Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) – Two years on at Heathrow. Has the project been successful and is PRT the way forward for the ‘last mile’ solutions?
The pioneering technology which uses small driverless electric vehicles that run on dedicated guideways has successfully been in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 airport since May 2011. The 5 minute journey on one of Ultra’s ((Ultra Global Limited) Pod’s takes in the 2km journey between the business traveller’s car park and the main terminal building. Since then, how has PRT performed and what is the future of these specialist transportation pods at airports and within city and urban environments?
The Airport Phenomenon
Heathrow Terminal 5’s ‘Pods’ have achieved over 99% reliability since implementation and carried over 750,000 passengers. They have removed over 70,000 bus journeys (and as a result reduced harmful emissions) as well as reducing journey times between the car park and the terminal with a non-stop direct service. From the passengers’ point of view, there is never more than a 10-15 second wait for a ‘Pod’, in fact, 80% of passengers don’t have to wait at all – so in summary, they have been a fantastic success.
Indeed – the feedback from Twitter and YouTube on the system just goes to show their popularity and why many passengers will choose Terminal 5 as part of their journey plan:
Ultra’s ‘Pods’ are safe, green (powered by an electric motor and 4 batteries), flexible/adaptable (they go where the passenger determines), segregated – (no need to share the usable space with any other transportation mode), small scale (a double track requires just 4m width and a 1.8m height clearance as opposed to other similar modes needing 4m minimum track width for one car and 4m clearance, or even a travelator that requires 10m width and 5m clearance) and they are lightweight. The system is also designed to be easily extended.
Customers love them – as illustrated by the comments above. They find them reliable, dependable, and predictable – they enjoy their simplicity and the whole experience of using the system. The Pods are comfortable and each one can fit 4 people plus luggage, but can be configured to carry more people in different applications.
From an installation and engineering perspective, the infrastructure is lightweight and simple to build. The system is easy to install and test and requires much less land take when compared with conventional automated people movers.
PRT and the future
Arup is studying the feasibility of introducing similar systems in the UK and other countries, including alignment studies to further the implementation of Pods between Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and 3 and their business car parks. Arup have now led several technical and economic feasibility studies, and in San José, CA, they worked with the transport authority on introducing an automated transit network (ATN/PRT) system that would link the commuter rail line with the airport terminals and the light rail system, and at the same time provide enhanced connectivity within the airport campus including car lots. The study’s findings were very positive, concluding that PRT is cheaper to build than APM while offering a higher level of service and greater coverage, but noted the service requirements exceed the demonstrated capacity of the PRT systems currently available, and there are no established regulatory process to support the construction of an ATN in the United States.
Pods are not just limited to airport transit and Arup is working alongside industry and potential developers to look at PRT for transportation at out of town business parks, university and hospital campuses, tourist attractions, future cities and all instances where passenger experience, demand characteristics, physical constraints and the ‘last mile’ connections are key factors in determining the best transit solution. There is every chance a ‘Pod’ could come to a ‘town or city near you’ at some point in the future.