Heathrow pods are an idea for the future

There is a constant search for innovation in transport. I’ve lost count of the number of new methods of transport which have been announced, only to never see the light of day or to be stuck at the stage of some sort of pilot study or trial which has never developed further. At various times I have been briefed by promoters of fast boats along the Thames, an industrial canal system from coast to coast in northern England and rocket planes that will take just an hour to reach Australia, all with equal enthusiasm and similarly scant results – at least so far.

Therefore I was a bit sceptical when I was asked to go visit the ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system of pods which is just celebrating its first anniversary at Heathrow Terminal Five. This provides transport between the long stay car park and Terminal 5 with pods – about the size of a Smartcar – which carry up to four people and are activated by the user, travelling at speeds of up to 40 kph along a dedicated track. Martin Lowson, who designed and has seen through the project to fruition, says this provides a far better than the buses which used to take passengers between the car park and the airport since that involved waits of up to a quarter of an hour, while the pods provide instant transfer and use less carbon. They are, too, rather fun as the drive along the track is rather like a dodgem car ride, though fortunately the sensors guarantee that there are no collisions. I loved, in particular, the way they automatically reverse themselves out of their bays and then speed forward.

All in all, it is an impressive scheme and perhaps surprising that this British invention has not received more publicity and support.  Lowson, a former rocket scientist who was at NASA for the Apollo programme, has worked on the concept since the mid 1990s and much of the technology was developed at the University of Bristol.  Certainly, it merits wider consideration than it has been given

In fact, the concept has attracted a surprising amount of criticism with whole websites devoted to deriding the very idea of individualised public transport.  There have, indeed, been numerous false starts. The idea of personal rapid transit was originally developed in the 1960s as a way of providing public transport in areas of low density, and various schemes, involving individual vehicles on tracks controlled automatically.

Only one scheme was actually built, a 14km line linking campuses of the university in Morgantown, West Virginia that is now more than 30 years old. This uses an electrified track and it was initially beset with technical problems, though today if provides a cheap and effective form of mass transit, clearing the roads of the Morgantown that used to be in a permanent state of gridlock.

ULTra in Heathrow is simpler because the pods use rubber wheels and a concrete track which crosses the roads and various other airport facilities on an overpass and even taking into account development and research, cost barely £30m.  A clever combination of using very sophisticated software, together with tried and tested hardware – rubber wheels, the guts of a Ford Focus chassis, sensors – has reduced the costs of the idea and opened the way for its wider application. Crucially, the Heathrow pods have batteries that are recharged when they are not in use and therefore obviates the need for expensive and potentially dangerous electrified track.

On the face of it, the very idea of individualized public transit seems contradictory and perhaps that is why schemes have attracted scepticism from both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. The Right see it as just another way of wasting government money, the Left as a way of individualizing public transport. This opposition has marred the development of what could be a genuine third way for transportation with potentially wide application. Already ULTra is in the last stages of negotiation for a far bigger scheme taking up to 100,000 people daily from the railway and bus stations to the Golden Temple  in Amritsar

Lowson, who has worked tirelessly to promote is annoyed that ULTra type schemes are ineligible for government carbon reduction schemes because ‘they can’t categorise us. We are different, as we are not a car, a train, or a bus. Therefore money we don’t qualify programmes to develop automatic cars. It’s really frustrating.’

Lowson is a genuine innovator, an enthusiast to the point of eccentricity but in fact his concept is neither crazy nor outlandish. It is potentially a genuine cost effective solution to many transport needs and deserves wider attention and support, rather than being confined to a car park connection in an obscure part of an airport.

  • J.batts

    I’ve had them demonstrated too and the only test they await to satisfy me will be a hard winter. Their ‘Ice’ vehicle (not much like the variety with all capital letters) does look a little lightweight. I do doubt the appropriateness of such systems where there are longer runs a different kind of clientel. Even wuith their impressive CCTV they would be vulnerable to muggers.

  • Fandroid

    I really like the look of them, and having been under their route on numerous Railair coaches, have seen them go from occasional test runs to full service. BAA Heathrow originally announced the scheme with plans for a whole network of routes serving all the business car-parks along the north side of the airport, including links into the central terminals (presumably via the low-height side tunnels). Having been a regular user of those car parks in the past, I always thought that a light rail system would be far better than all those individual buses, perhaps linking out to West Drayton station and Uxbridge too. However, the great advantage of this system is the lightweight infrastructure. The viaduct over the peripheral road is really very modest. Unfortunately for my enthusiasm for light rail, the number of obstacles to get by/over at Heathrow would make any Heathrow Light Railway a costly proposition. 

    The downside of the pod system might be that only business car-park use can justify the investment. They pay through the nose for their parking, so there is a return to be made from a good transit system. The lesser mortals (which includes me now) will still have to put up with the currently not terribly impressive systems for getting around the airport.I do worry about what happens when a pod breaks down up there on the viaduct!  Those business users all stacked up behind won’t be less than very vociferous if they then miss their flight!

  • Christian Wolmar

    I was told that they were built to very high tolerances and therefore breakdowns were unlikely. They’ve only had very few and there is a procedure
    for clearing the problem very quickly.

  • Paul Holt

    In my opinion, they are fine for airports and theme parks, but not a nationwide network.

  • Fandroid

    Did anybody mention a nationwide network? At about 40kph max, they wouldn’t cut the mustard on the ECML, nor be a rival to Heathrow Express. Horses for courses, max distance about 2 km. Better than walking pulling a laden wheeli-bag!

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  • Paul Holt

    Agreed, but CW’s article title is: “Heathrow pods are an idea for the Future”.   If we’re agreed that pods have no application beyond airports and theme parks, CW’s claim of a “genuine third way for transportation with potentially wide application” falls at the first hurdle and is not a “genuine cost effective solution to many transport needs”.

  • Christian Wolmar

    There could be much more widespread use than that. The scheme in Amritsar, for example, will extend several kilometres. Cardiff nearly took up the idea but failed due to technicalities. There will be numerous cases where they could provide a better point to point service than infrequent buses, and networks are not impossible either.  

  • Windsorian

    When I read the original (Arup) Heathrow Hub proposal for a new station on the GWML between West Drayton & Iver, it was proposed these BAA pods would link a new hub station BAA terminal with the existing BAA Heathrow terminals, allowing free flow of checked and unchecked passengers / baggage between the GWML, Heathrow & HS2.

    But as we know, opponents of this proposal (like CW) opposed not only the entire Heathrow hub proposal but the whole concept of HS2. Pity I think, as the proposed hub station was less than 4 km from T5. Meanwhile the truly short sighted can only dream of parking their cars all around Heathrow and travel by pod to their departure terminals.

  • It is true there is much dislike of this kind of transport development from traditional transit supporters and professionals; indeed a pejorative term ‘gadgetbahn’ was coined by some opponents. To an extent, this was an understandable reaction to some of the systems’ promoters dreams of vast networks replacing all existing ‘wasteful and old fashioned’ (in their view) transit and providing ‘the only’ viable alternative to private motor cars for the majority.

    Their true worth is likely to be in specific niches like the Heathrow parking application where they can expand the reach of another transport mode to a wider hinterland than walking alone can provide, by performing a kind of ‘horizontal elevator’ feeder function. They can improve access to existing transit modes, particularly rail stations attempting to serve modern office and trading estates for instance, for which the typical shuttle bus solutions are simply not frequent enough to be attractive.

    The important development here is automation, which systems like Ultra can bring at a far more affordable price than older people mover technology, as often used in airports. Affordable automation changes the optimum vehicle size as the cost of a driver no longer has to be spread over as many passengers as possible, hence it can provide a far more demand responsive service over longer operating hours.

  • Fandroid

    Well said Mark. The use of Ultra has also been speculatively discussed as a link between the HS2 Euston terminus at Euston and Kings Cross/St Pancras. The flexibility of the lightweight infrastructure means that it can be squeezed in and around buildings and carried above ground at a relatively modest cost. One feature of the T5 system that got mentioned when it was formally launched (last September) was that all the ground based parts of the route are enclosed behind BAA fencing. I doubt if it’s a system that would last long if accessible to the sort of person who would delight in parking a concrete block or two on the track! That sort of risk must severely inhibit Ultra’s use beyond very limited tightly controlled networks. It’s never going to be the beast that gets folk out of their cars in a big way.

  • Dave Smith

    The article suggests that Ultra is the only game in town.  There are two others implementers of the PRT concept that deserve mention; 2getthere has delivered an operational system to Masdar City in the Abu Dhabi, UAE,  And Vectus is currently deploying their system to Suncheon in South Korea.

  • Jerry Schneider of the University of Washington, Seattle, maintains one of the best internet resources available, detailing and comparing many innovative transportation systems and technologies. Aimed primarily at students on the university’s transportation engineering and urban planning program, the information is available to anyone interested here:


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  • Roy

    Whilst I agree that the implementation of Ultra as is will remain a niche product, I think they are very much a pointer to the future. Whatever the government might think, these /are/ driverless cars, just ones optimised for a specialised roadway where all the vehicles are driverless (and running exactly the same software) and there are no pedestrians.nnThe hardware and software is improving though – Google’s already running self-driving cars on public roads in the US. Imagine in a few years from now being able to call up an Ultra-style pod to your door and have it take you all the way to, well why not all the way to work? The pod wouldn’t need to park in the city – it could go find another fare or wait out in the suburbs until the evening rush home.nnThe implications for public transport of such technologies are profound: it’s going to kill buses and human-driven taxis stone dead. Rail might still compete on speed and range though, and perhaps we’ll eventually see pod-carrying rail vehicles instead of convential carriages.n

  • “Lowson is annoyed that ULTra type schemes are ineligible for government carbon reduction schemes”nnHow does making life easier for people who drive to airports achieve a carbon reduction?

  • christianwolmar

    They replace buses and therefore use less carbon. That’s the thinking anyway.

  • Palle R Jensen

    I was working together with Martin Lowson in the EU programmes: CyberMove and CyberCar.nHe has done a wonderful job in proving that innovation in transport is possible.nHe also admitted to me that in order to have a large impact, it needs to be developed into a dual-mode system where the vehicles can also leave the guideway and continue on the roads.nSuch a system has been developed in Denmark and is called the RUF system (Rapid Urban Flexible)nMore info on http://www.ruf.dk

  • Eric Johnson

    Ultra is one of several systems in this class of transit called Personal Rapid Transit that is primarily elevated some 5-7 meters above ground. YouTube has many videos on how they could be deployed in a city, college campus, or a business park. Vectus has a video of their system running without problems withu00a0some 10-15 centimeters of snow on the track in Sweden. Electrified track designsu00a0can get these vehicles speeding along up to 100 KPH or more using maglev or linear induction motors. Few moving parts means long time between break downsu00a0and much higher reliability.u00a0 The tradeoff is higher speeds require longer turns and accel/decel lanes like you see on the faster highways. In town, slower speeds in the 40-50 KPH range allow following the existing roads while moving faster than existing traffic. Finally, while it may be a slower speed they are not stopping for traffic lights and other traffic. Your speed is constant as you go to your destination and in many cases you’ll arrive quicker vs bus and car.

  • Eric Johnson

    The biggest take away is that folks who have used it like it much better than the previous shuttle bus service. Airport authorities and BAA also seem to be very happy with Ultra’s performance as well. Hopefully, plans to expand it to the rest of Heathrow will happen soon.

  • Jerzy

    The discussion that suggests that PRT is going to be limited to airports seems to think that there is only one version of this driverless technology that is being developed around the globe. In fact, there are more than 100 of them. Only three are operational at this time but there are many others that have built prototype vehicles and done considerable testingu00a0 with them. Most are designed to be fully automated, some are designed for much higher speeds, some are “dualmode” in that they can operate onu00a0 exclusive automated guideways as well as conventional roadways, driven initially but perhaps driverless for door-to-door travel eventually. Most will be able to be “fit” more easily into built-up urban areas, for far less cost with higher levels of performanceu00a0than conventional bus and rail facilities. Electrified guideways are planned in some cases, battery-swaping in others, off-line stations will permit much higher average speeds than currently available as well as non-stop travel between stations, parking facilities, or directly to desired destinations. They offer an attractive solution to the vexing problem of connectivity among existing modes making the intermodal transfer quite seamless. Goods, as well as passengers, can be moved more quickly and efficiently than current solutions that are particularly troublesome in urban areas. Only a few people know that these developments are underway, development funding is in short supply, but awareness is growing at a rapid rate. Google Innovative Transportation Technologies for the details.

  • Jay Andress

    Martin Lowson deserves huge amounts of credit for taking a vision and seeing it develop into a tangible transportation system. There is nothing harder than creating a new transportation system requiring massive funding, public support and coordination of governments.

  • wddavis

    I concure with Jay Andress below, nearly impossible to get a government agency to even acknowledge a new concept regardless what it could do.u00a0 Please review our BiModal Glideway for a major breakthrough in Dual Mode automated, safe, hi speed, universal system to supplement/support all current highways.u00a0 This system resolves all current problems with oil driven, dangerous, heavy traffic.u00a0 look it up ?u00a0 Dual mode is a cure all for all western nations. Understand how it works, read the details in the pull down pages.u00a0 It is an evolutionary, revolution, and it will happenu00a0 in your lifetime.u00a0 You saw it first here. by Bill Davis, designer of “bimodalglideways.com”.u00a0 Thanksu00a0

  • Tyler Folsom
  • Robbert Lohmann

    Typically people who drive to the airport don’t even consider public transit. As a result of not wanting to park at the airport, they ensure that they are dropped of by friends or relatives. This means that they are also picked up on their return, meaning that 4 single car journeys to and from the airport are made.nnWhen easing parking at the airport, the number of trips is reduced to just 2 single car journeys to and from the airport. Hence a serious carbon reduction and a reduction of the traffic on the roads around the airport. nnThe above is the conclusion of an analysis performed for an European airport. I gather it could be very similar for other airports in Europe and other locations throughout the world. nnAlso: the pods don’t need to be limited to connecting to parking. They can also connect to other local transit hubs, easing public transit in the process as well.

  • Robbert Lohmann

    u00a0An obstacle on the guideway does not have to be a limitation to the use of these type of systems. 2getthere (mentioned in one of the other replies) has a project at Masdar City where each vehicle is equipped with an advanced sensory system capable of scanning the road 50 meters ahead of the vehicle for any obstacles directly on or adjacent to the driving path. The vehicles continously plan to stop within 40 meters, unless they don’t see an obstacle in which case they continue to drive at the speed set for the segment they are in.nnAn obstacle, whether human or not, will thus only result in a safe stop.nnNote that this technology has been operational in the Netherlands, operating at grade and having crossings with at grade traffic, in the area of Rotterdam (city of Capelle aan den IJssel), since 1999 (first generation). The second generation of the system is in full operation since 2006.

  • Robbert Lohmann

    u00a0Pods are suited as local area or feeder systems. There are concepts that anticipate a higher top speed, but the current systems that are operational or being implemented limit the maximum speed to approximately 40km/h. nnThis means the number of suited applications is also somewhat reduced as a result of this. The reason for this only being ‘somewhat’ is that the lay-out of the track is not always straight, preventing systems with a higher top speed of actually achieving the speeds they are capable of. nnAnother reason is that the pods, like any other system, are not the holy grail of transportation that will solve all transit issues. In the end it is the application characteristics that determine whether a system is suited to serve the demand or not. In the case of Heathrow and Masdar, the pod system is certainly appropriate. Whether this is also the case for Amritsar is questionable at least.nnThe number of potential applications goes way beyond airports and theme parks though. Campuses, eco-cities, feeder systems within cities: basically anywhere a connection betwenen a transit hub (public transit station or parking) and (multiple) final destinations needs to be established – as long as it is not long distance transport…

  • Klt2

    I tried 5 links on the above page – all dead. 

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  • Eric Johnson

    Christian, Have you seen Heathrow’s Q6 plans that expand the Ultra PRT to T2 & T3? It’ll roughly triple the existing length. No mention on when construction would start other than an inferred Q6 start time of April 2014+. It’ll be interesting to see your thoughts and what you can dig up from your contacts out there.