Airport London Personal Rapid Transit United Kingdom

Are London Heathrow’s ULTra Pods the Future of Transit?

» Successful implementation at huge U.K. airport could mean more interest in PRT elsewhere.

Proponents of personal rapid transit systems have frequently promoted themselves as opponents of traditional public transportation. Unlike expensive metro or light rail systems, they claimed, their PRT lines would be cheaper to construct, more convenient for passengers, and more attractive for users. Now that a new line is readying for opening in the United Kingdom, the technology may attain new prominence.

Over the years, most attempts at implementing PRT have failed due to a lack of interest from investors — and as a result of deceptive, dishonest campaigns by “pod people” who simply promise too much.

Even with the rebirth of modern rail systems over the past few decades in the United States, PRT continues to be brought up as an environmentally friendly solution for urban transport, allowing passengers virtually instant access to vehicles, stop-free commutes, and direct access to many destinations. In other words, it theoretically can solve many of the deficiencies of regular transit, which requires waiting for trains or buses to arrive, multiple stops along a route, and a walk or drive to and from stations. Yet only in 1975, at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, has a system that allows such on-demand travel by automated train been constructed.

Next spring, London’s Heathrow Airport will take a step forward to advance the PRT concept with the implementation of a new network connecting its Terminal 5 and associated parking areas. The ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system is being developed by Bristol, England Wales-based Advanced Transport Systems and will initially travel between three stations along a three-mile track using 21 four-passenger vehicles. The mini-cars, which travel at speeds of up to 25 mph and which use lasers for guidance along the 7 foot-wide pavement, have tires and are autonomous, meaning they more closely replicate the experience of automobiles than trains. They’re battery driven and use energy at the equivalent of 200 mpg.

Vehicles are designed to bypass stations, allowing non-stop travel. Customers will pick their destination by pressing a button on a touch screen before departing. Empty vehicles will be available at all times at stops for passengers needing to get between the car parks and the airport terminals, or vice-verse.

The system didn’t come cheaply — at $41 million, the private airport owner that paid for the line and some of the technology’s development is making a big bet that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the airport and into the surrounding areas with 400 pods at a cost of $330 million. That is, if this first test goes well.

If the claimed $7-15 million costs per mile (without rights-of-way) are to be believed, this PRT is cheaper than normal transit, but not much. Per passenger, its costs may actually be higher, since it is only expected to handle about 500,000 annual passengers, an average of less than 2,000 a day.

Nevertheless, the system holds promise: its use of batteries installed in each vehicle rather than an electrified third rail or catenary makes the corridor easier to maintain and cheaper to build — an advantage that will soon be replicated in the implementation of similar technology on tramways. The use of electricity rather than diesel motors (as in the existing buses used by passengers) will eliminate local-source pollutants and decrease noise levels. The elimination of human drivers will improve travel times by 60% and reduce operating costs by 40% — if initial estimates prove accurate. Passengers will get direct and instant access between parking lots and the terminal; plus, they’ll eventually be offered similar service to surrounding office buildings and hotels.

Unlike the cities in which PRT lines are usually proposed, this airport environment provides a sealed-off, protected setting in which to experiment with this model for a new form of transportation. The ULTra project seems highly likely to operate problem-free here, but what is the appeal elsewhere?

Abu Dhabi is planning a new city called Masdar that will not allow cars and instead rely on PRT lines to connect people from one place to another; San Jose is planning a people mover between its airport and surrounding transit stations and neighborhoods; other American cities like Mountain View and Ithaca are “studying” the idea, though there are no definite plans there. Companies such as SkyCab and Vectus are planning their own rival PRT technologies to spread around the world, and unlike some previous PRT pushers, they seem truthful in what they expect to provide (in other words, they don’t claim that initial capital costs will be paid back with fare revenue).

For airports and new cities, PRT could supplement other mass transit systems rather effectively and encourage people to live car-free lifestyles by providing them destination-to-destination service with minimal walking to and from stations. In newly built environments, PRT could be constructed cheaply and it could be installed in such a way that does not disrupt its surroundings. Proponents use this fact as evidence for the universal applicability of PRT, claiming that it should replace transit systems since it would allow for the phase out of cars, but their arguments are weakened by the realities of the way cities work.

PRT cannot replace light and metro rail systems, as its capacity is far lower. Along major routes at peak periods, systems that are capable of carrying hundreds of people per train every two minutes are necessary, and PRT will never allow that kind of operation.

Similarly, if a PRT vehicle sounds awfully like an automated car, the analogy isn’t far off: indeed, the idea that people would be able to travel by themselves from one place to another is simply an advanced version of the car sharing systems now being implemented in places like Paris. Most major cities have serious transportation needs along heavily traveled lines, and PRT will not be able to do much there, since the lines would be completely overloaded and therefore unusable if implemented in very dense cities like New York or San Francisco.

In addition, PRT’s proponents ignore the fact that their calls for dense networks of lines and stations would duplicate the already existing road system and degrade the urban landscape with elevated structures. This is no effective already to urban sprawl, since direct access to PRT stations every few blocks would undoubtedly encourage the sort of spread-out environments that have blighted American cities for decades. For those that don’t care about that problem, a cheaper alternative might be to wait a decade or so for more advanced automobiles that can negotiate existing streets without drivers. Stations wouldn’t be needed for such a system — people could simply call an automated service, and a robotized car would arrive in front of the house. This is no less a fantasy than the installation of hundreds of miles of PRT tracks above city streets.

This experiment at Heathrow Airport, then, will test some of the basic arguments of PRT advocates and probably verify many of their claims about the system’s effectiveness, but it won’t provide a solution to the deeper problems with the idea.

Note to readers: Discussions of PRT frequently produce angry debate. There’s nothing wrong with spirited interchange, but let’s try to restrain ourselves from personal insults. They are not acceptable here and will be deleted. Image above: ULTra in action at Heathrow, from Advanced Transport Systems Ltd

Chicago London Rio Tokyo

Chicago Olympics May Depend on Better Transit – But Where’s the Commitment?

Chicago 2016» International Olympic Committee with pick a 2016 host site in October; Chicago faces tough competition from Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio.

Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation head Ray LaHood said that the Obama Administration would do as much as possible to ensure the well-being of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. This pledge of support could include grants designed specifically to improve the city’s transport network, which has suffered from significant underinvestment in recent decades. President Obama said during the campaign that he would relish a Summer Olympics event in his hometown as a capstone to his potential second term in office, and indeed, a successful games there would solidify his political legacy.

But an Olympics Bid is a complicated thing, and Mr. LaHood’s pledge of support may be worth less than it seems, because it carries with it no definitive commitment to undertake any specific transport improvement project. More significantly, Chicago’s competitors in South America, Europe, and Asia are not holding back, and they will be offering extensive arguments for their being selected when the International Olympic Committee meets to pick a games host on October 2 in Copenhagen.

The sheer mass of individuals visiting the Olympics over a two-week period (and then its follow-up, the Paraolympics) can overwhelm public transport systems. That was evidenced in 1996 when Atlanta attempted to move its guests on the two-line MARTA rail system and on thousands of school buses; the city had been forced to expand its network from the tenth largest in the country to something closer to the third, and the temporary growth was hard to handle. To put it nicely, the crowds weren’t pleased by the network’s performance, complaining about frequent delays and breakdowns.

London, which will be hosting the Summer Olympics in 2012, will feature a series of new transit lines designed to reinforce the city’s already impressive public transportation network. The Docklands Light Railway, which runs in the city’s east side and is being expanded for the event, is expected to carry 500,000 spectators a day during the first week of the games; a new Javelin service running on the Eurostar Line will make the link directly between the central city and the Olympic Park in just 7 minutes. The transit operations serving the park will have a peak load capacity of 240,000 riders an hour. Note that Chicago’s entire rapid transit system carries just 620,000 passengers a day.

One wonders whether the American bid contender will be able to justify its network’s ability to handle the traffic generated by the Olympics, especially when the city’s three planned transit improvements — all far from games facilities and the center city — won’t open until 2016 at the earliest, if the timeline and budget stay on course. The primary improvements proposed by Chicago for the event are minor, consisting of doubling service on Metra commuter rail trains and instituting a series of bus rapid transit corridors. Worse, few of the major event facilities are directly adjacent to rail stations, though most are within a kilometer, a barely acceptable walking distance. And the money to make the BRT scheme truly effective isn’t there — unless Mr. LaHood steps in to provide the city a large grant. This is a possibility since until January the city was angling for a Washington-funded, city-wide bus network.

Rio, Tokyo, Madrid all have Olympics bids that are just as well developed as Chicago’s. Tokyo and Madrid are at a bit of a disadvantage because Beijing hosted the games in 2008 and London will host them in 2012; the IOC prefers geographical equity over the years. South America has never hosted a game, which could give Rio a leg-up, but as the chart below demonstrates, its transit network isn’t up to the standards of its European and Asian competitors. But then again, neither is Chicago’s.

Comparing the Olympic Bids’ Transit Facilities
City Rapid transit miles Rapid transit daily rides Commuter rail miles Commuter rail daily rides
Chicago 106 620 k 495 336 k
Madrid 175 2,500 k 230 880 k
Rio 26 580 k 139 450 k
Tokyo 204 8,700 k * *

* Larger than the other three, but difficult to sum-up because of the number of overlapping services.

If the IOC’s decision were solely a function of the transit systems of the respective cities, it is clear that Madrid and Tokyo would be the top contenders. But even a comparison with Rio puts Chicago’s bid to shame. The Brazilian government has already committed to a $19 billion high-speed train between Rio and Sao Paulo that will be completed by 2014 and reduce the travel time between the cities to 1h20. The city’s existing metro and commuter rail network, though smaller than Chicago’s, in general will provide better access to Games facilities — and a new, robust, funded BRT system will connect the sites in non-rail-accessible areas as well.

Mr. LaHood’s commitment to help Chicago fund transit improvements in preparation for the Olympics could well mean a reinforced BRT system, but it will not bring a major expansion to the city’s rail network — meaning that the Games will not result in a significant change in the manner in which people get around in the city. I should point out that non-transport-related investment on the city’s south and west sides could provide an effective tool to increase development in what are currently intense pockets of poverty.

The Administration’s willingness to deliver grants to Chicago may help the city win the Games next month; one major objection of the IOC has been that, unlike the other cities, Chicago doesn’t have a national government guarantee that cost overruns will be covered. But the city seems likely to host the 2016 Olympics only if the IOC downplays the importance of good transit connections, if it slants its geographic equity equation towards the Americas, and if it finds itself unwilling to take a risk on an event in a second-world city in a developing country like Rio. Otherwise, each of the other three cities seems more fit to handle the infrastructure-stressing crowds that will come with the event.

Image above: From Chicago 2016 Bid Book

High-Speed Rail London United Kingdom

U.K.'s High Speed Two Fleshed Out

With support from Tories and Labour, project construction is virtually guaranteed

U.K. High Speed 2

The United Kingdom, despite its intense population concentration and relatively straight-shot connection between its biggest cities, has yet to invest in a major high-speed program, unlike its peers in France, Spain, and Germany. Beginning late last year, however, the Conservative Party, under leader David Cameron and shadow Transportation Minister Teresa Villiers, began pressuring the Labour-controlled government to begin planning a high-speed rail link between London and Manchester, via Birmingham, as a replacement for the planned third runway at Heathrow airport. Plans to route the line through the airport to allow easy connections to flights were incorporated into the proposal almost immediately.

Though in January Labour did approve the runway at Heathrow as a way to relieve the significant congestion there, the U.K.’s ruling party has come to see a high-speed rail program as politically advantageous – especially as Mr. Cameron’s party has risen in popularity in recent years. It’s not surprising, then, to see Lord Andrew Adonis, the nation’s Minister of State for Transport, endorsing the line’s approval by early next year, before the next general election. With support from both major parties, the line is unlikely to face major opposition – and will likely get government funding as soon as its route has been finalized.

The map above illustrates the general consensus on the routing of the full route (in red). Running northwest from London, the line would hit Birmingham and then Manchester, before heading north to Leeds, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. A spur line from Manchester to Liverpool is likely, and, if conservatives and engineering company Arup get their way, the line would be routed through Heathrow Airport before extending north. Planning on the service has begun by a company called High Speed 2; the name is a reference to High Speed 1, the company that completed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2007 (in black on the map above). High Speed 1 carries Eurostar trains from London to Paris and Brussels in 2h15 and 1h50, respectively, down 40 minutes from pre-construction travel times.

Though the S-shaped route illustrated above would make connections to Scotland slower than a direct shot north from London, the route’s principal advantage is that it hits all of the United Kingdom’s major cities in one shot. Considering Mr. Adonis’ thinking – which indicates that he prefers building a brand new line over improving existing facilities – the planned commercial speeds of up to 225 mph using double-decker trains such as those running in France and Japan seem realistic with existing technologies already developed by the major train manufacturers.

Operations, based on current thinking, could begin by 2020. The line would be fast and carry a large number of passengers – the result would be a dramatic reduction in of the number of flights between British cities and make travel from Paris to Birmingham or Manchester, for instance, a feasible reality. There is, of course, a large amount of planning yet to be done: Would trains stop in city centers or in outlying areas? Would there be a direct connection with Eurostar at London’s St. Pancras, or would the trains terminate at Euston Station, a few blocks away? Is the connection to Heathrow necessary, or would speeding up services between city centers be the priority?

Even with all these unknowns, though, Britain’s project is one of the most exciting high-speed rail projects in the world, because it will offer a whole country efficient, fast, and reliable train service in one big investment. The line’s effect on the travel patterns of the U.K.’s inhabitants would be profound.

Mr. Adonis’ comments about the line couldn’t be more encouraging for those of us who believe that fast trains would greatly improve travel among British cities: “It is no longer a defensible position to oppose high-speed rail on the grounds of English exceptionalism. High-speed rail is a key driver of modernisation – economic, environmental and social.”

When will politicians on this side of the Atlantic make similar conclusions about American exceptionalism?

High-Speed Rail Honolulu Light Rail London Los Angeles

CAHSR May Get Federal Funds; Honolulu LRT to be Re-routed; London Transit Plans Shrink

Now that the election’s over, we can start talking about some of the consequences. The most important event Tuesday night was the decision by California voters to approve a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail in that state, and the High-Speed Rail Authority there is already beginning work. Though construction won’t begin until 2010 at the earliest, the Authority has already been allocated $40 million for the completion of the environmental studies. But the main task of the agency will have to be finding the other $22 billion that will be necessary to complete the first link, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with an extension to Anaheim. This money is expected to come from federal and private sources.

Some of the $1.5 billion recently allocated by Congress for rail projects will probably go to California. But Democrats have previously promised a lot more funding for high-speed rail, so we might see $10 billion from the legislature for this project if the infrastructure bill we discussed previously comes through. California’s line will be the first funded in the nation, especially because the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is from San Francisco, and the head of the Senate’s infrastructure committee is California’s Barbara Boxer. There will be money for this state’s system, probably allocated during the first few months of Obama’s campaign.

Private companies need to be attracted to contribute the other $12 billion necessary, and they’re likely to chip in for land surrounding proposed stations where public-private development will be encouraged. The real question is whether the current real estate downtown will negatively affect this project or whether these sources of money will look at the long-term of high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, the Bus Riders’ Union, always defending buses, sees this project as a “luxury train” and is likely to push for its derailment. Fortunately, the BRU, which we’ve discussed in the context of Los Angeles, has little influence statewide.

In Honolulu, the rail system that was approved on Tuesday is likely to be re-routed. Current plans are to have the 20-mile system leave downtown and head west through a section of the city called Salt Lake. This would mean that any airport service would come in another phase as a spur line. But it appears that the vote in favor of rail has changed the minds of some council people (a map showing the two routes is in the Honolulu Advertiser story), who now suggest that a line to the airport would be more valuable than one through Salt Lake.

There are benefits to both routings: whereas the Salt Lake line would serve more locals and a major mall, the Airport route would be better for tourists. Reelected Mayor Mufi Hannemann has in the past expressed his interest in the airport route, so we’ll see in the next few weeks what the council decides.

Meanwhile, in London, which, as we’ve discussed before, has a major transit system improvement plan, new Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson is scrapping a large number of projects meant to improve service in poor East London, which voted for him over former Labour Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had a number of projects planned for the east side of the city, including tram extensions and the pedestrianization of several open spaces in the city’s center.

Johnson, however, sees those projects as unnecessary and instead wants to focus on the government’s Crossrail program, a regional rail through link with underground stations in the city center (much like Paris’ RER or Philadelphia’s CCCC). He also wants the continued improvement of London’s Underground with air conditioned trains. This is disappointing news for East London but keep in mind the city has an astonishing 39 Billion Pounds worth of transit projects that will be complted before 2018.