Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pods - future transportation?

Source: ULTra PRT -
Also known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a Pod based transport system at Heathrow Airport, London, UK has been in the media recently after successfully completing a trial.

So what is PRT? It is a form of transportation where small (4-6 person) pods move around a relatively cheap and lightweight guideway between stations. Unlike other forms of public transport, PRT is an on-demand system where waiting times should be very short. PRT also allows the Pod to go straight to the passengers destination, as opposed to calling at every other stop on the route. Offline stations and junctions allow the Pods to by-pass other stops.

What are the advantages of PRT? We will use the Heathrow system as an example. This system links two long-term car park areas with Terminal 5. With buses, you would have to wait maybe up to 10 minutes for a bus, then travel to the Terminal via the other car park area. With PRT, a pod should be waiting for you, and it will take you directly to your destination. So the Pod allows for shorter waiting times, and a faster more direct journey. Also, at 11pm for example, there may not be enough passengers to make a high frequency bus service efficient as a transport mode. Empty buses = waste of energy. As the PRT system only runs on demand, it can adapt to quiet and busy periods, and only uses energy on demand. The guideways are cheaper per km than Light Rail, and would have more minimal structures, but would require more extensive networks. The energy efficiency Pods are also much quieter than other forms of mass transportation.

What are the disadvantages of PRT? The new technology may have difficulty finding acceptance, particularly in a car focussed society such as SE Queensland. PRT is currently being seriously looked into in more forward thinking countries, such as the UK, Sweden, and Korea where larger scale test systems are planned. Whilst the construction costs may be fraction of the cost of campus developments, the money still has to be found from somewhere, most likely private developers. There are also concerns over the visual impact of the guideways (which at current technology would have to be grade separated from roads), and vandalism issues due to the small Pod capacity. Regulatory issues may also be a thorn in the side of PRT, especially if they are treated as being railways.

Source: ULTra PRT -
What are the best uses of PRT? It is currently most suited to areas where a reasonable number of people need to travel relatively short distances, and travel to/from multiple destinations quickly and efficiently. The small Heathrow system can handle more than 600 passengers/hour. Once the number of people making point to point trips requires the use of frequent buses or other forms of public transport, then PRT would not be suitable. Group Rapid Transit (GRT) may be able to fill in the gaps between PRT and existing public transport modes. Linking airport terminals with car parks, nearby train stations and hotels is the most obvious solution for PRT, and it comes as no surprise that the first PRT system from ULTra was built at Heathrow Airport.  Carrying passengers around large university campuses are another potential use of PRT. Masdar City in United Arab Emirates has a small scale PRT system (which can also carry freight) from 2getthere. This system is expected to be expanded across the whole 6.5 square km city with a planned population of 40,000 residents. Cars that run on fossil fuel will be banned in Masdar City. Other applications cited by PRT manufacturers include business parks/campuses (a PRT system has been proposed for Apple's Cupertino headquarters), large hospital campuses, new residential developments, city/town centre distributor systems, retail centres, and resorts. BrizCommuter expects that whilst we will see few new systems in the next fews years, PRT systems will be developing rapidly by 2020.

Where is there potential for PRT to be used in SE Queensland? PRT could be used to link the Herston Hospital (RBWH) and Research Campus with Bowen Hills and future Exhibition (Cross River Rail) train stations. How about a PRT system linking SE Busway station with Mt Gravatt and Nathan University Campuses, QE II hospital and either Coopers Plains or Salisbury train station? Maybe a PRT linking the public transport hub (sic) of Chermside with Prince Charles Hospital? How about the new towns such as Greater Flagstone having a PRT system with loops that serve each neighbourhood, retail areas, office areas, and schools?

Is there realistic potential in SE Queensland? With Queensland politicians unable to see beyond their car's bonnet, and Queensland's Government being deeply in debt, BrizCommuter doubts that we will see any PRT systems in SE Queensland for a very long time. Unless private companies are willing to pick up the cost, don't expect to be travelling around in a driverless Pod anytime soon in SE Queensland.


  1. Your fourth suggestion for SE Qld instantly struck me as a winner - PRT to Prince Charles Hospital. A great solution to the double dogleg in the planned Northern Busway. The South East Busway in terms of design and quality of fitout leads all others built since, no dogleg diversions to the PA or Greenslopes Hospitals thankfully.


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