Construction of phase one of what is being described as the world’s first personal rapid transit system has got underway as part of BAA’s plan to upgrade Heathrow Airport.

The technology, developed by Advanced Transport Systems, will be used to provide a fleet of 18 low energy, battery powered, driverless pods, each capable of carrying around four passengers and their luggage, to travel along dedicated guideways. The ULTra system has been designed to provide a quick and comfortable service, with minimal waiting times, as well as contributing to improved environmental performance.

ULTra was previously developed to provide a link between Cardiff Bay and Cardiff city centre (Transport Briefing 22/01/02) but the project failed to win funding from the Welsh Assembly Government. However, BAA saw potential in the technology and agreed to take a £7.5m stake in ATS just over two years ago (Transport Briefing 01/11/05).

Phase one of the Heathrow PRT project will see laser-guided vehicles link Terminal 5 with the business car park by 2009. The pods will be electrically powered, will generate zero local emissions, and will be typically 50% more energy efficient than the traditional buses. Vehicles are powered electrically via a battery pack and a central control system ensures that batteries are recharged, as necessary, when the cars are stationary.

Access to the system will be from a series of pick-up points distributed around the network, much like bus stops or taxi ranks. Passengers will select a destination and the central control system then responds to this request by immediately allocating a vehicle on the required path and timing for that journey.

The central control system also ensures that empty vehicles are sent where they are needed to meet passenger demand. Simulations have demonstrated that waiting times are negligible, averaging around 12 seconds. BAA says 95% of passengers will be served in less than one minute and the ULTra cars take passengers to their desired destination on the best available route at speeds of up to 25mph.

Mark Bullock, managing director of Heathrow Airport said: “This innovative system forms part of BAA’s plan to transform Heathrow, improve the passenger experience and reduce the environmental impact of our operation through the development of cutting edge, green transport solutions.”

Phase one of the Heathrow PRT system will open for passengers in 2009 following the opening of Terminal 5. If the system proves successful BAA intends to extend it across the airport.