Pod power evolution
David Holdcroft describes how personal rapid transit systems, now in use at three airports around the world, can carry passengers, baggage and freight with a low carbon footprint.
Did you ever wish there was a way that connected your airport together that not only improved passenger service but reduced emissions and that paid for itself?
The Personal Rapid Transit System now in operation at Heathrow offers passengers the convenience of a car, you travel in your own group, going only to where you want to go, non-stop with no waiting.
The vehicles, usually called pods, are fully automated and electric powered, producing no emissions. They travel on their own guideway, separate from other traffic. Because the vehicles are small (four to six seats) and the guideway and stations are lightweight, and take little space, the system can be located in constrained or congested areas such as busy airports.
“Heathrow pod” running since April 2011 connects Terminal 5 to the Business Car Park. A job previously done by three buses. The system consists of around 3.4Km of single track, 21 vehicles, three stations and a maintenance/control base. Journey time is around five minutes with an average wait of 34 seconds. This compares to the previous bus service which had a frequency of 10 minutes and a seven minute journey time. However the bus was subject to the vagaries of road traffic and bus drivers. So total travel time could be anything from seven minites, if you timed your arrival right, to upwards of 20 minutes if you didn’t. I once had to wait for 27 minutes during the World Cup.
The pods carry four passengers (six at a squeeze) in comfort with their luggage. The pods are big enough to eat a fully loaded luggage trolley, although this isn’t currently allowed at Heathrow for logistical reasons. A lot of attention has been paid to passengers with special needs. The pods have hearing loops on board and a number of other special needs features and are able to carry a wheelchair. Passengers can also select their preferred language at the touch screen which then stays with them throughout there journey.
Heathrow claim that due to the pod they have been able to both increase the occupancy of the car park while at the same time increasing the parking fee. Passenger feedback has also improved for the whole car parking experience from a score of 3.7 (out of a maximum of 5) to 4.6. One of the best scores the airport has ever achieved for its facilities.
The level of positive feedback and reliability has surprised everyone. Quotes sourced from Twitter such as ‘journey starts in my own personal pod #heathrow. Makes the airport fun again’ and ‘heathrow pod the coolest way to travel in the world’ show the enthusiasm of the public. Availability figures of 99 per cent plus are also a testament to the design and level of testing that took place.
Heathrow Airport embarked on the scheme to install a small pilot PRT system more than years ago. At that time the airport was busy growing, the road networks, at peak times, were congested and passenger feedback was not always good. The traditional solution of adding more buses, to improve service, only made things worse by adding to the congestion. Plus the congestion contributed to the poor air quality.
Ultra, the suppler of the Heathrow pod system, identified that their product, which was still in development at that time, could help by providing better passenger service and an environmentally friendly system. Heathrow interested by the claims decided to embark on a pilot scheme to establish if the claims made for service and emissions were true and to see if the technology was realisable. If they were then Heathrow intended to install a system serving much of the airport.
A number of surprising points were discovered during the project. Although it was known that the vehicles were virtually silent in use this was not thought significant at a busy airport. However this view was challenged when local residents, living near the car park, pointed out that at night when the flights had finished the diesel buses still serving the car park were standing on tick-over and keeping them awake. PRT would eliminate this noise.
It was possible to install all the guideway and station