery channel about 6 years ago. Try it on some short segments of land first. Maybe do it instead of CA “high (not) speed” rail plan.

  • RealTimeHistory

    Ah, but Heinlein’s characters were always so rational and logically cooperative, unlike most people these days.

    Live Slowly, and Prosper!

  • librtee_dot_com

    it’s only two hours, I think people can deal.

    Put a movie on at the start, by the end you’re there.

    Piss beforehand.

  • librtee_dot_com

    I hope you never fly through the air in airplanes or drive at breakneck speed on highways in automobiles that could fail at any time…

  • librtee_dot_com

    Problem is those use tremendous quantities of fossil fuels. This idea uses very little energy at all.

  • librtee_dot_com

    The pressurized cabin problem was figured out more than 60 years ago.

    The year is 2013. Technology moves fast. We can figure this out. We’re a clever species.

  • dan_boston

    Um…no, it would not. Howard, you are confused.

    First you were confusing speed with acceleration. Now you are confused about curves. By ‘small curve’ you either mean a curve that is small because it is just a small change in orientation, or a curve that is small because it occurs over a small distance.

    Both instances are ridiculous and would not happen because of, you know, design. This is the same thing that prevents there being 90 turns on highways even though you find them on city streets, and why planes do not make 90 degree turns in air.

    You design the system to operate within tolerable limits. This isn’t particularly difficult or arcane.

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  • Ryan

    I see this happening in tandem with the space elevator.

  • Maddog

    I love it but it might be better saved for a later stage of man’s evolution. A stage when we are kinder to each other.

  • John Smith

    What if I have to go to the bathroom on the 2 hour journey? Nice try. Did anyone notice there are no windows. How are you going to survive in a dark tube with your neighbor or screaming child for the whole trip. Voices will be amplified in such a tube. No room to get up or walk around. Great for dead people and luggage. Not so much for the rest of us.

  • equanstrom

    Tube good to be true.

  • Amerman

    Underground is not better in an earthquake… the ground shifts feet along fault lines, the earth swells in waves like liquid.
    On stilts, it can be engineered to allow movement without breaking the tube.

  • Sebastian

    What a horrific concept! Doesn’t it relate to the old adage about biting off more than one can chew? At least, it’s all too complicated to be attempted during my lifetime.

    Does anyone remember Jules Verne’s “TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA?” Let’s hope this fantasy, too, remains as a fantasy–and not a goal.

  • smushmoth

    one word, fuel.

  • smushmoth

    First of all it’s unlikely that the capsule would immediately go from near vacuum to an Atmosphere of pressure, there would be a gradient, so it wouldn’t hit the air as a wall, it would hit it more gradually, but secondly there is nothing to prevent building the capsules aerodynamic, which would again reduce the effect of leakage on the system.

  • Howard J Chen

    This is exactly what I am talking about. The tube can not build in a straight line at most places. Our interstate HWYs are definitely not straight. A small curve in the tube at the speed anywhere close to the claim will toss the weight around like a hammer.

  • steve

    Sorry — “from pressurization”, instead of “loss of pressure.” No need to think about this tube transport. Instead of investing the money in land rights and enormous tubes, put most of the money into the transport vehicle itself. Since the sky is mostly empty, realistic projects are focusing on supersonic airplanes. For example: the XCOR Lynx (New York to Tokyo in 90 minutes), the Boeing/NASA X54 (2500mph, double the speed of the Concorde — London to Sydney in 4 hours), etc.

  • gg

    You feel G-force during turns at the same speed dont you?

  • gg

    Chris, I dont think serious challenges have overcome. Once plane malfunctions in the sky and falls there is not much change ppl can survive.

  • steve

    Exactly. And if an earthquake happens, then you’ll know that you have catastrophic failure of the tube, either from loss of pressure or misalignment. Of course, you won’t be able to stop the travelers moving at 4000mph. At least the families won’t have to go through the trauma of identifying bodies, because everything will be pulverized into dust.

  • Doug F

    This idea has been around forever in SF novels. At least 120 years, not just post-WW2. The idea of pneumatically powered underground trains dates to 1812.
    In Heinlein’s ‘Starman Jones” (’53), there are supersonic maglev trains that run in open air between magnetic towers, & everyone just puts up with the sonic booms & pressure waves, & doesn’t build or go very near their routes

  • Doug F

    Best solution is to drill a straight-line tunnel right under them. It’s better underground anyway.

  • Doug F

    You’d have to bury the tubes, not have them in open air as illustrated. And they’d need double if not triple walls, & real-time leak sensors.

  • Doug F

    The riskiest thing you do all day is drive, or ride a bicycle around cars.
    When you’re traveling at constant speed in a straight line, there’s no G-force at all, silly. 1G is the proposed amount of fore & aft acceleration & braking, which is reasonable if everyone is seated & belted in. It would still be very fast if accelerated at only 1/2 or 1/4G, but steadily up to 4000mph.
    Yes, any defect that caused a car to hit a wall would be instant death, but it’s not particularly worse than hitting one at 230, which is an accepted risk on high-speed rail systems in the entire rest of the civilized world. The accident & death rates of rail systems are far lower than for driving or flying.
    And with a hard vacuum in the tubes, no worries about idiot kids with their iPods cranked up to 11 walking across the tracks right in front of a train.

  • Gary

    No. Just … no.

  • bk

    “The company claims that ET3 can be built for a tenth of the cost of high speed rail, or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, and provide 50x more transportation per kilowatt than electric cars or trains.”

    This sounds like fuzzy math to me. I’d like to see the exact assumptions made such that it’s 10x less expensive than high speed rail.

  • Sharky

    You only experience G forces during acceleration or deceleration. If the acceleration (or deceleration) is instantaneous then going even 20mph can kill you. But people go faster than that on bicycles and skateboards all the time. I’m quite certain you do not notice any G-forces when traveling in a car at 80mph.

    It’s the old saying: “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop”.

    As long as the vehicle takes a little time to accelerate, going 4000 mph is no problem from the standpoint of g-forces. There is a formula to determine this, and roughly 3 minutes is sufficient acceleration time to achieve 4,000mph without exceeding 1 G.

  • Chris McGinnis

    You folks are SMART! Thanks for all this great feedback and for keeping the conversation stimulating! — chris

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for your insight! — chris

  • Bajor Gornstein

    Why am I suddenly feeling a lot like Dr. McCoy?

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for your insight, Robert! I’m glad there are folks out there with a better technical grip on this than me. I would be more concerned with how far my seat would recline or whether or not I had wifi! :) –chris

  • Ryan

    Once upon a time, the thought of traveling 45mph in an automobile was considered lunacy. The safety considerations were overwhelming.

  • AreisReising

    Commercial aircraft, at 78.3 meters for a Boeing 747, is 61.8 thousand times smaller than the length of a transcontinental tube. The challenge of keeping a tiny little air tube stable pales in comparison to the environmental hazards of maintaining 3000 vacuum-sealed miles of pipework. I would say the “serious” challenges are nowhere near being overcome.

  • Michael Rinaldi

    Speed is not the issue. G forces are only experienced accelerating or decelerating. To go from 0-4000 mph (or 4000mph to 0) using a 1G acceleration takes 91 seconds. Or 3 minutes to go from 0 to 4000mph at 1/2G. As an example going from 70mph to 0 in a car happens over a distance of about 250ft at 2/3 G. Not that big a deal. 1/2G for a couple of minutes can get you moving very fast very quickly.

  • Robert Harvey-Kinsey

    Well this has been talked about several times, if they resolved some of the basic safety issues, it might be a good thing.

    One ongoing major issue is catastrophic tube failure. It is not because of the loss of life from the modules themselves but from what happens when these modules slam into air. For example assuming the module weighs 4 tons, the energy release upon impact with air, which at that speed for a non-aerodynamic object is pretty much the same thing as hitting a wall, would be the same as the explosion of 1.5284 tons of TNT. If a long stretch of tube were to suddenly pressurize several hundred of these modules would release that energy along several miles. As you might imagine that would be like a small nuclear blast. If these tubs were allowed to transport heavier masses the problem would amplify for example for the maximum weight currently allowed on an American highway is 80,000 pounds without special permits, the release of energy from tube carrying that much mass would approximately the same as 14 tons of TNT or 5% the energy of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima.

    If they resolved that problem I would like to know exactly how.

  • sense

    G-s are about acceleration. A piloted Lockheed SR-71 flew safely at just under 2,200 mph.

  • JuiceWeasel

    I hope and pray for this will become a reality!

    Bless those futurists and techies.

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for your response, Anne! I agree, but at the same time, could you not say the same thing about sailing through the skies in a metal tube at 500 mph? The “serious* challenges there have been overcome.

  • Howard J Chen

    Has anyone thought of what kind of G-force a person have to withstand at 4000 mph? Most people will not survive at that speed near the surface.
    The video claims only 1G, but I don’t buy it, just ask any pilot or race car driver.
    Also any small mistake at that speed will likely pulverize anything surrounding it and certain death for all behind it. There is no stopping in travel at all.
    If we all believe in Star Trek like beaming travel (and all the risk it involved), then may be we can try to build this. This is just way too risky for human beings.

  • Anne_Onimouse

    This idea has been around for a long time… there’s a lot of *serious* challenges presented by simple things like “what if there’s a hole in the tube?” the need for a vacuum for it to work properly is a major hurdle. It’s tough enough to protect something like an oil pipeline from earthquakes/weather/sabotage, let alone something containing people traveling at thousands of miles an hour.

  • andystac

    ah yes, LA to NYC for lunch then lose it on the ride home!

  • Gaetan

    so, what are we waiting for?

  • dedemdu

    What’s wrong with both? Why limit our choices. Lets get the train between LA and SF completed. Oh as long as MUNI is not in charge this mode of transportation has potential.

  • Knuckleshuffle

    Just be sure Cantrans doesn’t get the gig for building it.

  • Chris McGinnis

    according to the info presented, the tubes could just follow the interstate highways

  • permiewriter

    Clearing the Sierras and Rocky mountains should be interesting.

  • Jay

    Technically, it’s proposed to be 45 minutes from New York to LA, not San Francisco.

  • Chris McGinnis

    Ha ha very clever! 😉

  • Tim_Dick

    This technology sucks.