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Heathrow pods ready at last

An innovative new transport system at Heathrow airport is set to open this month - following more than a year of problems during commissioning.

The personal rapid transit system connects the airport’s Terminal 5 and its business car park and will be one of the world’s first uses of the technology.

It was originally scheduled to open in 2009. The system is designed by Advanced Transport Systems (ATS) comprises rubber-tyred, electric driverless vehicles running on a dedicated 3.8km long, 1.6m wide guideway.

An ATS spokesman said the project had run into “some issues around the communication systems” used by the driverless vehicles after construction of the track for the system finished in July 2009. ATS said that the completion of successful trials meant it would soon open.

Airport operator BAA has invested over £25M in the system and took a £1.1M stake in ATS in October 2005 and began working on its own scheme in June 2006.

Each vehicle, which can travel up to 45km/h carries a single passenger, and is automatically routed by a central communication system to suit demand.

The vehicles are equipped with laser sensors so they can run closer together than they could with human drivers.

Southampton University Transportation Research Group specialist in intelligent transport systems professor David Jeffery, a former managing director of Atkins Transport Systems, said that the delay in commissioning the system was due to the testing of communications for the system at a test track in Cardiff.

The frequency for the communication between the vehicles and the central computer had to be changed to stop it interfering with other airport communication systems, he said.

ATS has now undertaken full revenue service trials at Heathrow, which the company said have “produced excellent results”.

The four week trial ended last November 2010, with vehicles operating for 10 hours 30 mins each day at 98.4% reliability.

ATS said that a launch by the end of February was now planned, describing the formal opening as “a small ramp up” for the trials.

The spokesman said the teething problems were down to efforts to get to grips with new technology.

BAA would not confirm the planned opening date.

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