The rails of Morgantown; PRT beginnings
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007
Updated: Monday, October 12, 2009 00:10
James Hatcher, operational manager of the Personal Rapid Transit for West Virginia University, recently sat down with The Daily Athenaeum to define the history of the PRT, breakdown the ridership and debunk some rumors.
"The PRT is a very important part of the campus because it is, in essence, what it was meant to be. It's the transportation backbone for the campus," Hatcher said.
Hatcher is charged with running the day-to-day operations of the PRT, moving 16,000 people a day Monday through Friday, in addition to the 1,000 or so on an average weekend and the 10,000 it moves on a game day. More than 99 percent of these people are students.
Hatcher laid out the origin of the PRT, detailing and recounting the system's hypothetical beginnings as an idea sprouted in an engineering classroom.
The idea for the PRT came from a graduate industrial engineering class taught by Sammy Elias, then-chairman of industrial engineering at WVU.
"The class assignment was to take an existing, commercial, automated vehicle system used in factories and turn it into a transit system," Hatcher said.
From there, faculty approached the Department of Transportation to try to obtain money to run a feasibility study, which eventually gave birth to the PRT through funding from the Urban Mass Transit Authority.
An initial fleet of 20 vehicles that moved only from Walnut to Engineering became operational, to mixed reactions from the public.
Construction of the PRT began in 1974 by a now-defunct division of Boeing called Vertol, which later became the Boeing aerospace division. Boeing did all of the design work and all the architectural design, in addition to being the prime contractor for the initial construction of the PRT.
Hatcher boasts the PRT moves 2.25 million people a year, which is more than the population of West Virginia "by quite a lot."
Hatcher assures that the PRT is in no way affiliated with the Disney Epcot Monorail or any other famous transportation system.
Today there are 8.65 miles of PRT track connecting the five different stations. Each platform houses four cameras, 32 cameras overall. As platforms are rectangular, there is one camera in each corner, keeping tabs on those entering. Those keeping tabs on the platforms - colloquially referred to as the "PRT Gods" - are technicians working in the control room located on Beechurst Avenue.
The control room is ideally manned by three people but often is run with only two - one monitoring the cameras, another monitoring the system, also often helping to monitor the cameras.
"We use the closed-circuit video for very particular and well-defined purpose, and it's not for security, it is for safety's sake.
"The one place in this system that a passenger can get himself in trouble, and potentially be injured, is to go through a gate on a platform where there is no vehicle, and go into the guideway and get run over," said Hatcher, adding that technicians have a sophisticated PA system available to communicate with stragglers on the platform if necessary.
When asked if he was able to prevent cars from coming for riders who illegally enter the PRT, Hatcher took a philanthropic standpoint.
"We can - we don't do that. Our philosophy, and it's a good philosophy: `Why hassle with the customers?' They came to be transported, so the safest and easiest thing for us to do is take them where they need to go and get rid of them," Hatcher said.
He also said that the majority of people trying to jump the gate aren't successful.
"Most of them land on their face on the concrete," he said. "Most people can't hurdle the 34-inch-high gate successfully."
Hatcher did caution against riders repeatedly turning the turnstile on the PRT entrance. While it will get riders to their station faster, as the antiquated program running the system prioritizes which location the next car will go by the number of riders it counts moving through the entrance, it backs up the system exponentially.