Sunday, September 25, 2011

ULTra President Martin Lowson Revises History of PRT in Cardiff, Wales

In a recent article about the glorified golf carts of Heathrow written by Graham Henry in the South Wales Echo, Martin Lowson, president of ULTra, formerly Advanced Transport Systems Ltd, now called ULTra Global PRT gives a bizarre answer to the question about what happened when the company failed to created a PRT system for Cardiff back in 2003:

Martin Lowson, president of ULTra Global PRT, said the scheme had fallen in Cardiff because of EU competition laws.

He said: “What actually happened was that they got funding to put the system in the Cardiff Bay area, but couldn’t find a way to procure it because of rules from the EU which said we must have competition.

That is not what happened according to the BBC:

Cardiff County Council said it was taking legal advice on the Welsh administration's decision on Friday not to give £8.8m in the coming financial year to help develop the £45m Ultra scheme.

Ministers have told the authority that they are reluctant to support the scheme - which was due to begin next year - without clear agreements on private funding.

And there was opposition:

Friends of the Earth Cymru welcomed the assembly decision, saying Cardiff council had not thought the system through properly.

There's more detail from a Jan 31 2003 article by Rhodri Clark for the The Western Mail (no longer online):

FUNDING for a futurist new transport system has been frozen just a fortnight after it began trials.

Last year the National Assembly announced grants which could exceed £15m for the Ultra system of driverless passenger pods.

The system was to have started carrying passengers at Cardiff Bay in 2005, with the elevated track later being extended into the city centre. Yesterday, however, Transport Minister Sue Essex said the grant for Ultra was being withheld because of uncertainty over its finance.

Transport managers welcomed the decision, saying the priorities for the Assembly's limited budget were proven transport systems.

Unveiling a package of transport grants for Wales, Ms Essex admitted she was disappointed that most of the money announced last year for public transport was not spent.

She promised that the Assembly would continue with rail investments, including money for the Vale of Glamorgan line, despite suggestions from London that up to 35% of services may be cut.

Much of the new money announced yesterday will go on better bus services and facilities for walkers and cyclists. Construction will start on part of the Ammanford distributor road and on the Lly peninsula "Butlin's bypass".

Asked about funding for Ultra, Ms Essex said, "We've held off on the Ultra at the moment.

"There hasn't been a guaranteed private-sector partner coming in. At the moment there isn't a guarantee that that's going to go through."

The scheme is projected to cost £45m, about £30m of which needs to be financed privately. Its promoters say it will not need an operating subsidy.

Ms Essex said the Assembly was keen to support innovation and it was the financial rather than technical aspects which had caused the rethink.

Even the initial loop between the Assembly building and Cardiff County Council's headquarters has been shelved.

"We couldn't do the initial loop unless we had the guarantee that the second stage is going to be forthcoming to link in at the station [Cardiff Central]," said Ms Essex.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport Wales, which represents bus and coach operators, said Ultra had been allocated "a hell of a lot of money". Director John Pockett said, "There's only a limited amount of money going into transport, but this unproven scheme seemed to be taking priority over modes of transport which are proven to provide good solutions. We voiced our concerns about Ultra at our last meeting with the minister. We welcome the fact that she is rethinking the scheme.

Mr.Lowson doesn't explain why ULTra said it was prepared to build a PRT system in Cardiff back in 2003, but was unable to deliver a working model, albeit a stripped down version with no free-standing stations at Heathrow on until this summer. If they were ready to go in 2003, what was the reason for all the delays?

In other ULTra news, it appears ULTra is downplaying expectations on their much-hyped "pod revolution" in an Air Rail News interview with ULTra's John Hammersley. Here's his response to a question about the future of the pods at Heathrow:

The decision on that rests with BAA, they have always said that first they want to see the system in place before making any extensive plans for the future, and to see how the passengers will respond.... At the moment we’re in the process of going from the launch of the pilot through the assessment of it and then, hopefully, into extension further, if that is the decision taken by BAA.

And finally some honesty about whether ULTra's pods could be a feasible urban transit mode:

Originally the Ultra system was designed to meet the needs of the 21st century city as an urban transport mode. The pods can help free up the roads and congestion and is a good option for the so-called "last mile" journey. Having a PRT network in the city enables the increase of other forms of public transport. However cities are very complicated environments with many authorities and owners of the land, whilst airports or campus environment generally has one major stakeholder.

Exactly, a little something called "right of way" which the PRTistas treat with the same lack of reality they treat everything else having to do with transportation and urban design.

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