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This is one of the Personal Rapid Transit pods at London's Heathrow Airport.
It'll take you from one of the car parks to Terminal 5,
and from Terminal 5 to one of the car parks.
And that's about it.
When it was installed in 2011,
oh, this was going to be the future of transport.
But it hasn't really worked out that way.
And more than that:
they got beaten to the punch by 35 years.
Because in 1975, West Virginia University opened this:
their own Personal Rapid Transit system.
The pods here in the city of Morgantown might not be quite as sleek and rounded...
but there's 70 of them, they carry more people,
and they go to five stations along an eight-mile track.
This really is personal transit: you push a button,
and a car arrives to take you where you want to go, non-stop.
At peak times, there'll be a car along every few minutes
for each separate destination.
PRT never shuts down.
We have run 40 years without any major incident.
10 inches of snow and we’ll be fine.
That’s because we had a heated track here.
Kids don’t like it because we keep the school open!
There are no variables; if I’m going from point A to point B,
if it’s eight minutes, it is eight minutes.
Back in the 1970s, the only option for getting students
between all the separate university campuses here was a fleet of buses.
But Morgantown is a city with steep hills and narrow roads,
so the result was gridlock.
And at the time,
American politicians were actually having a bit of a craze for systems like this.
Richard Nixon announced that there was development money available,
and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd,
who was famous in part for just how much money he managed to bring back to his own state,
he managed to get Morgantown selected as the testing site.
The Boeing Company, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
were involved with getting the system to work.
The system, right now, can carry well over 4000 passengers an hour.
Every vehicle, when it departs station, has a route.
Every time an assigned vehicle moves over a presence detector,
that location is monitored by the station electronics
which then conveys that message back to the central control room,
and then that message is depicted by the mimic board in central control.
And each one of those blinking lights represents a presence detector,
but it also represents five seconds of travel time.
In the train world, all the switching is done on the track.
So the track physically moves
to orient a vehicle down a different pathway on a different rail line.
In our system, the vehicle switches on board.
The result of all that 1970s engineering...
well, it was massively over-budget and a little rough around the edges to start,
but that happens with prototypes.
The important part was: it worked.
And it worked well enough to be expanded and kept updated into the 21st century.
Well, one of the problems we are having today
is with obsolescence of parts for the vehicle,
as well for the electronics for the system.
And back in the 70s, the Minuteman missile system
was the basis for the design of the electronics for the system.
And there’s a company called Thales,
and they are here on site now upgrading the electronics and the software for the system.
The old system uses a little bit different technology to run cars up and down the guideway.
The cars do not know where they’re located out on the guideway.
In the new system, the Thales system, they will know where they’re at.
So that’s a big help when you’re trying to ask a car where it’s at!
The technical manual for the system is online on WVU's web site,
and it is 1970s engineering genius.
Just like the pods at Heathrow decades later,
this was going to be the future of travel.
So why wasn’t it?
Why aren't systems like this everywhere?
Well, in most cases you can do almost everything that this can with regular light rail
with less upfront cost and less political risk.
Sure, the PRT is a bit faster and a bit more efficient,
and it's a bit more pleasant to ride,
because every journey is non-stop --
but the rest of the world went with cheaper,
simpler systems... just with much less charm.
It’s the spine of our transportation network.
It is also an icon for this institution.
We do have some challenges,
but we have an excellent crew, a dedicated, passionate crew
that just finds a way to make the system work and keep going.
It’s that little engine that could.
Thank you to everyone at the Morgantown PRT and West Virginia University.
Pull down the description for more links about them, and about the college!