This the second of two guest posts is from commenter Icebird looking at PRT, see the first one here
A short history of PRT
For an idea with such obvious (to me anyway!) potential, PRT has had an enormously difficult time going from the drawing board to reality.
The first major flurry of activity on the concept occurred in the 1970’s, with companies like the Aerospace Corporation and Cabintaxi working on the concept. Governments changed, funding was directed elsewhere, and development stopped. The one survivor from this era of work was the PRT system in Morgantown, West Virginia. The system doesn’t really match the model of a “modern” PRT system – it uses large vehicles, carrying up to a dozen people instead of small vehicles. That had a flow-off effect on the size of the infrastructure.
The system still operates reliably in both scheduled and “on demand” configurations, and it works well for the particular transit challenges that Morgantown faced, but the high cost deterred others from copying their model.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Dr Ed Anderson of the University of Minnesota devoted decades of his life to working on the concept, and a PRT system was almost built in Rosedale, Illinois (near O’Hare Airport). Unfortunately Raytheon, the engineering company tasked with turning the system into reality underestimated the crucial importance of keeping costs as low as possible. They built a test system over-engineered to within an inch of its life. The cost ballooned, the city got cold feet, and a major opportunity was lost. The company that Dr Anderson founded to develop his PRT system is now largely dormant.
This period was marked by feasibility studies in various cities: Tacoma, Washington; Cincinnati, Ohio; New Jersey. If the consultants had a significant interest in building urban rail systems, they tended to conclude that PRT wouldn’t work, while the more open minded studies usually concluded that the technology had potential, but please would someone else go first?
Advanced Transport Systems aka Ultra in the UK has had the most success in getting its system into the real world. It received government funding to build a test track in Cardiff, and for a while it looked like Cardiff would be the first city in the world to have a modern PRT system. The project was delayed to allow for competitive tendering, the government changed, funding vanished again.
In the mean time BAA invested in Ultra, and decided to build a PRT system to link Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 with a distant carpark. Construction was completed in 2009, but an extensive testing programme delayed the official opening of the system until last year.
In the meantime Dutch company 2getthere started their PRT system at the Masdar “eco-city” in Abu Dhabi. The Masdar approach was to build the entire city on top of a basement level where the PRT vehicles would operate. This model doesn’t really lend itself to duplication, and the scope of the PRT network has been steadily scaled back as Abu Dhabi’s ambitions for the Masdar project diminish.
The first application of PRT in an existing urban setting will occur in Amritsar, India, where a 3.3km 7-station system with 200 vehicles will link the city’s train and bus stations with the Golden Temple, a major destination for tourists and pilgrims. This system is due for completion in 2014.
Hands-on with the Heathrow pod system
I visited the UK in January, and like any good transit nerd I took a half hour detour to try out the PRT system at Heathrow airport.
The PRT system is located at the shiny new Terminal 5. It took a little bit of hunting around to find the system. It’s located on level 2 of the parking building adjoining the terminal. If you follow the signs to “Business Parking”, you’ll end up in the right place. (Please excuse the iPhone photography).
The station at the Terminal has three vehicle bays, all of them stocked with empty vehicles when I arrived. The bays are arranged in a diagonal configuration (think angled parking spaces), and the vehicles back out, so you can leave from any bay without being blocked in by vehicles stopped ahead of you.
A helpful speaker invites you to touch the screen to begin – all of the bays had their own touch screen terminals. You select your destination (either Car Park A, or Car Park B), confirm the destination, then the station and pod doors open.
The pod has two bench seats facing each other. The pod could accommodate 4 people sitting, plus lots of luggage. You could fit a wheelchair or bike in the pod as well. There are button panels on either side of each bench seat. To your left: Close, Open and Start. To your right: Information and Alarm. You press the Close button to shut the doors, then Start to get the vehicle underway. There are three video screens in the pod to show information on your progress, or potentially anything else the operators could think of.
The Ultra system uses rubber tires on either concrete or flat steel, so the journey isn’t as smooth as a pure steel-on-steel rail system. The Heathrow system has fences running on either side of the guideway, which presumably improves safety at the expense of aesthetics. I suspect they aren’t completely necessary, but Ultra have erred on the side of safety until the system’s track record has been proven.
The station at Car Park A was at ground level with 2 vehicle bays. I stepped out, snapped some pictures, then returned to the terminal. Entering and exiting the Terminal 5 station you catch glimpses of empty pods waiting out of site, ready to shift into vacant bays.
Applications in New Zealand
One of the fun parts about transport blogging is planning the transit systems you wish would be built. So where would I start?
I actually thing the best place to start wouldn’t be in Auckland at all, but in Wellington. The Regional Council is in the middle of a long-running planning process to determine options for the “spine” linking Ngauranga Gorge with the airport, via the inner city and hospital.
Your initial system might be a loop that starts at Westpac Stadium, passed the railway station, heads down Lambton Quay, Manners mall and Courtenay place, then loops back along one of the waterfront roads (passing by Te Papa and ASB Stadium). You could then add up a loop to head up Kent Terrace, past the Basin Reserve to the hospital. To connect with Kilbirnie and the airport, you’ve got two options : use the existing Pirie Street bus tunnel, or the Constable Road pass (you could probably use both). The system would probably work out cheaper than Ceila Wade-Brown’s light rail system, and reduce the need for a very expensive expansion of the Mt Victoria tunnel.
In Christchurch, PRT could take the place of the proposed City-to-University light rail system, a pet project of Bob Parker’s that seems to be an idea in search of a purpose.
For Auckland, I’d begin with a basic loop that went up Queen St to K Road, then returned to the waterfront via Symonds Street. Think of it as a basic “proof of concept” system that would link the downtown’s major shopping areas and the university. You could add a second “downhill” leg along Hobson Street to serve Sky City and the hotels and apartment blocks along that road.
Once the initial system is proven, you could expand it to area served by the Inner Link bus: Ponsonby, Parnell, Newmarket.
Stage three? Let’s get really ambitious, and tack guideways on to the Auckland Harbour Bridge, connecting our inner city loop with the north shore. Hey, we just added three highway lanes of capacity to the harbour bridge in each direction, and we spent maybe $50 million on the harbour crossing instead of $5 billion.
In looking at the question of “where do send the PRT network after it crosses the bridge?”, I’m going to avoid the busway completely (we’ll leave that for future rail systems), and instead I’m going to head west, putting in a loop that heads through Northcote Point and Birkenhead, and returns via Onewa Road. The loop could connect with the busway at Akoranga (giving residents of Northcote and Birkenhead an easy way to head north to Albany), and perhaps continue on to Takapuna.
Being a fan of PRT requires a lot of patience. For a system that can be built quite quickly, seeing it get to a position where it can start realising some of its potential seems to have taken longer than you would believe. But I’m getting increasingly confident that the proverbial “tipping point” is near.
For years, critics of PRT were able to say “well, there isn’t a PRT system operating anywhere in the world”. Now there is, and both Heathrow and Masdar seem to work pretty well. In two or three years, we’ll be able to evaluate the Amritsar system. If it proves successful, I suspect there will be a stampede of cities looking to build systems – when it comes to innovation in public transport, everyone wants to be the second city in the world to implement an idea.
In a comment discussion on this blog last year, Nick R doubted that a PRT system would be built in Auckland in our lifetimes. I’m not quite so pessimistic. I think by the time that the City Rail Link is completed, there will be multiple PRT systems in operation around the world providing real world data to assess its suitability for Auckland.
If PRT can prove itself in high-capacity operation, I see it as a real game-changer. It’s flexible enough to apply to even difficult transit situations, it could act as a feeder for the rail system, it could reduce the need for allocating so much space to parking in the suburban commercial areas, it facilitates those suburb-to-suburb journeys that bypass the CBD completely. The recent discussion document about paying for Auckland’s transport wishlist illustrates the astronomical costs of current solutions to Auckland’s transport issues. Maybe its time to look at more left-field alternaitves?
Until such time as the concept is proven to be completely unworkable, I’m going to remain a cheerleader and advocate for PRT