Branson climbs aboard Hyperloop project

Elon Musk’s concept of an ultra-fast transport system has found a prominent supporter: Richard Branson is investing in Virgin Hyperloop One. Musk is planning construction of the required tunnels while at the same time exploring possible routes. John Dyer reports from Boston.

The ultra-fast transport project is now called Virgin Hyperloop One after Richard Branson invested an undisclosed sum into the company. (Image credit: Kelsey Brannan / U.S. Department of State via Flickr)

Richard Branson’s investment in Hyperloop One illustrates how the proposed pneumatic-tube-like mass transit system is gaining traction in the United States.

“Delighted to announce Virgin Group’s investment in Hyperloop One – the world’s most revolutionary train service,” said Branson, the British impresario who runs the Virgin group, a conglomerate that owns aerospace, railroad and other businesses.

“This is an incredibly innovative and exciting new way to move people and things at airline speeds on the ground.”

New investor, new name

Neither Branson nor Hyperloop One disclosed the size of the investment. But the company has changed its name to Virgin Hyperloop One. The investment was finalized last month, when Hyperloop One raised a total of $85 million. The company has received a total of $245 million from investors since it was founded in 2014.

“For more than 20 years, Richard and Virgin have been at the forefront of transportation innovation, and a partnership with them feels like a natural fit,” said Hyperloop One co-founder Shervin Pishevar, who is the Los Angeles-based startup’s executive chairman.

“Virgin is an iconic brand and having Richard as an ally will help strengthen our mission to spread Hyperloop One throughout the world.”

Elon Musk to build the tunnels

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk initially conceived of the hyperloop concept in 2013. The technology uses magnetism to levitate a passenger pod in a tube and electricity and forced air to push the pod forward at speeds as high as 1,078 kilometres per hour. The pod never touches down until the ride is over, eliminating friction.

Calling the technology a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table,” Musk released his research on the concept to the public, hoping others would improve it.

Although Musk is not formally connected to Hyperloop One anymore, he has been at the forefront of boosting the technology’s reputation. He recently said he had verbal permission from authorities to build a hyperloop between New York City and Washington, DC. He also founded a company to examine how to build tunnels more cheaply to potentially lay the groundwork for the project.

He has claimed he could build a hyperloop line from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $6 billion, a figure that has been strongly criticized as too low given the cost of big construction projects in the US. An unconventional bridge in a major American city easily costs billions.

Routes in North America and Europe

After Hyperloop One recently performed a test of its technology in Las Vegas, the company said it hopes to have a pilot project ready for people to use in 2021.

After soliciting ideas from 2,400 bidders, Hyperloop One has released a list of ten regions around the world that could be potential hosts of a hyperloop. In addition to American routes in Colorado, Chicago to Pittsburgh, Dallas to Houston and Miami-Orlando, the company picked Edinburgh to London, Glasgow to Liverpool, Mexico City to Guadalajara and Toronto to Montreal.

The announcement set of buzz in many American cities that are anxious for new mass transit but fearful of expensive rail project. Cost projections for California’s high-speed rail link between San Diego and San Francisco have ballooned, for example.

Other groups not on the list are still lobbying for a hyperloop, too.

The Missouri Hyperloop Coalition of advocates in Missouri raised $1.55 million and put together a proposal showing that a route from St. Louis to Kansas City would be perfect for the system. Chambers of commerce and other business associations belong to the coalition.

Calling their proposal “compelling”, Hyperloop One has pledged to work with the Missouri coalition. The line would serve 5 million people.

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