ULTra (rapid transit)

An ULTra Pod at Heathrow Airport, London

ULTra (Urban Light Transit) is a personal rapid transit, PODCAR system developed by the British engineering company ULTra Global PRT (formerly Advanced Transport Systems).[1][2]

The first public system opened at London's Heathrow Airport in May 2011. It consists of 21 vehicles operating on a 3.9-kilometre (2.4 mi) route connecting Terminal 5 to its business passenger car park, just north of the airport.[3] ULTra is in contention to develop an urban system in Amritsar, India projected to carry up to 100,000 passengers per day using 200 vehicles.[4]

To reduce fabrication costs, ULTra uses largely off-the-shelf technologies, such as rubber tyres running on an open guideway. This approach has resulted in a system that ULTra believes to be economical; the company reports that the total cost (vehicles, infrastructure and control systems) is between £3 million and £5 million per kilometre of guideway.[5]


The system was originally designed by Martin Lowson and his design team, Lowson having put £10 million into the project. He formed Advanced Transport Systems (ATS) in Cardiff to develop the system, and their site was later the location of its test track. ULTra has twice been awarded funding from the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).[6] Much of the original research on ULTra was done by the Aerospace Engineering department at the University of Bristol during the 1990s. Recently the company renamed itself "ULTra PRT Limited" to better reflect its primary business, and moved its corporate headquarters to Bristol.


Past PRT designs

Personal rapid transit (PRT) was originally developed in the 1950s as a response to the need to move commuters in areas where the densities were too low to pay for the construction of a conventional metro system. Using automated guidance allowed headways to be shortened, often to a few seconds, and in some cases fractions of a second. This increases the route capacity, allowing the vehicles to become much smaller while still carrying the same passenger load in a given time. Smaller vehicles in turn would require simpler "tracks", smaller stations, and lowered capital costs as a result. Smaller towns and cities that could never hope to fund a conventional mass transit system could afford PRT, and the concept generated intense interest.

Numerous PRT systems were designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many as a result of the publication of the highly influential HUD reports. In general, these systems intended to use small four-to-six-passenger vehicles, but most evolved to larger designs over time (see Alden staRRcar). As they did so, vehicles and tracks grew heavier, capital costs rose, and interest dropped. In the end, only one production PRT system was built, the Morgantown PRT, a government-funded demonstration system to prove the concept. Originally derided as a white elephant, the Morgantown system has since proven itself both reliable and relatively low cost.[7]


In the time since the Morgantown system was installed, general technological improvements have led to a number of ways to lower the cost of a PRT system. One of the simplest, but most profound, was the development of more efficient, reliable and quick-charging battery systems. Older PRT systems used electricity fed from track-side conductors in a fashion similar to a conventional metro, but these can be eliminated in favour of batteries that quickly charge up at stations or small charging strips along the route. Another change is the moving of the guidance logic from centralised computers to on-board systems of dramatically improved performance, allowing the vehicles to steer and switch themselves between routes on their own. This eliminates the need for a track-mounted guiderail able to steer the vehicle (see, for instance, the Ford ACT). Together, these changes mean the vehicle no longer needs strong mechanical contact with the guideway, which can be dramatically reduced in complexity.

In the case of ULTra, the guideway can consist of as little as two parallel rows of concrete barriers, similar to the bumpers found in a parking lot. The vehicle uses these for fine guidance only; it is able to steer itself around curves by following the barriers passively. No "switching" is required on the track, as the vehicles can make their own turns between routes based on an internal map. Since the vehicles are battery powered, there is no need for electrification along the track: the vehicles recharge when parked at the stations. As a result, the trackway is similar in complexity to a conventional road surface - a light-duty one as the vehicles will not vary in weight to the extent of a tractor-trailer. Even the stations are greatly simplified; in the case of ground-level tracks, the lack of any substantial infrastructure means the vehicles can stop at any kerb. Stations at Heathrow resemble a parking lot with diagonal slots, with a rain shield similar to the awnings at a gas station.

For all of these reasons, the capital costs of the ULTra system are dramatically reduced compared to older systems. A 1980s Canadian estimate places the price of a conventional underground metro system at $75 to $80 million per kilometre,[8] about CA$190 million in 2008 dollars.[9] The Morgantown PRT came in well over-budget and has a demonstrated cost of just over US$9 million per km in 1979, equivalent to about US$28 million in 2008.[10] Expansion plans from just after 2000 puts the costs of additional track at US$30 to US$40 million per mile.[11] However, the company estimates that an ULTra system can be installed, including vehicles and stations, for £3 to £5 million per km of track,[5] about US$5 to US$8 million, as of 2009. This cost includes extensive sections using elevated guideways, which are much more expensive than at-grade versions.

As part of the development of the first commercial system, at Heathrow Airport, in 2005 the owner of the airport, BAA Airports Ltd, purchased 25% of the company.[12] Following its successful launch there are now plans to extend it to the rest of the airport and even to the nearest town of Staines-upon-Thames, which is home to many of the airport's staff.[13]

System description


The electric-powered vehicles have four seats, can carry a 500 kg payload, and are designed to travel at 40 km/h (25 mph) at gradients of up to 20%, although the company has suggested limiting operating routes to 10% gradients to improve passenger comfort. The vehicles can accommodate wheelchairs, shopping trolleys and other luggage in addition to the passengers.

Each pod is powered by four car batteries [14] giving an average 2 kW and adding 8% to the gross weight of the vehicle. Other specifications include a 5-metre turning radius, an energy requirement of 0.55 MJ (megajoules) per passenger kilometre, and running noise levels of 35 dBA at 21.6 km/h measured at a distance of 10 metres.

The company has also developed designs for a freight version. This has the same external appearance as the passenger version, but its entire internal space is adapted to host a cargo capsule. These can be valuable in airport environments, where the network can be used to haul small freight.

Control technology

According to ULTra, its control system has three separate levels of operation, with the following features:

Central synchronous control

Autonomous vehicle control

Automatic vehicle protection system

Test track

The ULTra PRT test track in Cardiff.

The one-kilometre test track was launched in January 2002. The $4 million funding for the test track came from various sources in the United Kingdom government. One electric vehicle was demonstrated running at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. Accurate stopping was demonstrated and the vehicle ascended and descended a steep gradient. A single, rudimentary ground level station was shown.

Most of the test track guideway is at ground level. It is stated that in a commercial application, 90 percent or more of the guideway might have to be elevated. This elevated guideway is about 1.5 metres wide. According to a study of a hypothetical city-based installation, consisting of 19.8 kilometres (12.3 mi) of guideway (89% elevated), the total cost of track and associated civil engineering works is estimated to be £2.9 million per kilometre ($8.7M/mi). Per-station costs were estimated to be £0.48-million ($0.89M). Vehicle costs were not considered in this study.[15]


Heathrow Terminal 5

Heathrow Pod
Number of vehicles 22
System length 3.9 km (2.4 mi)
Heathrow Pod map
Handicapped/disabled access All stations have
step-free access.
from Terminal 5
to Terminal 5
Pod wash

The first system began passenger trials at London Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5, in October 2010[5] and opened for full passenger service 22 hours a day, 7 days a week, in May 2011. Operational statistics in May 2012 demonstrate >99% reliability and an average passenger wait time over the year of 10 seconds. Ultra has achieved a number of awards from the London Transport Awards[16][17] and the British Parking Awards.[18]

It connects Heathrow Terminal 5 to its business passenger car park, just north of the airport, by a 3.9-kilometre (2.4 mi) line built on behalf of BAA, the airport's owner and operator.[19][20] The system cost £30 million to develop.[21]

Construction of the guideway was completed in October 2008. The line is largely elevated, but includes a ground level section where the route passes under the approach to the airport's northern runway. Following various trials, including some using airport staff as test passengers, the line opened to the public in May 2011 as a passenger trial.[22][23][24] Subsequently it was made fully operational and the bus service between the business car park and Terminal 5 was discontinued.[25] The pods use 50% less energy than a bus. They run 22 hours a day. Unlike all UK road and rail traffic, which drives on the left, the PRT system drives on the right. As of May 2013 the system passed the 600,000th passenger milestone.[26]

The developers expect that users will wait an average of around 12 seconds, with 95% of passengers waiting for less than one minute for their private pod which will travel at up to 40 kilometres per hour (25 mph).

Heathrow new PRT (proposal)

In May 2013 Heathrow Airport Limited announced as part of its draft five year (2014-2019) master plan that it intended to use the PRT system to connect terminal 2 and terminal 3 to their respective business carparks.[26] The proposal was not included in the final plan due to spending priority given to other capital projects and has been deferred.[27]

There have been suggestions that they will extend the service throughout the airport and to nearby hotels using 400 pods.[20]

Amritsar, India (proposed system)

In December 2011 ULTra-Fairwood (a joint venture) announced a plan to build an 8-kilometre (5.0 mi) elevated guideway in a "Y" shaped network in Amritsar, India, serving seven stations with over 200 pods. The network would connect the railway station, the bus station and the Golden Temple. Initial projections were for up to 100,000 passengers per day operating from 4:00am to midnight and carrying 35% of visitors to the Golden Temple. The system was projected to be completed by 2014 with private financing on a 'build, own, operate, transfer' (BOOT) basis.[4]

The unsolicited bid was announced by the local government as set to proceed and a foundation stone was laid. The proposed route received objections from some businesses, particularly in the 'Hall Bazaar'[28] and subsequently the route was changed with the Katra Jaimal Singh area dropped from the line between the railway station and the temple.[29][30]

In March 2013 the Punjab government announced that they would open the project to competitive tendering with the Swiss challenge method. ULTra-Fairwood is one of three suppliers expected to be bidding.[31] Reports indicate the government is due to finalise the bid by the end of June 2013.[32]

In June 2014, The Plan was scrapped to be replaced by a cheaper Rapid Bus Transit System [33]

Gurgaon City, India (under consideration)

In March 2010, the government of Haryana said that it was looking into a proposal to deploy ULTra for rapid commuter transport in the city of Gurgaon. The city is looking at over 10 to 12 individual routes covering a total distance of approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi).[34]

In July 2012 it was reported that the Chief Minister of Haryana state had ordered officials to "complete all the necessary formalities in the next three months and begin work on the project"; however as at June 2013 work has not commenced.[35]



  1. "Company Information". Ultra corporate website. Archived from the original on 6 March 2012. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  2. "ULTra ™ (Urban Light Transit)" (PDF). Corporate brochure. 1 June 2009. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  3. "Heathrow T5". Ultra Global website. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  4. 1 2 "Amritsar, India". Ultra Global website. Retrieved 18 May 2013.
  5. 1 2 3 "ULTra FAQ", ULTra PRT site
  6. "Martin Lowson, Advanced Transport Systems Ltd awardee profile" NESTA milestones
  7. Hamill, Sean D. (2007-06-11). "City's White Elephant Now Looks Like a Transit Workhorse". The New York Times.
  8. Litvak & Maule, pg. 104 – the first mention puts it at $80 million, but the very next page puts it at $75
  9. Using the Bank of Canada inflation calculator
  10. Using the US inflation calculator
  11. Hamill, Sean D. (2007-06-11). "City's White Elephant Now Looks Like a Transit Workhorse". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-18.
  12. "Heathrow Tests Personal Rapid Transit System" (PDF).
  13. "News". Airport-world.com. Retrieved 2013-07-12.
  14. "ULTra PRT | Fully Charged". YouTube. 2012-08-01. Retrieved 2013-07-12.
  15. A.D. Kerr, P.A. James (Ove Arup and Partners), C.V. Cook, A.P. Craig (ATS Ltd.) (May 2005), Infrastructure Cost Comparisons for PRT and APM, ASCE 10th International Conference on Automated People Movers
  16. "Heathrow pod recognised at London Transport Awards". Ultra. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  17. "Inspiring Transport Projects Rewarded at London Transport Awards Ceremony". Transport Times. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  18. "British Parking Awards 2012". British Parking Awards. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  19. Rodgers, Lucy (18 December 2007). "Are driverless pods the future?". BBC News. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  20. 1 2 Dodson, Sean (11 October 2007). "Welcome to the transport of tomorrow". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 13 June 2011.
  21. Hicks, Melanie (12 September 2011). "Heathrow: Driverless ULTra Pods Replace Buses At Terminal 5". Huffington Post.
  22. "Heathrow rapid transit guideway construction completed". Transport Briefing. 23 October 2008. Retrieved 24 October 2008. (subscription required (help)).
  23. "Videos". ULTra PRT. Retrieved 13 June 2011.
  24. "Heathrow Pod Passenger Trials Begin". ULTra PRT. Retrieved 13 June 2011.
  25. "Taking a ride on Heathrow's ULTra Personal Rapid Transit System".
  26. 1 2 "Heathrow announces plans for an additional Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system".
  27. "My Pods". futureairports. 2014 (1): 61. Retrieved 8 September 2014.
  28. "20-feet magnetic track to throw our business off track, fear traders".
  29. "Amritsar PRTS route changed again, Municipal Commissioner says Katra Jaimal Singh area dropped from plan on residents' demand".
  30. "Holy city's PRTS project inching towards reality".
  31. "Amritsar all set to get rapid 'pod' cars".
  32. "Sukhbir reviews Amritsar development projects".
  33. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chandigarh/Amritsar-BRTS-to-get-operational-by-December/articleshow/46648810.cms
  34. Hitender Rao, "After Heathrow, Pod Cars may well hit the Millennium City", Hindustan Times, 18 February 2010
  35. "CM puts pod taxi project on fast track".


  • Isaiah Litvak and Christopher Maule, "The Light-Rapid Comfortable (LRC) Train and the Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS): Two Case Studies of Innovation in the Urban Transportation Equipment Manufacturing Industry", University of Toronto/York University Joint Program in Transportation, 1982

Coordinates: 51°28′45″N 0°29′16″W / 51.479287°N 0.487687°W / 51.479287; -0.487687,

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