Due to the tendency for planes to want to land at them, airports have one very distinguishing feature. Not the runways and radar – but the lack of tall buildings.

As a result, they can often swallow up vast amounts of land and require the support facilities to be spread out a long distance from where they are needed. Such an example are the long-stay car-parks at Heathrow, which are situated along the northern edge of the grounds, away from the terminals.

Ordinarily, people get around the vast airport using an equally vast fleet of buses, but when Terminal 5 was constructed, they decided to try something different.

A purpose-built private “railway” carrying passengers from the Business car park direct to the Terminal Building, and rather than a conventional multi-carriage train, give each user/family their own private carriage.

Heathrow driverless pods

Thus was born out of Bristol University the Urban Light Transit system, or ULTra, a completely automatic driverless transport network more often seen in 1960s visions of the future than the actual future we now live in.

And they are damn sexy!

They don’t run on railway tracks, so probably shouldn’t be considered a driverless railway, but in all other aspects, they act just like one. The individual pods run on heavy rubber wheels along the concrete path, and are corralled by two sidebars that keep them on track.

Heathrow driverless pods

Approaching the station to catch your pod, you use a touch screen display to select a destination – which at the car park is either the other car park, or Terminal 5. Then the doors slide open, very much like a posher version of the Jubilee Line and you can embark the rather first-class interior.

Heathrow driverless pods

Getting started took me a moment though. You press the button to close the door, but also then have to press the start button to make the thing go. I sort of expected the two functions to be as one, but apparently splitting them means kids can’t be accidentally whisked away if the doors close prematurely.

As befits a service running from a Business Class car park, the interior is quite swish, and can seat probably 4 people comfortably, although the seats look designed to squeeze 6 anorexic fashion victims into them.

Then you’re off on your own personal trip.

Heathrow driverless pods

Anyone who has used the Docklands Light Railway will be used to the sudden turns and gradients that the ULTra system also navigates around, and while there are complaints about a rough ride, I really didn’t think it that bad at all for a mass transit system. Certainly less rough than the Picadilly Line at Hounslow West!

Heathrow driverless pods

Gliding over roads and around the airport perimeter you get quite a good view of the aircraft waiting at the terminal, while a video screen plays a series of messages at the start and end of the trip.

Cleverly, when approaching the Terminal building, the video gives you a video walkthrough of how to get to the Departure areas. The touchscreen display at the start offered a choice of languages. Not sure if in-pod video also caters to that, but I presume it probably would.

The disembodied voice also reminds you which car park (A or B) you came from, which is a nice touch, although they could probably do with a bit more volume for that bit at least.

Anyway, a few minutes later you pull into level 2 of the multi-story car park next to Terminal 5, and with a (probably necessary for some) warning to mind your head as you get out, the lifts are right in front of you.

Heathrow driverless pods

It’s claimed that the pod system will eliminate 50,000 bus journeys a year. They are also said to cut a journey down from 15 minutes to 5, although most of that is bound to be due to not waiting around for a bus, but being able to get onto a pod when you want.

It certainly is a memorable way of getting from car park to aircraft, and while unlikely to ever have the capacity for public-transport, the designers think it will be useful in places such as large university campuses. I think it could be useful at Birmingham’s NEC, where the car park is a long walk from the exhibition halls.

A curmudgeon moans that they are not a “true PRT” system, but that just seems churlish to me.

They work, look fun and I even like the purple colour!


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  1. Fran says:

    This is great. I was at Heathrow on Friday and saw these weird purple things and had no idea what they were. Thanks, Ian.

  2. In Paris from the Seventies to the late Eighties there were several attempts to create a similar mode of transport, with personal pods, point-to-point travel, guide-ways and offline stations (looking remarkably like the Heathrow scheme: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boulevard_Victor_experimentation.jpg).

    Aramis, as the project was nicknamed, never went beyond the experimental stage, largely because a government-funded research project developed by a state-owned company for use by the Paris local transport monopoly could never muster enough support to overcome the urge of rejecting or delaying new ways of doing things.

    Its history, however, is quite fascinating. If you are curious, there is a little study (in the form of a novel!) about it: “Aramis, or the Love of Technology”, by the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour.

  3. Jimmy says:

    How does it work in the snow?

  4. martxw says:

    It took a while to come to fruition. I spotted their Cardiff test track years and years ago on Google Maps. I figured it wasn’t providing a useful service to the adjacent heliport! http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=sk9rx8gr4j2d&lvl=19.4&dir=2.59&sty=b&form=LMLTCC

  5. Josh says:

    I heard vague talk about Heathrow expanding the system for use as an inter-terminal transit and also to serve the business car parks in the central terminal area, probably by putting the pods through the mousehole tunnels.

    Really fun to use. However, I think my boss has hinted I was taking liberties when I used it so I suppose I won’t be able to swing it for business any more.

    Annoying thing though is that the station in the MSCP is on the North side, but the business class check in is on the South side of the terminal and knowing how big that terminal is, that’s a bit of a walk.

  6. Brandis says:

    I’ll be in the area soon and have some hours to kill, so I would love to take a ride on it. Can it be used by anyone or do they check if you have a car parked at that parking lot?

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