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Virgin Hyperloop shuns passengers for something else

If work on the hyperloop had zipped along as quickly as the high-speed passenger pods that the technology teases, we might already be hurtling through vacuum tubes on intercity adventures.

But alas, work on the futuristic transportation system resurrected by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk nine years ago has gone slower than originally hoped.

This week the plan to put maglev technology inside a vacuum tube to propel passenger pods at speeds of up to 760 mph (about 1,223 kph) suffered another setback after the main proponent of the system, Virgin Hyperloop, laid off 111 of its workers, almost half of its entire team.

The unexpected move is part of restructuring efforts that will see the company focus on building a hyperloop system to transport freight rather than passengers.

A Virgin Hyperloop being built.
Virgin

Virgin Hyperloop told the Financial Times the new strategy will enable the company to respond “in a more agile and nimble way and in a more cost-efficient manner.” It said global supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic persuaded the team that freight should be a priority.

According to DP World — the Dubai-based logistics firm that has a majority stake in Virgin Hyperloop — pivoting to freight will also result in a more straightforward regulatory process and therefore an earlier commercial launch of the system, though it says it hasn’t given up entirely on creating a passenger service.

“It’s abundantly clear that potential customers are interested in cargo, while passenger is somewhat farther away,” DP World told the Times. “Focusing on pallets is easier to do — there is less risk for passengers and less of a regulatory process.”

After Musk proposed the hyperloop plan in 2013, he encouraged private companies to step in and develop the technology. California-based Hyperloop One took up the challenge, with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson (yes, he of Virgin Galactic fame) investing in the business in 2017 in a move that saw it rebrand as Virgin Hyperloop.

Virgin Hyperloop has been making progress with the technology, last year completing the first test run of a pod with two passengers on board. But although the vehicle only tootled along at 107 mph (172 kph), the company insisted the trial run demonstrated “that passengers can in fact safely travel in a hyperloop vehicle.”

News of Virgin Hyperloop’s focus on freight will come as a disappointment to hyperloop fans who were dreaming of being hurled through a tube at high speed. But the project’s massive costs, significant engineering challenges, and glacial progress have left many questioning whether the hyperloop will ever really happen.

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