Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Happened to ULTra Personal Rapid Transit at Heathrow?

Way, way back in 2004:

BAA has to go through a competitive tendering process, but if its selects Ultra the system could be in place at Heathrow by 2006

Richard Teychenne, ATS business development manager, said the key difference between Ultra and its competitors would be its flexibility, as it was for small groups of people

He said: "We have in this country the idea that public transport has to move people in big vehicles. But 90% of journeys are made in cars. Our system is like a network of automatic taxis or an elevator: you punch in where you want to go." The system could eventually see passengers punching in the reference code of their flight and being taken to the correct terminal. Ultra is being considered by 20 councils in the UK, including Swindon in Wiltshire, Corby in Northampton and Cardiff, as
well as authorities abroad, with a possible view to delivering passengers from park-and-ride facilities directly to individual shops. Teychenne also met Greater London Authority officials this week to look at how the system could be adapted to the Olympic village

For six long years during which the pod people kept up an incessant PRT publicity barrage and yet the ULTra PRT at Heathrow is not in revenue service as predicted. What happened with the "20 councils in the UK" ? The much-hyped Daventry PRT experiment ended in fiasco when more than a hundred angry Daventry townspeople packed a meeting . They even put up a Say No To Daventry's P.R.T System Facebook page.

I recently received this response from Richard Teychenne concerning the ULTra pods at Heathrow:

I am sorry for the delay in replying I have been away for two weeks. I am not sure where the June idea came from as we have not agreed any dates with the customer BAA for the service to start. Our intention has always been to have the system ready for operations to start in the late summer of 2010. However when this actually happens is at the discretion of our customer BAA.

The current position is we are running passenger trials with a small number of real airport customers every day to allow the operators to gain familiarity with the system. This is ongoing and the system is working well.

Personally I do not expect BAA to want to make any announcements while there are ongoing negative news stories at Heathrow such as the BA and BAA industrial actions. Unfortunately this means that we have no way of knowing when they will actually allow us to officially open. It is also possible that they will not want to have a formal opening
announcement because this may cause them other media issues and media management is generally their top priority. We may find that we are allowed to gradually move to full operation unannounced later this summer.

Ken, the June mention you may have picked up was a delay in the passenger trials schedule in June because we were asked to change the communications frequency the system uses to avoid any potential for interference with other airport systems. This necessitated a change in the wifi communications network setup. ULTra uses a communications network which is similar to the mobile wifi networks for mobile phones and laptops in offices. This change required our wifi supplier changing and retesting the fixed antennas on the system and the corresponding components in the vehicles. All of the work required was completed in June.

Richard Teychenne states " I am not sure where the June idea came from". That's interesting. According to a presentation by Martin Lowson (available at the ATRA website) the new launch window is in "Mid 2010":

The June launch date also came from this guy who supposedly works for ULTra:

Testing of the PRT System is continuing and, with all installation and communications challenges now resolved,
we anticipate commencing passenger services in late Spring 2010." This is what I'd call a joint BAA/ATS approved statement.

That link is broken. Here's a screenshot:

Well, when June arrived we got this info via a tweet from the PRT Guru that linked to his website where we found this statement:

June 2010: It appears ULTra will not meet its previously-announced June opening date at London’s Heathrow Airport. BAA has issued the following statement: "The Heathrow pod is innovative technology and we have always said that the system will be launched when it is ready to do so. The system, as well as being a world first, is bespoke [customized] to fit into existing airport infrastructure and the process of completing this is informing our decision about the launch date. Testing is continuing and we anticipate that the system will officially launch in the near future."

The statement as it appeared on the ULTra PRT website (link broken):

Latest Schedule

"The Heathrow pod is innovative technology and we have always said that the system will be launched when it is ready to do so. The system, as well as being a world first, is bespoke (custom-made) to fit into existing airport infrastructure and the process of completing this is informing our decision about the launch date. Testing is continuing and we anticipate that the system will officially launch in the near future." - BAA's schedule statement, June 2010.

Apparently there were earlier, scrubbed launches of the glorified golf carts of Heathrow according to this BBC report from 2009:

In less than two years' time, after the opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 in March 2008, a network of 18 of these four-seater capsules will be ferrying passengers to and from a business car park to the new terminal building.

It's not surprising that the effect of these postponements of the much-hype ULTra have made public officials skeptical, even irritated at PRT promoters as explained in this video:

So, six years on (more if you count the failed attempt to bring pods to Cardiff, Wales) and the fabled ULTra pods are moving to India. Here's the news report... how many chances do these PRT guys get?

UPDATE: Steve Raney is still selling his PRT snake oil:

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Carolina Transportation Program where Steve Raney essentially gave his sales pitch for the idea of PRT. Raney is a transportation planner and consultant with Advanced Transport Systems Inc. who is driving development opportunities for ULTra’s concept.

Its main success so far is seen at London’s Heathrow Airport where they are in the construction phase at Terminal 5. The system will connect passengers directly to the car park, but is envisioned to expand in the future connecting to other amenities like hotels. The idea has several selling points: 95% of passengers will have to wait less than 1 minute for a car; all the vehicles are battery-powered (making it green); and, the cars do not require drivers since they run on a closed system.

But, Raney didn’t focus much on the Heathrow project; instead, he spent most of his time selling the more general idea of PRT as a design solution

Yeah, like what's there to focus on?

Just another hilarious episode in a long list of flops and fiascos for the pod people - let's review the most recent:

Video: Bill James Pitches Jpods Resolution to Hennepin County.

Federal Funding Nixed for Winona Personal Rapid Transit Project

Minnesota legislators tell pod people not to expect funding from the state at dismal MnDOT "workshop".

Taxi 2000 lobbyist and Bachmann pal Ed Cain also lobbied for the phony U.S. Navy Veterans Association charity.

ULTra PRT Heathrow Debut Postponed a Fourth Time.

No $25 million earmark for PRT pork project in Winona, Minnesota.

The Swedish/Korean PRT prototype malfunctioned recently in front of the media.

The Masdar PRT (actually computer-guided golf carts that follow magnets imbedded in the roadway) has been scaled way back, This setback got a mention in the NY Times and confirmed in this Bloomberg article.

The so-called Morgantown PRT (it's a mundane people-mover) was the subject of a student newspaper editorial after a malfunction created a "fireball" and filled a vehicle with smoke. The cost of fixing the Morgantown boondoggle is $93 million.

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