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Pick of the pods

Travellers darting from place to place in individual pods may seem like something from a science fiction novel, but with the first scheme currently under construction at Heathrow Airport and a major conference last week, the personal rapid transit revolution could be imminent.

There have been massive advances in technology since the industrial revolution. People can now have face to face meetings with colleagues on different continents via video calling technology without leaving the office. Information on virtually everything under the sun is at our fingertips on the internet. But public transport has not evolved much further from the horse and cart.    

“With the bus, you wait for it to arrive and get your change ready,” Colin Buchanan chairman Malcolm Buchanan, told the personal rapid transit (PRT) conference at Heathrow last week. “Once you are on board, the bus keeps stopping en route – you’re stationary for roughly half your journey. It hasn’t evolved.”    

PRT is touted as an on-demand travel mode, which will take you where you want to go. The vision is a network of looping lightweight guideways spread over a city on which zip hundreds of small driverless pods carrying up to five people at a time. Instead of a single loop with stations along one line – for example London’s Underground’s Circle Line – there would be a series of loops connected in multiple ways giving more options for getting from A to B.    

PRT reduces traffic from out of town developments into the city. There is a need for a good real alternative to the car

Malcolm Buchanan, Colin Buchanan

A pod is either waiting at the station when you arrive or arrives shortly after being called. It will then take you to the station nearest to where you want to go, without stopping.    

The pod system is claimed to be more efficient than other available forms of public transport which work on moving large groups of people. Time wasted by waiting for the next bus, indirect routes to destinations and frequent stops would be eliminated, while the number of people transported is comparable.    

In addition, the electrically powered pods would produce lower local carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions as well as being much quieter to run. PRT’s potential has been discussed for a while, but investment from BAA has led to the start of work on the world’s first system for commercial use at Heathrow Airport. It will be put into operation later this year, carrying passengers from one of three stations in the Terminal 5 business car park to the terminal building.    

Extensions could make the often confusing and laborious task of travelling around Heathrow, much easier. Later this year another PRT system is due to start operating. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar ecocity will have 13 PRT vehicles operating by the end of this year. It is expected to expand to between 2,000 and 3,000 vehicles by 2016. Masdar will rely on renewable energies and will not allow cars within the city boundary. Car parks will be located around the perimeter of the city, from which visitors can board the PRT.

Projects in Sweden and Italy are poised as promoters wait to see how the initial PRT schemes perform. In the UK, Daventry District Council is carrying out detailed feasibility on the implementation of PRT in a town environment.    

Daventry’s population is set to almost double to approximately 40,000 by 2021 and the council is looking at PRT to become the chosen form of public transport within new residential developments. It hopes to eventually use PRT to replace the highly subsidised and emission-heavy bus services into town.    

“Daventry hopes to build a pilot route by 2013 which will then be expanded into the town should it prove as successful as we envisage,” says Daventry district council PRT project manager Richard Caple. “We consider PRT has great potential to provide a sustainable transport infrastructure for our expanding town.”    

Buchanan carried out transport modelling for Daventry. He says there is a real demand for PRT from developers, who need to show that their edge of town development will not increase congestion.   

 “Most clients are building on the edge of towns, for which PRT seems a good option,” says Buchanan. “It reduces the traffic from the development and from that stretch leading to the city centre. There’s a need for a good transport system, which is a real alternative for the car.” Good transport links can improve the value of a development considerably. This creates a good business case for future PRT schemes.     

“The distance to a railway station is important in the value of real estate,” says Delft University of Technology professor of transport and planning Henk van Zuylen. “Value of offices increases by around 14% and shops around 35%.     

How does PRT work?    

The pods for the systems coming into operation this year rely on batteries which are charged when the vehicles are stationary.

The vehicles run on a network of elevated guideways. The vehicles can travel between 40km/h to 45km/h and can travel close together as they are controlled by a central computer system. This knows where all the vehicles are at any moment and can direct the vehicles taking account of system traffic, ensuring there are no bottlenecks. Stations are “offline” – built on a loop off the main track, enabling vehicles to continue at top speed along the main track, if not stopping.   


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Readers' comments (4)

What do you think of PRTs?

  • Oh, the future is upon us

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  • Nice article. You can see video of the Heathrow PRT system at

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  • The PRT system being investigated in Daventry will run mainly at grade not elevated

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  • Richard R

    This is a great idea. I would love to see something like this in the centre of Manchester. The main problem I see is with maintenance. Who is going to be available to fix one of these pods when it breaks down? And if there are 3000 of them....(!?)

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