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Richard Branson Just Hinted at His Next Big Move

The billionaire entrepreneur has his eye on futuristic transportation again–but this time it’s for here on Earth.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 22 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Richard Branson has long been working on revolutionizing the way people travel the skies. Now, he might have similar aspirations for here on Earth.

In an interview with British GQ, the Virgin founder apparently hinted that he's interested in getting involved with the hyperloop, the high-speed rail idea first proposed by Elon Musk in 2013. "Hyperloop and Virgin--there's something on the horizon," he told the publication, according to the International Business Times. (The GQ story is not yet online or on news stands here in the U.S.)

Branson has shown an interest in high-speed travel throughout his career. He founded Virgin Airways in 1984 as a more hip, customer-friendly alternative to legacy airlines. Virgin Galactic, launched in 2004, is intended to serve initially as a space tourism company, but Branson has said it could someday be used to transport people across the world at lightning speed--say, from London to Sydney in two and a half hours.

Though it's still likely years away from breaking any ground, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One has made the most progress toward developing the necessary technology for the train, which the company says would levitate above its rails and travel at speeds of up to 700 mph. Hyperloop One demonstrated a scaled-down version of its tech last year and has said it plans to show a larger scale version later this year. The startup recently announced 35 finalists from among 2,600 submissions for proposed routes, of which it says it will pursue three.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, another Los Angeles-based startup, is working on similar technology, though it's yet to show it off to the public. That company announced a partnership with the South Korean government this week to work on developing a working prototype.

It's not clear whether Branson plans to begin his own rival company, or if he's looking to get involved with one of the existing companies. When reached by Inc. through a company spokesperson, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn would not confirm nor deny Branson's potential involvement, adding, "As the first company to begin making the Hyperloop a reality back in 2013, seeing the continued growth of this movement is amazing. We look forward to collaborating with all the different players to accelerate this new born industry."

Hyperloop One declined to comment on whether it had spoken with Branson about his potential involvement, instead referring Inc. to Virgin. When contacted by Inc., a Virgin company spokesperson said, "Richard talks to lots of people and potential partners and ... is active in the future of transportation--but in regards to Hyperloop there is nothing to report."

If Branson were to finance an existing project, it could go a long way toward making the hyperloop a reality. Since most infrastructure projects are financed by public tax money, they tend to be underfunded, says Taylor Paquette of SB Capitol Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based government relations firm specializing in transportation and infrastructure lobbying.

"There are private companies addressing infrastructure problems through mechanisms like tolling, but this is unique in that it [would be] a high-profile person potentially trying to invest in infrastructure," she says. "Infrastructure is not sexy, but if Richard Branson got involved, it could be the catalyst necessary" to develop the project, and lead to other public-private partnerships in the infrastructure realm, she says.

While Hyperloop One currently has $160 million in funding and is seeking another $250 million, the cost of a single hyperloop project would likely be much more than that. Documents leaked last year revealed that Hyperloop One estimated the cost of a route in the Bay Area at $121 million per mile, bringing a 107-mile route to a total cost of around $11 billion.

Of the 35 routes the company is currently considering, four are in Branson's native United Kingdom, including one that could make the 400-mile trip from London to Edinburgh in 45 minutes. The finalists also include 11 routes in the U.S., including paths connecting Chicago with Pittsburgh, Seattle with Portland, and Miami with Orlando.

For his part, Musk isn't involved with any hyperloop company. When he outlined his vision for the technology in 2013, he revealed that he didn't plan on pursuing it himself. In recent months, though, he's been involved with a new project, a tunnel-digging venture called The Boring Company. Musk said at a TED talk in April that underground tunnels would be a good fit with hyperloop technology.

Last month, Hyperloop One chief counsel Marvin Ammori told Inc. that Hyperloop One "would welcome anyone innovating in driving down the cost of tunneling." "That would be a great benefit to us," he said.

Virgin Trains, Branson's U.K.-based high speed railway company, operates trains out of London that travel at about 125 mph. That company serves upwards of 35 million passengers per year.