Personal rapid transit (PRT) is a system of public transport comprising small automated vehicles operating on a network of specially built guideways. They run on electricity, so produce no local emissions and use significantly less energy than cars. Unlike trams, but similar to cars, they are comfortable, private, available on demand 24/7 and travel direct to the destination. Stops are loops off the main guideway, allowing through traffic to continue, and journeys are cost effective as operating costs are low.
As PRT vehicles, or ‘pods’, are lightweight, the guideways are smaller and less expensive to construct than light railways – typically £10 million per km. Initial applications are for airport or pilot loop schemes, typically less than 5km in length. Heathrow’s ULTra is 3.8km, with 21 pods that run between Terminal 5 and the business car park. The system has been commended for its reliability and has won numerous awards.
However, governments and local authorities have been reluctant to build the first city-wide PRT network. PRT has been misrepresented and miscontrued, and no one wants to be first, and to get it wrong. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world PRT is being taken seriously as solutions are sought to traffic congestion and high fuel costs. In India, PRT is seen as a cheap and quick alternative to the traditional mass transit solutions in regions with high urbanisation. This year, ULTra set up a joint venture and won a contract to build a 3.3km system in Amritsar to move pilgrims from transit stations to the Golden Temple. In Masdar, Abu Dhabi, a zero-carbon city, 2getthere has built a 1.2km system, with 13 vehicles; and Vectus, developed in Sweden using British technology and owned by a South Korean steel company, is building a 4.5km system in Suncheon, South Korea.
The new player in PRT is BeemCar, a suspended system that uses lightweight composite technology for the majority of its structural parts. The pod design is driven by customer requirements and is accessible to all potential users. With an overall carrying capacity of 500kgs, it will accommodate wheelchairs, pushchairs, bicycles and mobility scooters. Unlike other systems, all five seats face forward and, with no guideway below, passengers are treated to a panoramic view of their surroundings, including congested roads.
Unique to BeemCar, its pods would be suspended from a carbon fibre beam which is stiffer and lighter than an equivalent steel beam. The drive unit is located inside the beam, where it is protected from the weather. Propulsion and braking are provided by linear induction motors mounted on the beam, which significantly reduces the weight carried by the pod, and thus energy usage since this is directly related to the pod weight. This, combined with the energy generated by the built-in solar panels on the top of the beam, make BeemCar one of the most energy efficient mass transit systems.
The brainchild behind BeemCar is Peter Lovering, a multi-disciplinary engineer with a Royal Air Force and aerospace background who specialises in composite technology. The business proposal is low risk as the design is based on existing technology; it is the way the technology has been brought together that is innovative. The technology is well proven, having been developed for the low cost manufacture of airship gondolas and used for hovercraft superstructures, helicopter parts and large submarine structures.
Mr Lovering believes a suspended system is the best option since it makes routes more accessible, including steep inclines in excess of 30 degrees. In addition, its small ground footprint and lightweight infrastructure make the system easier to install retrospectively in busy urban areas, with minimal disruption. Suspended systems are safer as there is no easy access to the beam for children, animals or cable thieves.
BeemCar provides a realistic alternative to car travel and offers a solution to reduce traffic congestion. To obtain certification and be able to tap into the huge global market, BeemCar needs around £20 million for its detailed design, prototype pods and a 1km test track. Mr Lovering would like to see the system developed as a not-for-profit company in the North East of England, which has all of the necessary skills needed for such an ambitious project.