The Mountain State set course Thursday to become the hyperloop state when Virgin Hyperloop announced that a portion of Northeast West Virginia will be the location of a testing and certification center for the high-speed transportation system.
The $500-million Hyperloop Certification Center will be constructed on nearly 800 acres of land in Grant and Tucker counties, an area selected, in part, because of its topography and proximity to large population centers in the Eastern United States, said Mike Schneider, vice president for project development at Virgin Hyperloop.
Construction on the certification center is set to begin in 2021 and is expected to establish thousands of jobs through its initial construction.
The center will serve as a construction testing hub for hyperloop pod vehicles and, later, a training ground for conductors and operators when Virgin Hyperloop is ready to offer commercial hyperloop travel in the United States.
Virgin Hyperloop officials said they plan to have hyperloop travel available in the United States beginning in 2030.
“I am particularly excited to work in partnership with the people of West Virginia,” said Jay Walder, chief executive officer of Virgin Hyperloop. “Admittedly, I’ve learned a lot through this process about West Virginia that I just didn’t learn as a kid growing up in New York City. There’s a history here that’s defined by hard-working people. There’s grit and determination that can’t be overstated.”
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson formally announced that West Virginia came out on top of the process that had representatives from at least 17 states working to bring the center there.
“You put more than your best foot forward to try to sort of build a really fantastic innovation center in your state,” Branson said. “It could make a big difference for your future.”
Virgin Hyperloop had reached out to governors in all 50 states, inviting them to compete to bring the Hyperloop Certification Center to their states.
The company that now is Virgin Hyperloop began in a garage in Los Angeles in 2015, said Ryan Kelly, global vice president of marketing for Virgin Hyperloop.
Hyperloop travel works using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation and “near vacuum conditions” within the hyperloop tube system, according to the Virgin Hyperloop website.
Virgin Hyperloop executives said the travel method is not only a faster form of ground travel, but it also is cleaner and more sustainable.
Kelly said one Virgin Hyperloop project being established in India is expected to take 350 million pounds of carbon out of the air, once the loop is in operation.
In 2017, the company executed its first successful test run of hyperloop travel on a straight track near Las Vegas. The hyperloop pod reached 240 mph during that test, Kelly said. That testing track in Nevada was a short, straight track built for the sake of showing that hyperloop exists and can work, said Kristen Hammer, business development manager for Virgin Hyperloop.
Part of the appeal of West Virginia was exactly the thing that previously has kept new businesses from coming here — its mountains.
“With the certification center, we’ll have some curves,” Hammer said. “We’ll be able to show banking on our vehicle and build out a little bit more, actually a lot more, of the commercial version of the technology, showing not just a sample of the technology working and showing that hyperloops exist, but really showing what the commercial experience can be like.”
Hyperloop moves people and goods in pods through a vacuum tube at speeds exceeding 600 mph, which potentially would allow for travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 41 minutes or New York City to Washington, D.C., in just 30 minutes, according to a news release from Gov. Jim Justice’s office.
By the time it’s available to the public, Hammer said, the goal would be for commuters to be able to travel on the hyperloop at costs similar to traveling on a train and less expensive than a plane ticket.
Another selling point for West Virginia was the willingness of officials at West Virginia University, Marshall University and the state’s community college system to create a collaborative effort for research and technical training, said Mike Schneider, vice president for project development for Virgin Hyperloop.
The land where the center will be constructed is owned by Western Pocahontas Properties and is located near Mount Storm. The company is donating the land to the WVU Foundation as part of the partnership with Virgin Hyperloop.
Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and WVU President Gordon Gee joined Justice and Walder at the Thursday morning news conference announcing the center’s establishment in West Virginia. Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, joined Virgin Hyperloop executives and other state and local leaders during a media roundtable Thursday afternoon.
Justice had touted the state’s effort to bring the hyperloop center to West Virginia during his State of the State address in January, saying he would do everything he could to bring Virgin Hyperloop to the Mountain State.
On Thursday, the governor said it is an incredible day for West Virginia.
“I say to all my team and all those that put in the licks to make this happen: We did it,” Justice said. “We’re honored beyond belief.”
Cooperation from elected and other leaders was a crucial selling point in bringing the center to West Virginia, Schneider said.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, D-W.Va, and R-W.Va., respectively, were part of the news conference announcing the center’s establishment, along with Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller, all R-W.Va.
Kelly said there were efforts to ensure that as many jobs as possible will go to West Virginians and people in surrounding areas.
He also said the results of the ongoing 2020 general election are unlikely to change Virgin Hyperloop’s plans in West Virginia.
“One of the things that has been really exciting about the hyperloop is we have bicameral and bipartisan support,” he said. “I think Senator Capito said it best today that, when something like this comes across the desk, it’s not about politics, it’s about people. We are seeing that in the state of West Virginia, but we [also] are seeing that at the federal level.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch also participated in virtual events announcing the Hyperloop Certification Center, with Chao saying hyperloop technology is one of many new developments to take place during a period of transportation innovation that has included the development of electric and autonomous cars and reusable space rockets.
On Thursday, Kelly compared the significance of the hyperloop development to the development of flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
“If you look at Kitty Hawk and that moment in the 1900s to commercial jets and when … the first passengers basically jumped on planes, that was decades, and we’re talking within a decade,” he said. “The momentum we’re seeing is unparalleled for this, and it just goes to show that we’re way overdue to kind of shake off the cobwebs and break out of our inertia. We are, in the United States, really ready to start leading again with transportation innovation.”