Saturday, September 17, 2011

ULTra's Glorified Golf Carts at Heathrow Not "Faster, Better, Cheaper"

For many years, I've had to listen to the PRTistas claim Personal Rapid Transit was "faster, better cheaper" compared to conventional modes of transit. The so-called Heathrow PRT project was supposed to be the proof of those claims... and it has failed miserably.

After many years, delays and enormous piles of hype, the pods of Heathrow are now "officially unveiled"(Reuters):

Traveling at speeds up to 40 km/hour (25 mph), after an average wait of just 34 seconds, the system looks like something straight from a science fiction film.

25 mph? Not exactly "rapid". And the 34 second wait? That pretty much dooms their oft-repeated claim that you never have to wait for PRT. Also, a 34 second wait eliminates the possibility that PRT could operate at "nano-second headways" in order to match the capacity of conventional transit. With those pathetic stats, the ULTra pods cannot be seriously considered a viable transit mode for urban areas.

According to ULTra, the company behind the technology, the 30 million pound ($47 million) development could transport up to 500,000 passengers each year and replace 50,000 shuttle bus journeys.

First of all, ULTra is not the first company to debut a fleet of unmanned peoplemovers in an airport parking lot. That was first accomplished by FROG/2getthere at Schiphol Airport 3 years before the turn of the last century. Frog/2getthere provided platforms including the guidance technology to ATS in 2001.

ULTra is essentially FROG/2getthere with its dorky wheels covered up to give it a futuristic look:

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And even with their awesome automated "CyberCabs" FROG/2getthere went bankrupt in 2007.

The cost of the Heathrow pod project proves that the infrastructure is expensive to build. There are no real-life figures on what it will cost to operate and maintain the pods of Heathrow for a year. There is a control room and presumably people who have to monitor the pods. How much that all costs - 3 or 4 million dollars a year for a simple two mile stretch, it's certainly not "cheaper" than taxis or jitneys. With deep pockets, BAA will likely continue to fund the pods until the flimsy fleet of battery-powered pods need to be replaced. It cannot be claimed as presidential candidate Michele Bachmann stated in 2004 that PRT could possibly "pay for itself".

It could be argued that the Heathrow pod "system" is not a true PRT system at all. It has a heavy "bi-directional guideway" that would not fit on the average city street. The Heathrow pod system do not have the elevated stations that are pictured in countless visuals on the web- for example, the enormous, hideous station festooned with advertisements on this webpage. The Heathrow pods have rubber tires and do not circulate like taxis, but instead must be berthed separately so they can charge their batteries. The pods must also back out of their berths - requiring plenty of room.

The glorified golf carts of Heathrow only prove that Professor Vukan Vuchic was right all along about PRT:

The PRT concept is imagined to capture the advantages of personal service by private car with the high efficiency of rapid transit. Actually, the PRT concept combines two mutually incompatible elements of these two systems: very small vehicles with complicated guideways and stations. Thus, in central cities, where heavy travel volumes could justify investment in guideways, vehicles would be far too small to meet the demand. In suburbs, where small vehicles would be ideal, the extensive infrastructure would be economically unfeasible and environmentally unacceptable.

The PRT concept is thus a totally unrealistic "Buck Rogers" concept for which there are no applications where it would be operated efficiently and economically.

Not "faster, not cheaper, not better"... just a lot of hype.

More About ULTra: ULTra President Martin Lowson Revises History of PRT in Cardiff, Wales.

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