Heathrow Airport is close to beginning trials of a pioneering project that has the potential to revolutionise the surface-transportation of passengers.
The Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) system will initially move passengers between an airport car-park and the new Terminal 5 (T5) in near-silence, privacy, and with a dramatic energy saving over conventional buses.
Its 3.8km elevated track is now complete and trials about to begin which should lead to the system being introduced to service in autumn of 2009.
Airport operator BAA believes the system - claimed to be a world-first - has the potential to link all of Heathrow's terminals, car-parks, hotels, and rail-stations, and even provide a commuting link for airport workers living nearby.
The initial project is costing some £30 million and BAA has taken a one-third stake in Bristol, UK-headquartered Advanced Transport Systems which devised the PRT.
ATS has designed the ULTra vehicle used in the PRT, which is a battery-driven pod with capacity for at least four people and their luggage, guided automatically along its track. The guidance system uses "a range of sensors" including lasers and odometry to give millimetric accuracy.
In the initial Heathrow project, passengers will leave their car in the T5 business car-park and walk to one of the two PRT stops where they will wait no longer than one minute for one of the 18 vehicles on 95% of occasions, and only 12s on average.
They can take as long as they like to board because each vehicle runs independently and does not block the track while passengers board or alight. Passengers are free to choose to travel alone or to share their vehicle.
The first vehicle is about to be handed over to BAA, paving the way for the trial to begin with an increasing number ready for operational handover next March. BAA then plans to put the system into service in the autumn.
BAA PRT manager David Holdcroft explains that the cost of the initial system is heavily driven by its developmental nature, which he thinks accounts for about half of the total amount.
He says it will need a staff of 22 to man it but stresses that if the Heathrow network is expanded it will need few if any more personnel.
ATS and BAA have high confidence in the safety of the system which has been extensively tested at ATS' Cardiff test-track.
The vehicles travel at around 40kph (25mph) and ATS operations director Phil Smith says they will simply run over small objects - such as a house-brick - or will automatically stop if they touch anything larger. Each one is monitored by CCTV.
Smith says: "The vehicles are big and robust and travel at a fairly conservative speed. And the events that could take place are incredibly benign. We have run them in all the conceivable weather conditions in the UK up to and including conditions when the airport would be closed."
PRT's environmental credentials for the local area are a major attraction for BAA as it fights to be allowed to expand Heathrow. The system is claimed to cut carbon emissions by 70% compared to cars and 50% compared to buses and on a passenger-kilometre basis it is said to use one-fifth of the energy of a bus.
In the Heathrow trial the track runs only to the T5 multi-storey car-park because the PRT project was initiated only after the terminal construction was underway.
Smith points out, however, that the vehicles are potentially quiet and clean enough to run directly into the passenger halls just metres from the check-in area.
Source: Air Transport Intelligence news