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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Saudi Arabia says Virgin Hyperloop One rapid-transit system will be catalyst for growth

Crown Prince says "advancing relationship" with US company to cut journey times across kingdom

Virgin Hyperloop One and Saudi Arabia said they are deepening a collaboration exploring the potential for a hyperloop transport system that would dramatically shrink journey times across the kingdom. Courtesy Virgin Hyperloop One.
Virgin Hyperloop One and Saudi Arabia said they are deepening a collaboration exploring the potential for a hyperloop transport system that would dramatically shrink journey times across the kingdom. Courtesy Virgin Hyperloop One.

Saudi Arabia is deepening collaboration with Virgin Hyperloop One, a DP World-backed company developing the futuristic transportation concept inspired by Elon Musk, as the company seeks to explore commercial opportunities in the kingdom.

“We’re looking forward to advancing the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Virgin Hyperloop One while we develop innovative transport technologies like hyperloop, accelerating Vision 2030 objectives to transform the kingdom from a technology consumer to a technology innovator,” said Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was speaking during a visit to Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s space travel concept Virgin Galactic's test site in Nevada this week.

The Crown Prince unveiled Virgin Hyperloop One’s proposed transit pod for a Vision 2030 Hyperloop system that could shrink journey times between Riyadh and Jeddah to 76 minutes from over 10 hours currently, positioning Saudi Arabia as the gateway to three continents, the company said. Travelling from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi would take 48 minutes compared to more than 8.5 hours today.

“Hyperloop is the catalyst to enable all fourth-generation technologies to flourish in the kingdom while creating a vibrant society and thriving economy through visionary cities and high-tech clusters,” the Crown Prince said. No formal deal with Virgin Hyperloop One has yet been signed.

The kingdom is ramping up investments in technology as it seeks to modernise its economy and reduce dependency on oil revenues under its economic roadmap Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia and the British tycoon Mr Branson announced last October that the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund, planned to invest around $1 billion into Virgin Group’s space ventures.

The hyperloop system is another potential investment. The techique, unveiled by businessman and inventor Elon Musk in 2013, uses pods riding on magnetic levitation systems that can shunt people and cargo at speeds of up to 700mph through an airless tube that works like a vacuum, its proponents say.

There are several firms attempting to bring the technology to market, including Mr Musk, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Virgin Hyperloop One, which is backed by the UAE ports operator DP World and whose chairman Sultan bin Sulayem is a board member.

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In October, when Saudi Arabia announced plans to build a $500bn futuristic investment zone and city on the Red Sea coast called Neom, the chief executive of US-based Virgin Hyperloop One, Rob Lloyd, said Vision 2030 increased the potential for collaboration with the kingdom.

Six months on, that prospect has gathered pace. In February, the Mohammed Bin Salman Foundation (Misk) and Virgin Hyperloop One said they would launch an internship programme for Saudi engineering students in the US from June.

Now, in unveiling the proposed Vision hyperloop 2030 pod, the Crown Prince has given his strongest show of support yet for the pioneering technology.

“[Saudi Arabia] is at the forefront of innovative thinking around many new technologies as part of its Vision 2030. This is particularly true in two areas where we at Virgin are particularly focused: next generation space travel and Hyperloop technology,” Mr Branson said in a statement released by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC.

“We look forward to extending these relationships further and welcoming their talented engineers into our Hyperloop test programme.”

Virgin Hyperloop One signed an agreement in February with the Indian state of Maharashtra to build the world’s first hyperloop route between Pune and Mumbai.

The company this week was said to have replaced three directors in a board shake-up several weeks ago, and a fourth was arrested, Bloomberg reported. The National has not yet received a response from Virgin Hyperloop One about the reports.