MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University has many unique and eye-popping qualities, from the never-ending hills, to a mascot in a coonskin hat carrying a musket for starters. But above all, WVU has the first ever Personal Rapid Transport system. The PRT is “one of the best kept secrets in the transportation world,” according to Clement Solomon a PRT engineer.
The PRT came to life in 1975 after West Virginia’s own senator Robert C. Byrd convinced John Volpe, the Secretary of Transportation at the time, to make Morgantown an experimental site for the PRT. Byrd wanted the school to have better transportation for its increasing student body, as buses were starting to become a problematic and inefficient way to transport students. The project to construct the transportation system officially began after the idea gained the support of president Richard Nixon. Nixon wanted to move forward in a new era of science as a political play to gain momentum for the upcoming 1972 Presidential election.
Boeing was the major company given the task of creating the vehicle according to Todd Newcome. The whole project, after being rushed by Nixon ended up costing $120 million. To this day it still relies heavily on the original computer technology, so working as an engineer for the PRT is almost like traveling through time.
A vehicle that was supposed to usher in a new wave of computer controlled transportation unfortunately didn’t, as it is the only system like it in the United States. But for WVU it became a staple of student transportation and an icon for the university.
On an average day, the PRT takes an estimated 15,000 people, not just students, to their destinations. If the PRT weren’t around WVU would need an average of 30-60 buses running non stop to complete the same task. Even more impressive is for most of its life it ran at 98 percent reliability. However by 2015, the PRTs reliability had dropped to only 90 percent. This decline, due to an aging control system with no available replacement parts, demanded a renewal project. So for the past three years, WVU has been working again with Boeing to recreate and revamp the one of a kind vehicle.
Phase one has been in the works for a couple years, and a complete replacement of the original control system, from the 1970s, will be accomplished by 2018. After the control system is remade the final stage will start which involves replacing each of the individual cars. No date has been set for the commencement of the next stage.
Though the PRT has been operating at 90 percent reliability, it is often the object of complaints from the student body, who can be stuck in the cars and delayed during the 10 percent of the time when things go wrong. The University even has an automated PRT reporting system, so students can check the status regularly.
Things to know about Morgantown’s PRT
The PRT is safe
The PRT, through all of its malfunctions and faults is surprisingly a very safe method of transportation. It is so safe in fact that, according to Kent Hastings, director for the PRT, since 1975 it has racked up an incredible 33 million miles transporting students from station to station- with no serious injuries. There was a reported crash last year but everyone walked away and no one was seriously injured.
The PRT responds to demand
Sometimes it can feel like you’ve been waiting for the PRT forever. During the busiest hours of the day, the cars travel regularly because there is always demand. The cars come faster when more people request one at a given station. There have to be at least 15 people to choose a platform to go to for it to immediately deploy. If it is just you and a couple other people, it has a five minute wait time to see if more people will be getting on. So this means that if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere while using the PRT, bring some people to make the wait time a little shorter.
Since its creation the PRT has been putting in work. According to West Virginia University’s Transportation and Parking department, on an average day during the school year, the vehicle carries around 15,000 people to their destination. About 83 million people have ridden in the cars since 1975. Though the listed capacity is about 20 passengers per car, many more pile in at busy times and especially on game days and concerts. Mary Kate Riley, a junior at WVU testified to the PRT cramming, “When I went to the 21 Savage concert for fall fest this year the car I was in was crazy full, there must have been 50 people on it.” Though 50 people seems like a lot, the record for most passengers in a car is almost double that and was set during the annual PRT Cram in 2000, when 97 people smushed into one car.
The PRT is cheap
The PRT is not just a free and fun roller coaster ride for students. Any and everyone can use the PRT to get around Morgantown from Walnut all the way over to Ruby memorial hospital. This makes a huge impact in the lives of people without reliable methods of transportation, who might not be able to pay for rides or even afford a bus. To ride the PRT anywhere the cost remains the same at only 50 cents a trip. Cody Graham, who is in between jobs at the moment, relies on the PRT to get around and is glad the rides are so cheap. “The buses here can take a while, depending on traffic, but the [PRT] car doesn’t have to wait for a light,” Graham said with a chuckle. For those of us students who take the ride for granted, there are many people like Graham whose way of life would be different without it.
Post and interactive graphic by Dan Walsh