Starting in the middle of the Civil War, the darkest chapter in American history, an extraordinary thing happened. Business and government, newly arrived immigrants and citizens, all came together to build nearly 2,000 miles of track, bridges, and tunnels to make it possible to travel across the breadth of the United States. It took six years, longer than the war between the states had lasted, but nevertheless achieved remarkable things. The time to cross the country fell from months to about a week; the cost from around $1,000 to just $65 -- 93% less.
To say the railroad was one of the first great examples of industrial might and helped power America's rise toward becoming the world's leading economic power for the next 150 years would wildly understate its impact.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and making America great again. Two days ago, Musk tweeted he had "approval" to build a Hyperloop from Boston to New York to Washington, with stops in Philly and Baltimore for good measure. His plan involves taking the incipient Hyperloop technology (the first test of which just happened, albeit for a tiny distance and only about 1/10 its planned speed) and delivering it through what would be the longest tunnel complex mankind has ever built. We would be remiss not to mention that tunnel would be six times longer than any ever built.
Musk's plan is arguably "impossible" for countless reasons. The world currently has zero working Hyperloops. It's probably more logical to build one somewhere before committing to a giant underground one. The geology of the northeast is complex, with numerous different types of rock and soil, not to mention several rivers. And tunneling is hard. A 2-mile bore in Seattle got delayed several months by some debris, a balky machine, and the necessary repairs to get it moving again. That tunnel is done at last, but the roadway inside isn't and it will be completed more than two years behind schedule.
A smart Bloo0mberg article explains why there's a long way between Musk's tweet and a 29-minute travel time between New York and D.C. Wired goes on to explain the political realities of trying to get this done across multiple states and through stiff environmental standards. They are both right -- as are all the naysayers -- this "can't" be done. Just point to America's most recent "great" rail project: New York's much ballyhooed Second Avenue Subway is just two miles of new track and stations, it cost more than $2.2 billion per mile. It took 10 years to build, but that barely begins to tell the story of a project whose inception dates back to 1919 or so. New York hopes to build six more miles of that line at a similar per-mile cost. Over several decades.
In fairness, the transcontinental railroad was no easy build idea. You may never have heard of Dr. Hartwell Carver, the great grandson of one of the original passengers on the Mayflower, but in 1832 he proposed an idea for a train to cross North America. At the time, California was trying to free itself from Mexican rule. Carver was dismissed by Congress with his fanciful idea but through persistence would eventual get the legislature to take it seriously in 1847. His "Proposal For A Charter To Build A Railroad from Lake Michigan To The Pacific Ocean" catalyzed the concept and a mere 22 years later, the "Overland Route" was a reality.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the fact work started during the war and traversed more than 300 miles each year was the cost, which estimates suggest was $60 million or less. That's on the order of one billion dollars, or about a kilometer of Second Avenue Subway. Looked at differently, trains in tunnels today are perhaps 4,000 times more expensive than the mid-19th century of America's industrial might.
Musk's idea, then, is folly. The CEO of two companies trying to build electrical vehicles and revolutionize space travel has spread himself so thin he's also now exploring artificial intelligence and trying to revolutionize making holes in the ground with a tunneling entity he's dubbed The Boring Company. But lest we give up too quickly, history teaches us that we ignore the dreamers only if we wish to sabotage our future.
Musk is often compared to Tony Stark, the fictional billionaire who becomes Ironman, but the best analogue is actually Howard Hughes (n.b. hopefully minus the part where Hughes goes nuts late in life). While Hughes revolutionized aviation, perhaps his greatest feat was helping the U.S. government pull a Soviet sub, the K-129, off the Pacific Ocean floor, three miles deep. It has been said that when the Russians watched this occur, their spies knew the Cold War was lost. The Soviet Union was in economic turmoil by the 1970s and here was the great American enemy doing the impossible.
That arc was especially sobering for the Soviet leaders because it closed an era in which the USSR went from technological supremacy to backwater. The Russians launched the first satellite into orbit, in 1957, and sent Yuri Gagarin into space before the U.S. could follow with Alan Shepard a month later in 1961. The next year another visionary, President John F. Kennedy, made clear America would no longer remain behind its adversary in space.
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." -- JFK, Rice University, September 1962
Kennedy made clear this wasn't some trivial endeavor. "I regard the decision ... as among the most important decisions that will be made during my ... Presidency," he added. No one knew how to make that happen. We lacked the technology, the track record, and even the math! But we had the moxie and the sense of imperative and in just seven years the plan Kennedy hatched became Neil Armstrong's "small step" on the moon.
Elon Musk can never be president, having been South African born, but in SpaceX and Tesla and his ability to galvanize fascination with ideas like the Hyperloop is the best of Hughes and Kennedy rolled into one. Like President Trump, he often makes his biggest announcements without warning on Twitter. And like Trump he has talked about an infrastructure renaissance in the U.S. If Musk indeed believes he garnered "approval" for his Boston-NYC-DC Hyperloop, it's possible he and Trump also share a quizzical naïveté with respect to how things actually got done in Washington and the states.
But it doesn't matter. The United States has always been about the impossible. While the machinations of Congress grind to a halt trying to change healthcare in the country, what we tend to overlook is that the hardest part is undoing what already has been done. Medicare is less than a century old, Medicaid half that, Obamacare barely five. One challenge the Republicans face is that the momentum of all those programs is inexorably downhill.
In contrast, impossible feats of engineering and infrastructure are mostly uphill (at least metaphorically given Musk's desire to dig holes in the earth). They cost tremendous amounts of money, require tremendous amounts of labor, encounter tremendous obstacles, both literal and figurative -- just ask Seattle about Bertha. But if achieved, they tend to pay dividends beyond our wildest imagination. The railroad helped turned a country with less than 5% of the world's people into the provider of a fourth of its output. But it also did things like make my alma mater, Stanford University, a possibility. And in no small part, Stanford led to Silicon Valley, with its countless, world changing innovations.
Hyperloops could make it possible for Americans to live in affordable cities like Houston while working for high paying tech companies of Austin. They could take millions of cars off our increasingly crowded freeways, reducing not just emissions but traffic fatalities. They would necessarily create tens of thousands of well paid jobs for generations to come (many of which wouldn't require college degrees). In slow economic times, we could ramp up construction to help offset job losses elsewhere.
Perhaps this will cost hundreds of billions, but to say it would pay for itself is hardly far fetched. Perhaps this will require more labor than the U.S. currently has, motivating left and right to agree on sensible ways to reform immigration. If achieved, though, it will move the U.S. from a transportation backwater of sorts -- we're the only nation without any high-speed rail -- to a land where place is less important as the closest thing to time travel becomes realized.
It is as crazy to believe we could move people hundreds of miles in a matter of minute, just like it was crazy to believe we could send men to the moon. Just like it was crazy to think people would buy computers for their homes or carry supercomputers in their pockets. So as we contemplate Musk's crazy Hyperloop idea and it's potential to transform not just the United States but eventually the world, let's remember what the late Steve Jobs said two decades ago: "The trouble makers ... They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo... They change things, they push the human race forward... Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who do."
Elon Musk is one of those people. Love him or hate him, a lot of those words ring true about President Trump as well. Let's start digging.
Mark Rogowsky, Contributor