On Not Getting to L.A.

August 14, 2013

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe

As I took my seat on the train, a glass of bubbling champagne magically appeared before me.

Halfway through the trip, I enjoyed a three-course lunch with wine as the landscape flew by outside the window.

In less than three hours, I’d gone over three hundred miles, city to city.

From San Francisco to Los Angeles? In your pipedreams!

That 2006 ride on the Eurostar from Paris to London was simpler and just as fast if not faster than flying. And today it’s about a half-hour faster yet.

But getting from the San Francisco Bay Area where I live to L.A.? That’s a slow-go.

Driving It

Depending on whether you head down Highway 101 through San Jose, Salinas, Paso Robles, and south past Santa Barbara, or east into the Central Valley, onto I-5 to Buttonwillow and then over “The Grapevine,” its just under or just over 400 miles from San Francisco to La La Land. With stops, figure eight hours, plus or minus, behind the wheel.

image

If you’re doubly unlucky, you’ll get caught in morning commute traffic in the Bay Area, then hit the afternoon-to-evening commute when you reach Greater Los Angeles.

If you take I-5, the view through the windshield is going to be pretty boring. Highway 101 is more scenic, but you could end up staring at the rear-ends of an endless stream of cars creeping along the freeway at Santa Barbara, as I did on a Friday afternoon a couple of years ago.

Busing It

Megabus and Greyhound can carry you between the Bay Area and Southern California. The trip could be almost as fast as it would be if you drove your own car, and cheaper—unless you needed a rental car once you arrived.

Flying It

Flying time been San Francisco Bay Area airports and those in and around L.A. might seem fast: About an hour and 15 minutes, one-way.

Flying into LA

(mil8 Flickr Photostream Photo)

But add to that another ninety minutes to three hours spent getting to an airport near San Francisco, checking in for your light, and getting through TSA security checkpoints, then more time after arrival in Southern California to collect your bags, find your ground transportation, and get to your lodgings. So the total trip time will be at least four to six hours, depending on flight delays and traffic on the streets and highways leading to and from airports.

“Training It”

The Amtrak “Coast Starlight” departs Oakland once a day around 9 am and arrives in Los Angeles about 12 hours later. Include travel time to and from the train stations, and you’re looking at a fourteen to sixteen hour travel day.

Why doesn’t a speedy train like the Eurostar run between San Francisco and Los Angeles? Well, one day there may be such a train. According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority:

“By 2029, the system will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds capable of over 200 miles per hour.”

If that’s accurate, it means that twenty-three years after I rode the Eurostar from Paris to London I might be able to make a comparable rail journey between San Francisco to L.A.

There’s a distinct possibility that I’ll die before the first train runs along that route, but if I’m still sound in mind and body, this YouTube video animation shows what my journey could be like.

“Looping It”

Monday, Elon Musk, Chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, offered up what he claims would be a faster and cheaper alternative to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s fast train: “The Hyperloop.”

(Tesla Motors Blog Photo)

When I first heard about it, I though Musk was proposing stuffing passengers, perhaps one at a time, into a plastic capsule that would be blown or sucked from one end to the other of a San Francisco-to-LA “straw,” ala the pneumatic tube systems for moving cash around the J.C. Penny department store where I grew up in Seattle.

It turns out that the Hyperloop would be a just a bit more complex than that old cash-carrying technology. According to this San Francisco Chronicle story,

“Passengers would ride in small capsules traveling as fast as 760 miles per hour while floating on a thin cushion of air inside the tubes. Rather than carrying engines, the capsules would surf electromagnetic pulses through the pipes, which would rest on 20-foot-tall pylons largely along the median of Interstate 5.

“And the whole Hyperloop, Musk says, would cost $6 billion, or less than one-tenth as much as California’s long-awaited high-speed-rail network.”

But can the Hyperloop get any traction with state officials or voters? As travel writer Gary Arndt said in a recent episode of “This Week in Travel,” “I don’t think this is every going to happen.  I think this is the kind of stuff you always saw in Popular Science magazine [which subsequent to Gary’s comments posted this Hyperloop story on its Website].”

8/16/13 Update: Critics doubt that the Hyperloop could be built for just $6 billion, as Elon Musk claims.

And as you’ll learn from by playing the podcast of today’s episode of NPR’s “Science Friday,” Tim De Chant, senior digital editor at NOVA, the Hyperloop would have to overcome a number of technical challenges in order to be a workable mode of transportation.

Skipping It

So for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles will remain my favorite city to fly over, but not to visit.

But that could change. If my heath insurer finally approves my “Total Body and Mind Transplant,” maybe I will live long enough to ride California’s Eurostar knock-off, or be blown and sucked north-south by Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

For more on the future of travel and transportation, listen to today’s KQED Forum episode, “Beyond Hyperloop: Dreams and Realities for the Future of Transportation”:

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