Morgantown, W.Va., looks like your typical college town in the Northeast, with church towers piercing the skyline and clusters of brick buildings and tree-lined streets abutting a large university. But as you drive down the road and head toward the campus, something unusual emerges: a modest-sized elevated roadway that skirts the Monongahela River and winds its way through West Virginia University (WVU) for several miles. Then a small box-like car, painted in WVU’s blue and yellow school colors, zips overhead and you realize it’s not an elevated road at all, but something very different.
Welcome to America’s one and only personal rapid transit (PRT) system, serving downtown Morgantown and the WVU campus. Though other transit systems may claim they are PRTs, Morgantown’s is the only one in the world where riders can hop into cars and travel directly from point to point without stopping at other stations along the way.
On a typical fall and spring semester day, 15,000 passengers will travel between the five stations along an 8.7-mile track, riding in 71 self-propelled cars that travel at speeds of up to 30 mph. It’s easy to see why the people mover, as it is sometimes called, is so popular. With a wait time of just five minutes or less, as many as 20 passengers at a time pass the traffic congestion on the narrow streets below.
In fact, the PRT is part of the reason why WVU went from a student enrollment of approximately 10,000 in the late 1960s to nearly 30,000 today, according to Haven Sions, a mechanic supervisor who has been working on the system for 34 years. “In the pre-PRT days, we relied on shuttle buses to move students,” he recalls. “Because of traffic, the university had to schedule classes as much as two hours apart so the students wouldn’t be late.” Once the PRT was built, schedules tightened up considerably, making it possible to schedule more classes, which meant enrolling more students.
The Morgantown PRT began in 1975 as a transportation research project funded by the federal government and developed by Boeing. The project cost $120 million and relied on computer technology that can be described as primitive by today’s standards. However, virtually every aspect of the PRT was original when it was built. Consider the four-wheel steering system for each vehicle (the cars run on rubber tires), or the special heating system, powered by four boiler plants that pumps a mixture of chemicals and hot water through pipes to clear the guideway of snow and ice during the winter.
Boeing got out of the transit business a long time ago, so the iconic people mover basically has to fend for itself in terms of maintenance and repairs, says Arlie Foreman, WVU’s associate director of transportation. A crew of 55 keeps the system operating six days a week, working constantly to repair the aging cars and guideway, scrounging for hard-to-find parts. According to Foreman, the university spends $5 million annually to operate it.
In 1995, the computer control system was upgraded and now work is under way to modernize the individual control and propulsion systems in each of the 71 cars that remain in service. The PRT maintenance crew is proud of the fact that of the 80 million passengers who have ridden on the PRT since its start, no serious injuries or fatalities have occurred.
As afternoon traffic builds on the local streets, slowing movement to a crawl, the PRT vehicles continue to glide past quietly and efficiently. “The Morgantown PRT stands as an example of how cities can better cope with pollution, traffic and environmental demands,” Foreman says.