Personal. Rapid. Unique.

10 April 2012

Checking out the world’s first PRT system—in Morgantown, West Virginia, of all places.

Morgantown PRT

The fact that I got to ride the world’s first personal rapid transit system to enter regular revenue service isn’t the most interesting thing to report about my trip to Morgantown. The real adventure was in getting up there.

I had wanted to go check out Morgantown PRT for several years, since I first learned of its existence. When we decided to go back to Washington, D.C., for a visit over Susan’s spring break, I figured it would be a good opportunity finally to make the trek. It helped, too, that I could do it on the cheap: I got tickets on Megabus for $1 each way. So cheap, in fact, that I bought two sets of tickets, one for Tuesday and one for Wednesday. I figured that if inclement weather was predicted for one day, I could just go the other. After consulting the forecast, I decided the earlier date would work fine.

Watch our time-lapse video of a trip on Morgantown PRT

I tried to arrive early to the parking garage at Washington’s Union Station, where a number of intercity bus lines depart. My goal, of course, was to be in my favorite place to sit: the very front of the upper level of the double-decker bus. I was disappointed to see that I wasn’t the first in line—I guess I didn’t arrive that early—but when I got on the bus I was able to go straight to my preferred seat. It was a good sign. (It was also a result of the fact that, unlike everyone else on the bus, I didn’t have luggage, since I was planning on taking the return bus that evening.)

Shortly after the scheduled 10.00 departure time the bus pulled out of the station. A few minutes late, but no big deal, even if we couldn’t make it up en route. The view during the initial part of our journey through downtown D.C. was great. We turned down North Capitol Street toward the dome of the United States Capitol and then on to Massachusetts Avenue. From there we turned on to H Street NW and had a magnificent view of the Chinese arch at H and 7th Streets NW. We then turned down 6th Street NW with its perfectly framed perspective of the dome and north portico of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. We drove down Constitution Avenue NW, one of the capital’s great boulevards, lined with Smithsonian museums on the south side and the impressive neoclassical office buildings of the Federal Triangle on the north. Then it was across the Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac River and north on George Washington Memorial Parkway, which looked stunning clothed in spring flowers and leaves that bright color of green that new leaves always are. Half an hour into the journey and it was a thrilling trip so far.

A PRT vehicle speeds along tracks bypassing Engineering station.
A PRT vehicle speeds along tracks bypassing Engineering station.

From GW Parkway the bus merged on to the inner loop of the Capital Beltway, Interstate 495, and headed east across the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac. (The beltway’s inner loop goes clockwise around the city while cars on the outer loop travel counterclockwise.) To continue the journey north, the bus was going to take Interstate 270, with which I am quite familiar because it is the freeway which connects Washington with Frederick, Maryland, where my family lives. Interstates 495 and 270 meet at a triangle of freeways, with 270 ending in two spur freeways, one to the southeast and the other to the southwest. The bus pulled on to the southwestern spur of I-270 following a small car which in turn was following a truck. The truck was an average-sized truck for business use (not a pickup truck) and was carrying a load of cardboard boxes. All three vehicles—the truck followed by the car followed by my double-decker bus—were traveling in the right lane.

Suddenly one of the cardboard boxes on the truck fell off. Some other passengers on the bus said that the box hit the car directly, but as I recall—and I was in the very front of the upper level, so I had a pretty good view—the box hit the roadway. In either case it burst open, spilling all its contents across the lane. I’m not exactly sure what it was that fell out. Hundreds or thousands of identical objects. They were metal, the color of steel or aluminum. They looked like they were rings a few inches in diameter with—no joke—three spikes poking down from them. The spikes were a few inches long. I’m not sure what they would be used for—perhaps something in construction or landscaping—but as I heard the clanging on the underside of the bus I thought, This can’t be good.

I thought we would have to pull over, but the bus driver continued on, out of the D.C. area, past Frederick, and on to Cumberland, Maryland. Then, somewhere around Frostburg in far western Maryland I could hear some sort of concern from the lower level of the bus. (It was easy for me to hear the driver’s conversation with another Megabus employee who was on the trip because a stairway to the lower level was right behind my seat.) It was clear that we were going to have to pull over, but I thought at first that it was because a passenger was having a medical issue. Then I learned: the bus’s dashboard has a pressure gauge for the tires, and the front left tire was completely flat. So at exit 22—10 or so miles (16 kilometers) west of Frostburg and 159 miles (256 kilometers) from Union Station’s parking garage (I know because I used Google Maps to measure)—we pulled off Interstate 68 and into a truck stop’s parking lot.

I later learned that that is where the bus normally takes a rest stop. But what is usually not included in a rest stop is a nearly two-hour wait for a mechanic to change a tire. So much for making up our departure delay en route.

THE BUS ARRIVED, EVENTUALLY, IN MORGANTOWN, where it stops right in front of the PRT system’s northernmost station, Medical Center. I went straight up a long flights of stairs to the station—the station is at the top of a hill, and the bus stops at the bottom. In my research before my trip, I learned that fares are 50 cents and must be paid in coins, so I had armed myself with about $2 worth of quarters. When I approached the turnstile, I dropped two quarters in and a row of four buttons on top of the gate lit up. Each button had the name of one of the system’s other stations (there are five total) written next to it. I pushed “Beechurst,” because I recalled the name from my earlier research. And off I went in the first PRT vehicle I could board.

PRT vehicles await passengers at Engineering station.
PRT vehicles await passengers at Engineering station.

It’s an impressive system, even more so when you consider it was built as an experiment in the mid-1970s. While the system was later expanded to its current size and computer and other systems have been upgraded, much of the system relies on the original 1970s technology and construction. It appeared that most of the vehicles were original, too. Stepping into one almost felt like stepping back in time, with passengers cocooned in white plastic seats and yellow plastic walls in shades that I’m not sure are produced any more. I’m not sure manufacturers in the 21st century even have the ability to produce such vintage shades of white and yellow.

The car sped past stations called Towers and Engineering, bypassing them on separate tracks necessitated by PRT’s point-to-point service. It turned out that Beechurst was the next-to-last station, a few blocks from downtown Morgantown. I realized my error immediately when the car pulled into the station with track continuing past. I’m not one to admit a mistake—I hate looking like a visitor, or having trouble riding transit—and I already felt a little dorky checking out a transit system surrounded mostly by cool college students. So I walked out of the station like I knew exactly what I was doing. After all, I was armed with quarters, and I could get back in with no problem once the passengers then waiting on the platform had boarded their car. Or so I thought. When I returned to the turnstile, I tried to drop my coins in, but I couldn’t. The coindrop was blocked. Again, trying to save face, I left the station before anyone could really notice me and walked the rest of the way to the final station.

Along the way, I treated myself to a chocolate milkshake, which I thought I deserved after my bus journey was delayed so much. When I arrived at the final PRT station in downtown Morgantown, Walnut Street, I encountered the same problem with the coindrop as at Beechurst. So I worked up the nerve to ask another passenger what I was doing wrong. As it turns out, for some reason rides from those stations were free that day. (I didn’t gather that rides from the other stations were free.) So I just pushed a button and walked through the turnstile.

I ended up riding the PRT system a several times during my few hours in Morgantown, visiting different stations and riding the entire system end-to-end at least twice. During my final end-to-end PRT trip, when I was going back to Medical Center to catch my return bus home, I got a car to myself. So I got out my camera and took video of the journey. I later turned that recording into a time-lapse video that I uploaded to Dialann’s YouTube channel.

THE RETURN JOURNEY WAS LESS OF AN ADVENTURE and more of an annoyance. I guess the bus, which originated in Pittsburgh, got caught in some rush-hour traffic and was delayed by at least an hour. I thought that we could also, perhaps, with luck, make that up en route, until the bus driver had to take a break. I think he was required by federal law to do so, so at least he was following safe driving regulations. (I’m sure the bus driver was otherwise anxious for his workday to end, too.) But we didn’t pull in to Union Station’s parking garage until almost 1.00 the next morning. By that time, Metro was closed, and my only option to get back to Bethesda, where we were staying with Susan’s sister Karen and her family, was a taxi. The ride ended up costing $25.00, at least doubling the cost of my Morgantown adventure.

But I did it. And, in the end, I think it was worth it. Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit may no longer be the only PRT system in the world—since November 2010 it has been joined by systems in the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. But it will always be the world’s first, as well as mine.

Facts about Morgantown PRT

Morgantown PRT diagram
Morgantown PRT system diagram
  • Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit opened in 1975. It was the first personal rapid transit (PRT) system in the world and remained the only one for over 35 years. In November 2010, a PRT system opened in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates, followed by a system at London Heathrow Airport in May 2011. But Morgantown PRT remains the largest and most extensive such system.
  • The system is 8.3 miles (13.2 kilometers) long with five stations. It takes about nine and a half minutes to travel from one end of the system to the other. Approximately 16,000 passengers use the system every day.
  • Much of the system runs along the Monongahela River. Much of it—65%, in fact—also runs over elevated track. The remainder is at or below ground level.
  • Fares are 50 cents for the public and free for students, faculty, and staff of West Virginia University. By contrast, a ride on the New York City Subway costs $2.25. Because the automated cars have no drivers to pay, the 50-cent fare covers nearly two-thirds of the system’s operating costs.

This article appeared on pages 4–7 of Issue 7 | July 2012.

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