Elon Musk’s recent Hyperloop proposal resurrects discussion in the U.S. about the advantages of true high-speed ground transportation. The country desperately needs a national consensus as to what constitutes fast and cost-effective HSGT before a single track or guideway is laid, but as of yet the conversation has failed to develop the required consensus for true high-speed ground transportation. 

Mr. Musk’s proposal gets the discussion going again.

But as to his proposal, while Mr. Musk correctly criticizes the California high-speed rail proposal for being too slow and too expensive to build and maintain, his own Hyperloop technology is only a concept.  U.S. policy-makers and entrepreneurs should instead be contemplating proven maglev technologies, such as those which have been designed and perfected overseas—as was high speed rail (HSR).

The exceedingly high maintenance requirements and costs associated with HSR are due to exponentially increased maintenance at higher speeds—something I call a “speed/maintenance penalty.” This basic fact of physics is the Achilles Heal of HSR business models.

Non-wheeled maglevs are free of this friction, and as such, can more easily attain revenue generator status.

To be clear, I enjoy traveling by fast trains in Germany, France, Japan and China. In November of 2010, I rode the new HSR line between Shanghai and Hangzhou and videoed the speedometer hitting 355 k/hr. (220 mph). I commented then that the Chinese would be forced to reduce top speeds once the maintenance bill arrived.

Less than eight months later was the unfortunate HSR accident between Wenzhou and Hangzhou, caused by a signal malfunction (and poorly designed safety guidelines). The accident forced an operational review, and the train speeds were reduced to 185 mph, which is in line with the speeds of other HSR countries. My Chinese sources admit that maintenance realities and energy consumption also contribute to the new lower speed limits.

It so happens that Shanghai is also the home to the only commercial high-speed maglev line. It runs 19 miles between Pudong International Airport and Longyang Lu subway station on the city’s southeastern perimeter. This totally automated, attractive-force electro-magnet system operates 115 trips daily with 99.97% on-time schedule performance at two different top speeds, depending on the time of day: 185 mph (8 minutes) and 267 mph (7 minutes).

Dr. Guofeng Zeng, the chief maglev engineer at Shanghai Maglev Transportation Development Corporation, (SMTDC) informed me during an October 2012 visit that their maglev running at 267 mph consumes the same energy as a train running at 185 mph and emits lower noise levels. He also revealed the striking fact that maintenance on the dual-track guideway over the last ten years required only two week’s worth of labor to adjust support bearings atop two different support columns, and the work was done without service interruption.

Vehicles only require periodic replacement of printed circuit boards and batteries, a relatively modest expense.

As with HSR, the line’s major operational cost is for energy to overcome air resistance, something Elon Musk envisions can be overcome with a partially evacuated tube. This sounds easier than it may be. Just traveling at 267 mph stably and safely every day for ten years is a major accomplishment.

The facts coming out of SMTDC support the idea that high-speed maglev offers a self-sustaining system, covering operations and maintenance costs from the farebox—unlike most HSR lines in the world.