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Personal Rapid Transit, Airport PRT Technology Dead End

Like the Blimp, Personal Rapid Transit Is Not A Working Transportation Technology

I am in the technology business. And sometimes when a technology is not accepted or is not used, someone says, "yeah, BetaMax vs VHS", like it was just a matter of marketing. But PRT is not that type of technology. It is more like the blimp, a transportation technology that was a bag of gas that just did not work for the purpose it was used.

What is PRT? A forty year old concept for a system of autonomous vehicles that can go to multiple destinations on demand, on a track or guideway. Techo-cultists are fascinated by it, a Jetsonesque technology that has its own german joke word "gadgetbahn". Like most cults it has a core of true believers and the more sinister quacks and scammers that prey upon them. Right wing nutcases back the PRT technology movement, they know it will never be built and PRT proposals can block or dismantle real public transit infrastructure and systems. Occasionally you will see left wing fantasy loonies who want to transform the world into a Futurama cartoon back PRT schemes. All the PRT backers say "if only", if only there were politicians to back a real big system it would work, if only there were funding, if only....

PRT is Faith Based Transit

In my state, Minnesota USA, there are a number of small companies hawking this "technology" to cities, counties and state government since the 1970s, asking tax money for "study" grants and even proposals for full scale PRT systems costing hundreds of millions of dollars US, they just ask the politicians and officials to believe it will work. As in the rest of the USA these proposals hinder improvements to real transportation systems by sucking up real resources instead of fixing real transit problems which are hard, gritty, thankless work. And after 40 years of PRT proposals there are no real working PRT systems anywhere in the world. The attempts at implementation have results ranging from small time scam artists like the Taxi 2000, Inc. stock swindle to a Hindenburg scale financial disaster, the Denver International Airport Luggage Handling System. On demand computer controlled pods with one second between vehicles on many guideways, many intersections and many destinations are difficult systems to engineer, no one has done it, though some have tried. After 40 years the PRT cult still has faith that PRT is just around the corner. But compare PRT technology to the computer, after 40 years computers were everywhere and the PC revolution was in full swing. PRT is dead, like the blimp is dead for transportation.

The Financial Hindenburg of Airport PRT

Oh the humanity! It is the only phrase that comes to mind when reviewing the PRT debacle that was the Denver International Airport Luggage Handler.

The Denver International Airport Luggage Handling System answers the question "if only we had unlimited money and could build PRT however and where ever we want with the best and the brightest in America..." And the answer is: complete total system and financial failure, ruin for companies involved in the project culminating in backbreaking financial obligations on the public taxing and bonding authorities. United Airlines went broke, the engineering firm, BAE (Boeing Airport Equipment) the largest of its type in the US at the time, failed and was sold. The taxpayers of Colorado have a burden of hundreds of millions of dollars for 17 miles of rusting track and thousands of little dead pods.

But was Denver Airport Luggage Handler PRT technology? Any PRT cultist will say NO, it holds suitcases not PEOPLE. But is a boat much different between a container ship and a cruise liner? A UPS cargo plane much different from a United Airlines passenger plane? A bus totally different from a cargo van? PRT is the Denver luggage system: Just look at the pretty pictures of the computer controlled autonomous tracked vehicles and the on-demand failed PRT airport system at HowStuffWorks.com. This "Howstuffworks" article was written by a guy who likes PRT and has lots of pictures of the pods and tracks of the failed Denver International Airport luggage PRT. The article in "HowStuffWorks.com" is written like it all works like a charm, it never did work, of course. The pictures and copy do show the PRT characteristics of the system, autonomous on demand tracked vehicles, computer controlled.

Reality Always Brings "Faith Based Transit" PRT to it's Knees:

When the PRT type luggage system was fired up and the media showed up the system did not work like in "HowStuffWorks"; instead, check the description of the failed Denver Airport PRT in real operation: "...telecars jumped tracks and crashed into each other. Suitcases went flying like popcorn kernels, some of them breaking in half, spewing underwear in every direction. When the telecars crashed into one another they bent rails and disgorged clothing from suitcases. Others jammed or mysteriously failed to appear when summoned. Telecars crashed into each other especially frequently at intersections. Many dumped their baggage off at the wrong place. Some telecars became jammed by the very clothing they were carrying. As the telecars flung their bags off or ripped them open, the clothing clogged the telecar rails, halting traffic and crashing other telecars in back."

Whew! Now THAT is a "faith based transit" system with the devil inside. I am just happy PRT has not tried to transport people. It has just run away with luggage, ... and lots of tax money.

In 1994 MIT knew Denver Airport PRT was a failure, remember the system is scrapped now, hundreds of millions of dollars later. This paper makes excuses for some of the failures but the parallels to any PRT system are obvious and noted in the paper. Autonomous vehicles, on demand service, computer controlled, etc. Like the Hindenburg, PRT is not a viable transportation technology.

In 1996 Harvard Business analysis on Denver PRT failure: Airport PRT fails and Airport PRT fails, yet another analysis. Yes, the Airport PRT failure got a lot of academic study especially in business and computer engineering, a lot of students made their careers studying the disaster.

Others notice that the Denver Airport Luggage Handler is almost the same as a PRT system. Yes, Denver was PRT on a grand scale: 17 miles of track, 5 miles of conveyers, unlimited money, thousands of autonomous vehicle pods. 2001 paper that notes PRT similarities to the failed Denver International Airport Luggage Handler A blog in 2004 notes PRT to failed Denver International Airport Luggage Handler similarity.

Well if the PRT luggage mangler did not work what did Denver do with the suitcases? June 10, 2005 ComputerWorld has the answer: how luggage is really handled at Denver Airport "The baggage system originally cost about $230 million to design and install, according to Cannon. The conventional baggage handling system later brought in for inbound flights added another $70 million to the tab by 1995. And the delay in opening the airport added another $340 million in interest that couldn't be paid because the facility wasn't yet operational."

PRT Crashing and Burning

In 2005 I just could not tear my eyes away from the PRT disaster as all that debt swirled around like flypaper in a tornado. Who would it stick to, United Airlines? Some rich guy? Haha, jokes on you, the taxpayer. As the failed PRT system helped to bankrupt United Airlines, United began sending out floater ideas to shed debt: USA Today 2003 article about shifting the Denver PRT costs to the public as Chapter 11 swallows United. The PRT system never did work and was damaging to the reputation of United Airlines for luggage handling. Here is a great headline from the August 2005 International Herald Tribune: "Denver Airport to Mangle Last Bag" The article mentions the $1 million/month maintenance costs for the non-working system and the financial disaster for United Airlines.

Fox News: United Airlines dumps $60 million per year for 20 more years onto the public, Denver International Airport paid upfront for the hundreds of millions in costs and taxpayers now take the debt. Big surprise there, didn't see that coming, wink, wink. As usual, the big corporation gets bailed out, and this is how all high cost infrastructure is paid for, whether it works or not. More debt restructuring news from a CIO magazine article citing costs of about $540 million failed PRT and the payments to Denver Airport that United cleverly now shed.

MSNBC June 2005 with the basic financial picture: 25 years times 60 million. Hmm, public cost for failed PRT is going up. Rocky Mountain News estimates costs to the public at $1.2 BILLION in the December 2005 article about the real costs, note how the public costs go through the roof. ABC News, Dec 2005: Denver Airport stuck with $184 million in debt from Failed PRT-style baggage mangler. So it is all over but the taxpayers crying... Feb 2, 2006 Denver Post article: "forgiving $184 million tied to luggage system" trys to minimize the bad news.

The Denver Airport PRT Failure is a Lesson to Politicians and Airport Officials

Politicians, airport and transit officials now realize that PRT is a risky "Hindenburg" technology, both financial risks and engineering risks are huge for large implementations. The PRT failure of Denver International Airport luggage system was noted by Peter J. Muller and Woods Allee in a paper named "Personal Rapid Transit, an Airport Panacea?" published in 2005. They note the airport PRT stink of failure won't wash off, on page 7 under "Barriers to Entry", the paper references the Denver International Airport Baggage system as an implementation of PRT that failed, mentioned that PRT delayed the Denver International Airport opening for a year and that it won't be forgotten by politicians and airport officials and as a result is a significant barrier to PRT systems. This was written in 2005 as the $1.2 billion cost was shifted to the public.

Yet, there is a sucker born every minute. Instead of implementing multi-mode interfaces to auto-bus-train-airport-ferry-biketrails to improve a transit system, another city, county or state will toss away the millions and political momentum by "studying" another PRT scam. Faith in unproven technology will not build a transit system, better results would be expected from a modern implementation of the Hindenburg.

UPDATE: Heathrow Airport Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)- Touted by airport development and space age transit boffins as a done deal since 2006 Heathrow Terminal 5 is still "testing" PRT after missing 4 years of go live dates. Year 2010 and the tax money bag is still paying off for ULTra PRT and BAA though no one rides it... The Germans have given up on the Hindenburg, when will the Brits give up on the PRT? Well, the Denver Luggage system had about 10 years of continuous failure, looks like it will drag out for 6 more years of FAIL before we hear the public gets stuck with the bill.

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