Virgin Hyperloop to Focus on Freight. Is This the End of the Dream?

Whose idea was this anyway, and why did anyone take it seriously?

Interior of Virgin Hyperloop Pod
Goodbye to all that.

Teague / Virgin Hyperloop

In a 2021 post, titled "Is the Hyperloop for Real?," we showed the proposal for Virgin Hyperloop's people pods designed by Teague, running out of elaborate stations designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group. “In this day and age, Virgin Hyperloop taking off from our portals provides holistic, intelligent transportation for a globalized community to travel across vast distances in a safer, cleaner, easier, and faster way than airlines," said Bjarke Ingels at the time. After it was included in the American government's infrastructure act, CEO and co-founder Josh Giegel said, "Hyperloop’s inclusion shows that we’re on the precipice of a new era that will change the way we think about mobility in this country."

Alas, the people mover is not real after all. According to the Financial Times, Virgin Hyperloop has laid off half its staff and is pivoting to freight. The company, which is 76% owned by Dubai Ports operator DP World, now says it will build a cargo system to deliver freight at "the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking." According to the Financial Times, the company is a bit of a mess.

"Internal turmoil followed the departure of Virgin Hyperloop co-founder Josh Giegel last year, triggering a 'massive talent flight' as other executives quit the company, according to one former senior employee. 'Morale is low and there is no confidence in the new direction.' Shunning passenger transport had triggered a 'complete unravelling' at the group."

Owner DP World is in the freight business, so this makes some sense for them. It notes in the Financial Times that “focusing on pallets is easier to do—there is less risk for passengers and less of a regulatory process.”

Freight train carrying double-stacked containers
Freight train carrying double-stacked containers.

GK-6mt / Getty Images

The thing is, we know perfectly well how to move freight cheaply and efficiently with a low carbon footprint, in very high volumes, without vast government subsidies and high-risk investment.

The Hyperloop has always been fascinating because it is more than just a train in a tube, but a way of thinking that tweeter @SheRidesABike called "hyperloopism." I called this "the perfect word to define a new and unproven technology which nobody is sure will work, that probably isn't better or cheaper than the way things are done now, and is often counterproductive and used as an excuse to actually do nothing at all."

We have actually seen hyperloopism in action, hard at work, killing taxes and public investment, where the idea of a hyperloopy future was used to kill a tax in Cupertino, California, that would have been used to fix transit.

This was apparently Elon Musk's plan all along. In Ashlee Vance's biography of Musk, she writes:

"Musk told me that the idea originated out of his hatred for California's proposed high-speed rail system... at the time, it seemed that Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train. He didn't actually intend to build the thing. It was more that he wanted to show people that more creative ideas might actually solve problems and push the state forward. With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled."

Another name for it might be Predatory Delay, defined by futurist Alex Steffen as "the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime." It is not delay from the absence of action, but delay as a plan of action—a way of keeping things the way they are for the people who are benefiting now, at the expense of the next and future generations.

High speed train in China
High-speed train in China going at 190 mph.

Lloyd Alter

The problem with hyperloopism is the problem of getting somewhere fast was never technological. I have zipped across China at 200 miles per hour on part of a rail network that was built in a decade. It has always been political. The Hyperloop doesn't solve a problem as much as divert and delay its known solution. This is why the Hyperloop dream is dying: The wonder is that it attracted $400 million in investment and got as far as it did.

We see hyperloopism everywhere these days with technologies like carbon capture and storage or the hydrogen economy. They exist as concepts or prototypes but they will take decades to scale, and are being proposed as an excuse to do nothing at all right now about fossil fuels and carbon emissions. Of course, we know what to do to fix this now; it's just inconvenient and we might have to give something up, and we can't have that. Better to dream about a bright green hyperloopy future.