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Beijing to Boston by bullet train?
High speed rail may be the future of transport, but it won’t be arriving at quite the same time everywhere.
While Spain has over 3,000km of high speed rail lines already, the UK has a mere 113km and the USA has none at all. Compare this with China, which already has 14,000km of high speed railway – including the 430kmph Shanghai Maglev train – and another 13,000km under construction. By the time America rolls out its first 250kmph train (the accepted definition of ‘high speed’), China’s rail network may be knocking on its door – literally.
The route would link not just China but the entire Eurasian landmass to America, since China is already developing three other high speed railways to London, Moscow and Singapore. (Which would at least silence those who have been calling for a Transatlantic tunnel at a cost of up to $12 trillion.) There has been some scepticism about the Chinese proposal: at an unprecedented 200km, the Bering tunnel would be four times as long as the Channel Tunnel. But it’s hardly the most far-fetched infrastructure scheme currently being hatched. By the time the Chinese diggers reach Alaska, we might be living in a world of 1,220kmph trains.
LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes
In California, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk has proposed an ultra high-speed railway that would link LA to San Francisco in just 35 minutes. His Hyperloop concept involves magnetically levitating a train and accelerating it with electromagnetism, like the US Navy’s new rail gun, along a steel tube with 99 percent of the air sucked out to reduce friction and the risk of sonic boom.
Why LA to San Francisco? Because that’s where all the tech billionaires are. Not for long, though, if Musk’s PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has his way. Thiel (who also bankrolled Facebook) wants to be allowed to build his own independent country in international waters off the coast of California, probably out of decommissioned oil rigs. These ‘seasteads’ would allow libertarians like Thiel to live outside the constraints of the nation state. Thiel has invested $1.25 million in the project to encourage other like-minded pioneers and predicts the first seastead will appear within five years.
Not all technology billionaires are insane. Long before railgun trains and Waterworld communities appear, Google may have filled the stratosphere with 15 metre-wide polyethylene balloons in order to create a worldwide 3G network that doesn’t depend on radio masts or cables. Called ‘Project Loon’ in recognition of its overambitious goals, each balloon would be fitted with solar panels and 10kg of computer hardware and would float in the prevailing winds 32km above the earth. It has already been trialled in New Zealand.
Not far from there, another billionaire is working on a hare-brained scheme. This time, since he’s a mining billionaire rather than a technocrat, the technology is rather less futuristic. In fact it’s about 100 years out of date. And yet, if Australia’s Clive Palmer gets his way, Titanic II will set sail some time in 2018: a $500 million replica of the most famously doomed ocean liner in history. Designed to modern safety specifications with enhanced stability, a welded (not riveted) hull and a safety deck for lifeboats and evacuation systems, it had been intended to be built at Belfast’s Harland & Wolf dockyard like the original Titanic, but will now be built by the Chinese state-owned CSC Jinling shipyard.
So there you have it. China may have the technology, to an almost scary degree, but when it comes to truly vainglorious schemes, it still takes a capitalist to bring out the best in them.