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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Branson aims to price a hyperloop trip lower than a flight

Company wants to build network of high-speed pods to transport people and cargo across the subcontinent, cutting three hours off the journey time

A rendering of how a hyperloop track could look in Dubai. Courtesy of DP World
A rendering of how a hyperloop track could look in Dubai. Courtesy of DP World

If Richard Branson has his way in India, hyperloop travel could turn out to be cheaper than a flight ticket.

Virgin Hyperloop One, the futuristic transportation company backed by the British tycoon, aims to build a network of high-speed pods that can carry people and cargo across India. It’s looking to price the ride at less than what airlines charge, in a market where air travel is growing at the fastest pace in the world. But, fares will still be more expensive than first-class train coaches, Harj Dhaliwal, Hyperloop One’s managing director for Middle East and India.

“India is a super price-sensitive market,” he said. “We are in the process of price modelling. We want to keep fares as low as possible to stimulate demand but not so cheap that will drive away financial or private investors from the project.”

The Los Angeles-based company has been working on a technology that uses magnetic levitation and low-pressure tubes to achieve airplane-like speeds. Mr Branson has been pitching this concept to Indian authorities as a fix for the South Asian country’s infrastructure bottlenecks. Hyperloop One has been testing in Nevada with speeds reaching almost 400 kilometres per hour and is planning three production systems in service by 2021, according to its website.

Although the science behind these pods has been mostly confined to the realm of science fiction, since futurist and billionaire Elon Musk first theorised a model in 2013, a few companies and investors have been ploughing money to win the race for the first working system. Hyperloop One is backed by investors including DP World Ltd, Caspian VC Partners, the Virgin Group and Sherpa Capital.

In February, the businessman signed a preliminary agreement in Mumbai for a broad hyperloop framework and mooted a Pune-Mumbai system that would shrink travel time to 25 minutes and save about three hours. The first Indian commercial hyperloop between the two cities is targeted to roll by 2025, two years after India aims to complete its maiden bullet train project linking the commercial hubs of Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

The project may not be as easy as it sounds, said Mathew Antony, a Mumbai-based managing partner at Aditya Consulting, a boutique business advisory firm. It needs to be truly affordable to the masses to be successful, and hurdles in the form of opposition to land acquisition could complicate the execution, he said.

“Hyperloop is an excellent idea only if it is to be developed as a mass transport mode,” Mr Antony said.

Hyperloop One has ambitions. It’s in talks with the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka for possible projects, said Josh Giegel, co-founder and chief technology officer.

“Our goal is to build a national network,” he said. “We want to showcase our capabilities through the Pune-Mumbai route in India. We want to demonstrate bite-sized chunks of 100 kilometres and 150 kilometres before we build 1,000 kilometres of national network in India.”