CARY – Let’s be honest, mass transit isn’t one of the Triangle’s strengths.

Officials cited the lack thereof as one of the top reasons the region lost out in its bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. Then to rub salt into the wound, plans for the Durham-Orange light-rail transit project collapsed in April.

It seemed all hope was lost. That is, until now.

Enter Ryan Kelly, a top exec at Virgin Hyperloop One, Richard Branson’s transportation tech company that is working to commercialize the high-speed concept called the Hyperloop.

Never heard of it? Think passenger pods moving in vacuum-sealed steel tubes at nearly supersonic speeds.

He recently appeared as the keynote speaker at a Regional Transportation Alliance event in Cary, discussing the potential for a future hyperloop system in the Triangle. WRAL’s Brian Shrader reported about it here.

WRAL TechWire tracked him down for a one-on-one discussion. Here’s what he had to say:

  • There’s a lot of hype around Hyperloop. Can you break it down for us. What is the technology?

Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. Hyperloop can safely zip tens of thousands of passengers per hour to their destinations at speeds greater than 600 mph, with no direct emissions, and at any time that fits their schedule. Vehicles, called pods, use magnetic levitation and electric propulsion to glide swiftly through an enclosed, low-pressure tube. The system has an efficient footprint which can be built on columns or tunneled below ground, eliminating weather delays and avoiding at-grade crossings. It’s fast, effortless, and affordable, delivering a mass transportation experience for the 21s t century.

How to make Durham-to-Chapel Hill a 10-minute commute? Think hyperloop

  • Where is the technology now?

Real world testing is exceptionally important. We have a full-scale test track in the Nevada desert where we’ve reached speeds of 240 mph over just 500m of track. What we’ve learned from our testing has been essential; it has allowed us to develop our commercial-ready passenger system.

  • Realistically, when will it be practical? How long do we have to wait?

The technology is there. Exact timelines for commercial operation depend on how fast the regulatory process moves, but we are very encouraged by the progress we are seeing at the federal level. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao created the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council (NETT) to explore the regulation and permitting of hyperloop technology to bring this new form of mass transportation to the United States. This council is a huge vote of confidence that the federal government wants to be on the right side of history with this innovation and support the demand for hyperloop systems at the local level.


Virgin Hyperloop’s Ryan Kelly appearing as the keynote speaker at a Regional Transportation Alliance event in Cary.

  • What makes the Triangle a prime location to examine hyperloop technology?

As cities across the country face increasing transportation challenges, such as extreme traffic congestion, vehicle emissions, long commute times and more, hyperloop provides an answer that can transform transportation and put the U.S. ahead of the pack in innovation and create thousands of jobs. The North Carolina Research Triangle, home to some of the country’s top companies, universities and healthcare centers, is a prime location to examine hyperloop technology. There is a tremendous opportunity to further connect these regional anchors and link North Carolina’s capital area with markets to the south and the northeast using a more efficient, sustainable, and reliable form of passenger and cargo transportation. Eyes are on North Carolina as it takes this important step forward in amplifying its vision for what 21st-century transportation can be.

  • Elon Musk’s has tunnel project in the works in Las Vegas. Will that solidify hyperloop as transit option, or will the tech be set back if musk fails?

The Boring Company could be complementary, but let’s be clear though – what they’re building is not hyperloop. The VHO system can reach speeds over 600 mph and support 16,000 passengers per hour per direction. In comparison, The Boring Company’s “Loop” tunnel system would carry riders at speeds up to 150mph and would be built with the capacity to move just 1,000 people per direction per day.

Ultimately, we continue to remain open to partnering with them if they reach their vision of reducing the cost of tunneling by 10x.

  • How would a hyperloop link parts of the Triangle? Would it use existing railways or adjacent right of way? Tunnels?

Land is incredibly valuable. Hyperloop is unique in that it can easily follow existing right-of-ways, allowing us to more feasibly deliver on projects, and for less cost. Our quiet, enclosed system requires less right of way than traditional rail and we can follow tighter turns at higher speeds due to banking. An exact alignment for North Carolina will be determined from further study, but a recently published hyperloop feasibility study in Missouri showed that our technology could follow an existing I-70 alignment at high speeds.

  • Where would people park cars to get to the loop, or would it be best for people to uber/bike their way from home?

Too often, trying to transfer from one mode of transportation to another is chaotic or options are limited. We are building our portals and designing our back-end to support seamless integration with other modes and a one-click end-to-end journey. Connecting to the first and last mile is essential to our success and we plan to build our portals with all modes in mind – public transportation, personal vehicles, bike-shares, and ride-shares equally.

  • What’s the cost per mile?

Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70 percent that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.

  • What do you predict for the future of transportation?

We are already starting to see the future of transportation today. States like North Carolina are coming to the table and saying we need 21st century solutions to solve 21st century transportation challenges. They share our vision for a giant leap forward, and imagine a future where cities are connected like metro stops, where catching a ride to see your family in the next city is as easy as traveling across town, where opportunities are created across megaregions, and where space is no longer a constraint but a shared resource — connecting multiple cities to airports, museums, stadiums, employment hubs, hospitals and housing. The future will be powered by renewable energy with a 100 percent electric transportation backbone; transportation will connect seamlessly throughout the network and on-demand travel will be a given. This is the future we are building today.