When Richard Branson threw his weight behind Hyperloop One in 2017, the world took notice. The billionaire’s Virgin Group invested in the transportation startup, which promised to zip passengers and cargo between cities at aviation speeds through tubes. Later, Branson even became chairman of Virgin Hyperloop, as it was rebranded for a time.
“The reason I became chairman of this company, I found this ridiculously exciting,” Branson told CNBC in 2018. “I think if we can build Virgin Hyperloops in a number of different countries, connecting countries, that will bring the world much closer.”
“When you’re talking about the pods going at 6, 7, 800 miles an hour, both with people and cargo, that’s tremendously exciting,” he added.
Josh Giegel, a Hyperloop cofounder and then CTO, later gushed about the “kind of credibility” that Branson and company delivered, calling it a “sign we’re doing something right.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk wasn’t involved in the company, but a year before its founding in 2014 he had pitched the hyperloop concept, urging entrepreneurs to make it a reality. According to his biographer Ashlee Vance, the idea originated out of Musk’s “hatred for California’s proposed high-speed rail system.”
Earlier this month, the Biden administation announced billions in funding for high-speed rail projects across the Golden State, part of “$8.2 billion in new funding for 10 major passenger rail projects across the country.”
And this week, Bloomberg reported that Hyperloop One—which has raised more than $450 million since 2014—is shutting down.
Signs of trouble had been building. Last year, the venture, which never won a contract to actually build a hyperloop, decided to focus on cargo rather than passengers, and Virgin pulled its name.
Most of the company’s employees, of which there more than 200 last year, have been laid off, and its Los Angeles office has been closed.
Branson said in 2017 in a statement about Virgin’s investment: “After visiting Hyperloop One’s test site in Nevada and meeting its leadership team this past summer, I am convinced this groundbreaking technology will change transportation as we know it and dramatically cut journey times.”
And he assured CNBC viewers the following year that actual working hyperloops were nearing reality. “We’re talking about two to three years away, not many years away,” he said.
Now the company is trying to sell various assets, and its remaining workers have been told their employment ends Dec. 31.