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My setting is in the near-future, approximately 200 years from now. Among the many technological advances that have come about are ultra highspeed trains. For the purposes of this question, traveling on these trains works much like a subway, they have high throughput and relatively low wait times when compared to airports.

Even now, projects like Elon Musk's Hyperloop and projects in China are attempting to reach speeds from 700 to 1800 miles per hour. But consider what would happen if trains existed that could reach speeds in the multiple thousands of mph, say 4,000 mph for example.

The USA is only 2,860 miles at its widest. Even considering the time it would take to board and disembark, one could conceivably travel from the east to the west coast in as little as an hour.

What sort of effects would we see in society? How would laws, global politics, and peoples' daily lives change when one could cross the US (or whatever continent of choice) in 1-5 hours?

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If you insist on it being trains (as opposed to aircraft), then my guess would be that one effect would be increasing inequalities: railway networks suitable for such high speeds are bound to be very expensive to build, and would thus first be built in (or rather between) the most densely populated areas. Don't see anyone building this in Africa or some parts of Asia anytime soon. – jcaron Feb 1 at 16:52
    
@jcaron That's certainly something to consider for settings in general. In my specific setting, cheap production methods have resulted in a society where cranial implants are an inalienable human right. That's for another question, however. – Mystagogue Feb 1 at 16:55
    
I think you can look to the Concorde for some inspiration. – Michael Kjörling Feb 1 at 18:02
    
Interestingly, Japan's bullet trains are probably the fastest train we can build, and a lot of changes had to be made in order to make them safe. I saw a video on it a few weeks back. Most of the "delay" with super-fast transport ironically lies in embarkation and debarkation, followed secondly by curves in the transit path, so even increasing the top speed by a factor of 10 isn't going to reduce the "person-perspective" transit time: you still need to spend a half hour on each end getting on and off, plus time spent accelerating and decelerating (the more stops, the less you're at top speed). – Draco18s Feb 1 at 18:43
    
@Draco18s That's (a part of) why the Hyperloop project is using small pods, analogous to sending one train car at a time instead of an entire train. It will greatly improve the embark/disembark time in addition to improving transit speeds. – Mason Wheeler Feb 1 at 19:27

10 Answers 10

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Physics

In order for very high speed trains (e.g. multiple thousands of mph) to operate, they'd require extensive infrastructure including an evacuated tunnel (e.g. vacuum). It would be highly desirable for it to include a very low friction "rail" system (e.g. maglev) too.

In a practical sense, this makes the hyperloop railcars into completely independent spacecraft. They require everything a spacecraft might require (power, life support, etc.). Some clever work with the rail system might allow it to transfer power into the car but the life support requirements will remain.

Time Zone Difference

I worked on a couple of hypersonic aircraft projects in which we looked at this problem.

East-West Travel

The basic result of our researching this was even if you got travel times anywhere in the world down to 2 hours, you still had to contend with timezone changes.

Leave the US East Coast at 2 pm in the afternoon and arrive in Japan at 6 am (2 pm + 2 hour travel time +14 hour time difference) causes a significant disruption in human circadian rhythms as well as scheduling problems.

The net result is it still takes 1-2 days for a human to adjust to the time difference and operate at close to full efficiency. So the speed of the transportation wasn't that important for human face-to-face interactions because most humans required down time to get back up to speed.

North-South Travel

Although not in as high a demand, high speed travel across thousands of miles makes long-distance North-South travel very "doable". Basically, a 2 hour trip between Buenos Aires and Boston would be possible and might significantly increase the travel between such North-South destinations.

There don't appear to be many high travel spots in Africa for Europeans. However, it might increase travel between

  • East Asia and Australia
  • Central Asia and India
  • North America and South America

Speed of Transit

Of course there are some benefits to the rapid travel. These fall into a few main categories and they are:

  1. Humans can recover in a more comfortable surrounding
  2. Humans can recover in a less expensive surrounding (e.g. a hotel)
  3. Perishable goods can get to their destination faster

Cost of Transit

Perhaps a more important question than the speed of the transportation is its cost. If you reduce the cost of transit by a significant factor (say in half), the amount of utilization of that form of transportation more than doubles.

Building an Elan Musk type of rail network of super high speed trains would probably revolutionize travel between distant places simply by the reduced cost. Also increasing the ridership of such systems tends to lower costs even more because you can amortize the construction (capital) costs over a larger number of riders.

How many people might take long weekend trips from the US to Europe (or vice versa) if the total cost of the trip was on the order of 250-500 dollars (Euros)? It might make our world just a little smaller (after all).

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I hadn't considered the time differences. I wonder if this would result in a higher degree of centralization of residential and corporate areas, say on the order of entire cities rather than districts. Entire populations of a state might live in one timezone and work in another. – Mystagogue Feb 1 at 18:13
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I'd hardly compare Hyperloop pods to "spacecraft"; most of the life support issues they have to deal with have long since been solved for aircraft. – Mason Wheeler Feb 1 at 19:30
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Since you'll run the pod in a low vacuum, you can't use the air for heat issues or compress it for atmosphere. You actually need to carry your own life support with you and figure out your heating issues without being able to exchange that heat with the ambient. – Jim2B Feb 1 at 19:36
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@Jim2B Not really. Your "two main concerns" would be CO2 and heating. Assuming we aren't sardining it, there should be enough air supply for several hours. Not sure about the temperature issue, but with each person giving off ~100W of heat, cooling is more likely the problem than heating. – Aron Feb 2 at 7:07
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Don't forget safety considerations. There's no way I'm getting inside of a 1,000 mile long evacuated tube unless the tube's exterior is bulletproof and its structure thoroughly reinforced/hardened. The consequences of an accidental pressurization of the tube with a train in-transit would be quick and fatal for everyone on board. Nature abhors a vacuum, and some people might find ground-based vacuum-tubes to be an easier target than aircraft for their political messages and be more than happy to help nature along. – aroth Feb 2 at 7:25

Transportation expands our horizons. I currently work 29 miles from where I live and I commute every day. I'm willing to put up with 35 minutes in the car each way. As I said, I travel about 60 miles a day for my job, my great-grandfather, worked ~20 miles from home. He walked, and it took him hours, so he'd leave Sunday night and stay all week and walk home Saturday morning. Today you'd need to be living and working either in different states or at least at opposite ends of one for such a thing.

So depending on the cost of a ticket and the time it takes to get on and off the train, it could make a big difference on what we call 'close'.

Being able to get from one end of the country to the other in 1-2 hours, means I could live in Minneapolis and work in Columbus OH and commute every day. Assuming that the cost was reasonable and it didn't takes 2 hours on both ends to traverse the stations.

Of course these are much more dangerous modes of transport, and as such might require more draconian ways to filter out trouble. Which would slow things down, so I would guess, you'd have the 'traveling' trains, and the commuter trains, commuters are prescreened AND are restricted to what they can actually carry onboard with them. Maybe special dress code.

An accident or terrorist attack on these would be catastrophic to the whole system. A plane crashes everyone on board dies. Tragic, a train derails a huge mess, but a passenger train accident at 1500 mph, everyone dies and the line will be closed for weeks and depending on where and how it happened, could kill thousands close to the accident. Like crashing a plane in downtown New York, only worse, since there will be more debris, more impact and possible a much larger vehicle to begin with (we're talking a train here!).

So having body suits might be all you get to take on a train and destinations have 'outer clothes' if you need or want them. Electronics could be bought or rented or preapproved with a digital stamp etc to come on the train.

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4000 mph = 5867 feet per second. At 1 G acceleration (32/s/s) this speed is reached in 183 seconds. 1 G horizontal acceleration would feel like 1.41 Gs at a 45° downward angle (1 G horizontal accel, 1 G Earth's pull). This might be uncomfortable — I'd weigh 282 pounds! — but it's not lethal.

Cars and trucks today pull .75 to .95 Gs on acceleration and you might experience up to 2 Gs when high speed cornering in a consumer sports car.

Even at a relatively mild 0.5 G acceleration (1.12 Gs subjective) these trains could reach 4000 mph in about six minutes.

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1G vertical and 1G horizontal results in a net 1.414G at a 45 deg. angle. This is easy to verify -- pretend 1G is exactly 10 meters per sec. Accelerating from rest, you travel 5 meters vertically and 5 meters horizontally and 5*sqrt(2) meters on the diagonal during the first second. The net accel is clear sqrt(2) times that of a single component. – Gary Walker Feb 2 at 7:38
    
Right! My bad. Will correct. – Slam Feb 2 at 8:12

This has already happened in history, though on a somewhat smaller scale. Consider this: before the age of the cargo airplane, travel speed was limited to the fastest truck or train. Because of that, the speed was 60 mph or so, tops. Then, the cargo plane arrived.

...

Fast-forward to today. Now, flowers which die in 14 days after being plucked can be transported to a person's home in under 48 hours after being picked, regardless of the location of the farm and the destination. This has revolutionized the transport of perishable goods. Even today, companies like Amazon are making delivery faster and faster. In a few cities, for a high price, you can have 1 hr delivery.

What would change? Not very much. All perishable goods would become cheaper, air travel would become nigh-obsolete, as a tunnel in the ocean would quickly be built. A whole new industry would develop: the acceleration seating industry. These trains need to accelerate, and assuming that they take 1 minute to get to top speeds, they would feel the equivalent of 3 times their weight pressing them back into their chair. Subway seats aren't going to fly.

Deceleration will be a problem as well. Seat belts would need to be padded, or perhaps they would wear a special vest to distribute the weight evenly among their entire body.

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Our's is the only developed country without any form of high-speed rail. First it would be an economic boom. HSR for both passenger and freight would make air travel difficult to have a positive economic impact. Tons per mile, rail is the MOST EFFICIENT!

The use of biodiesel would make current diesel-electric trains, carbon neutral. The addition of automotive, OTR technology would make them cleaner. (non-VW software) :(

With more wind power across the country, Electric Trains gain a neutral carbon imprint. Here in Iowa ~25% of our electric power is from Wind Farms. We have more turbines going up every day. We have 4 different wind turbine manufacturing plants here in Iowa. ~30 BioDiesel plants. In the ~120+ ethanol, including cellulose ethanol.

What would speed do to people? Look in Japan, Germany, France, the rest of the EU. I don't think it would impair, or interfere with any current social effects. The only positive is carbon footprint.

The Automotive Industry after WW2 was the influencing factor in the abandonment of passenger rail. That and the Oil Industry,PROFIT!

The negative is bureaucracy, Our governor refused to co-fund a project from Iowa City to Chicago for passenger rail endorsed by the Federal Government, approved by the state of Illinois, not by Iowa.

Very close minded IMHO. He is an American politician who is the 42nd Governor of Iowa, in office since January 2011. the39th Governor from 1983 to 1999, In the election on November 4, 2014, Branstad was elected to an unprecedented sixth four-year term as Iowa governor.

He's known as a semi-moderate Republican. Very to the Right, is my pitch, being a life long Iowan.

It is Politics, NIMBY, and "cost" vs return... that return not looked at as long-long term infrastructure, but short term return.

IMHO JLH

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You are the short-sighted one. I don't know the details in your Iowa City case but they tried building a high speed train in Florida also. Estimates showed that despite the Feds chipping in a few billion, the state would have to commit just as much. Plus, it was going to cost the state several hundred million per year to keep it running. And those were government numbers, so several hundred million will easily turn into a billion a year once reality hit. Where was the state supposed to come up with that much money per year just so you could ride your choo-choo train? – Dunk Feb 1 at 22:04
    
In Japan however, there was and still is a huge social roll-on effect. There is no longer a requirement to like in the Tokyo or Osaka Metropolitan areas as commutation times by Shinkansen severely reduce the need to live centrally to work. This has lead to a decline in the rapid urbanisation of metropolitan centres (although there is still an increase in people moving to these areas, it has slowed down). Further, this has meant less reliance on planes, thus a boom in Low Cost Carriers competing for the revenue already lost by the main carriers to High-Speed rail. Due to the propagation of ... – The Wandering Coder Feb 2 at 0:27
    
...more Shinkansen lines (Now linking the country from Kagoshima to Hokkaido, all long haul overnight trains (except for special occasions) have been cancelled leading to a change in the way people catch transportation. Following to completion of the MagLev line from Tokyo to Osaka, the already small 2h 46m trip will take only ~43m. This will again change the way people work and move around leading to either more work times or more time with family. There are definitely social implications to faster travel whether or not they seem large enough to notice. – The Wandering Coder Feb 2 at 0:27

The effects on the housing market would be interesting for a while.
The current average commute time in the US is 25.4 minutes.
It's pretty expensive to live in San Francisco or New York City, so some people choose to live outside and commute in. With greater speed you could get wider range for the same commute time.
If you could travel across the US in less than an hour, someone could live in Texas with the lowest cost of living in the US and commute in to San Francisco have a low cost commute while staying in that 25 minute range.

While other things can affect the housing market, like how close schools and shops are, I think we'd see the market flatten out a bit as demand in the high cost areas went down.

Tourism would also be an interesting thing.
If I could take the kids to a beach in Florida for the afternoon and get back to my home in the snowy north before bedtime, it would be really nice.

Suddenly you have a new type of snowbird, that heads for warmer weather for a day, where that would be impractical with slower or more expensive travel.

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Good point. That would also make cost of living a much less defined figure. Currently, salaries are (at least somewhat) based on the cost of living in that area. What happens when you have people who can live practically anywhere but still physically come into the office to work? I suspect far more egalitarian payscales that focus on the type of work rather than where it takes place or where the company and employees are based. – Pedro Feb 8 at 3:52

I would ask who had this technology. Is it available to only some countries or everyone?

When the first freeways of were built in the united states they caused the death of a lot of local businesses along the way as more people no longer need to stop due to the difficulties of travel. It also caused the death of short haul rail travel and it brought rise to the an automobile culture. If we had 3 cities A,B, and C what would happen to C if only A and B are connected? There would be a lot less desire to work in City C for anyone living in the other two cities. It would need to make itself relevant somehow.

This may give yous some ideas on what the interstate did.

http://www.uvm.edu/landscape/learn/impact_of_interstate_system.html

Technology for dealing with acceleration and deceleration are a must. But in addition to this entire cities and pathways must be designed to take the repeated sonic booms of a train travelling close by at Mach 5.2. Consider housing costs next to airports.

http://www.landmarkresearch.com/Articles/PDF/AirportNoise.pdf

Instead of just noise pollution though the physical damage done by a sonic boom happening on a regular basis has to be dealt with. I suspect that new cities with the technological capabilities of dealing with this will spring up around embarkation/ disembarkation points as it is a lot cheaper to build a city from the ground up than retrofit old cities. This also means that you would now have the option of opening up the Arctic and Antarctic to colonization and all the entailing conflict of ownership that would bring.

So the distribution of this technology would play an important part of the relevance of location within a country. In regards for other countries it opens up the door to work opportunities in other countries which means new laws for the taxation and an increased cultural interaction between the countries that have the technology.

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It is an interesting view on the future. Lots of money is being spent on developing faster trains and ballistic transport and some will come to pass but the end result will be a cost performance trade-off.

Rather ask yourself what sort of world would have required transport over 800km/h and paid for the development and operating costs. Either there is no resource scarcity or the rich feel very safe entering their vulnerable high speed coffins.

The answer to your specific question is very little as the social changes would be needed before the methods could be proposed. Sufficiently visible equality and all basic living needs being met are fundamental needs for it to work. These will have been achieved through education, telecommuting, machine automation and population reduction is some mix. There will no longer be a need to rush about like busy ants and the time it takes to get to the ski lodge will be of little consequence. You say get from here to there in 1-5 hours, well that is only half of what it takes now by plane (traffic permitting) from here to there.

To recap, not going to happen and if it could not going to be needed, I certainly would not pay for the increased risk, nor would others in a post scarcity society.

Certain niche routes may still have a small window to operate but will go the way of the Concorde (nice name that) in time due to cost of maintaining bleeding edge technology. I think you will find mud-ball earth will see slow and steady driver less cars much more than high speed luxury transport.

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Huge crowds show up very quickly, wherever and whenever something interesting is happening.

See Larry Niven's Flash Crowd for unintended consequences.

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Presuming this advance is feasible,

Intercity Travel

These trains would not be used within a city (like a subway), but between cities. We calculated in a high-speed train project that stations should be no less than 200km apart to be even useful, and if there were only small towns, they should be skipped and station distances further apart.

It would reduce long distance travel times, but seeing as how it's unfeasible for distances of about 1000km or less (to accelerate and then decelerate without killing your passengers, you work up quite a distance), planes, regular-trains, and automobiles will still be used for other distances and certainly commuting. I don't know the math, but the time it takes to get to top speed without killing passengers, you are already more than halfway across the United States. Then you have to decelerate, and you are in the ocean.

The feasibility of it would likely only be between MAJOR, distant cities that have connections elsewhere. London to Moscow to Beijing, maybe? People would still take slower trains and planes to other destinations after they disembark.

If undersea travel is feasible, then maybe London to New York? I don't think it would have a dramatic effect on society - maybe it can reduce emissions somewhat?

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