47. Moving People
Razi Hadid was an Iranian engineering graduate student at Michigan State University with an interest in personal rapid transit — what most people called people movers. Razi came to Morgantown the summer after the flood and tornado in Dare County to study the PRT at West Virginia University. When he arrived he had no knowledge of Eden, or of Cibola, or Ralph Deigh, or Rosemary Mueller’s generous gift, or the Mueller Foundation. He only knew that the PRT had been created in the early 1970s by Professor Sami Elias, an Egyptian-American engineer who was then on the WVU Engineering faculty. Razi divided his summer between interviews with the PRT staff — some retired and some still working — and the university archives where the original technical drawings, calculations and technical memoranda were housed. The project had been a joint effort of federal transportation officials, the university, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Boeing Corporation.
There were several separate design approaches extant at the time. The PRT was based on the staRRcar concept of William Alden. The original Alden staRRcar was a “dual-mode” transit system — small cars that operated like traditional electric cars when driven around town for short distances, but allowed long-distance travel via automated guideways that provided power. The vehicle were quite lightweight because they could only travel at low speeds when manually guided and didn’t need full crash safety or large battery packs. The PRT design did away with one part of the dual concept — independent electric vehicles driving around town on the open roadways, and concentrated everything on lightweight cars operating exclusively on guideways. They were encouraged in this by Alden and his engineering team, who realized that developing a single-mode vehicle (operating on a guideway rather than the open roadways) would be much less expensive.
Phase I of the PRT system was 8.4 km of track (4.2 each way), 45 vehicles and 3 stations. It opened in 1974. Phase II expanded the system to its 5 current stations, 73 vehicles and roughly 14 km of guideways, a figure which counted all the station entrances and exits, turnarounds and sidings. The full travel distance from one end to the other was 5.8 km.
Decades before electric cars like the Tesla and the Toyota Prius became popular, the PRT cars were powered by three-phase 575-volt AC direct current motors. Electric pickups are fixed on both sides of each cars and connect to electronic rails on one or both sides of the guideways. Each car also has four wheel steering for increased mobility into and out of stations while retaining full contact with the power source.
Shortly after the original PRT from the Beechhurst Station in front of Brooks Hall downtown to the Engineering building on the Evansdale Campus was up and running and even before the extensions to the Health Sciences campus and Walnut Street downtown were completed, Professor Elias had decamped from Morgantown for the staff of the Washington D.C. Metro. By that time, his work on the PRT was complete, and others were able to go on to complete Phases I and II of the system.
Late in the summer and quite by accident, Razi met Lil. . ., who happened to be in Morgantown for a conference on landscape architecture. They met on a Friday evening at a local student hang-out and in the early stages of getting to know one another Razi asked what Lil. . . did or where she worked or something of that nature and immediately their attention turned to their mutual interest in small scale transportation systems. They soon adjourned from the bar to the Blue Moose, a local coffee shop which was much more conducive to a quiet conversation on PRTs, and when the waitress informed them that the coffee shop was closing, Razi mentioned that the university had a program called WVU Up All Night, where they were able to find a quiet corner at the Mountainlair student center where they talked until the sun was well up in the sky the following morning. One of the things that Lil. . . told Razi during that fateful night was that each year the students held a contest in front of the Mountainlair student center to see how many people could get into a single PRT car. The current record was 97.
Razi was able to tell Lil. . . one thing she had only been vaguely aware of. The PRT system, he said, operates in three modes — demand, schedule and circulation. Demand, or true PRT mode, in off-peak hours, responds to rider requests. Either timed (at 5 minute intervals) or number of riders (when requests reach a preset number, like 15) can activate dispatch of a car to that location. During peak demand hours, in schedule mode the system operates fixed routes in anticipation of known demand. During the lowest demand times, late nights and early mornings before students leave for classes, circulation mode operates a smaller number of vehicles that stop at every station, like a bus service.
By the time he met Lil. . . Razi already realized that some aspects of the original PRT design were no longer necessary. For example, the concrete pathways have magnetic induction loops to provide data to operating computers. Embedded pipes can be heated to melt show and ice. 35% is at or below ground level; 65% is elevated bridges and viaducts. He hadn’t yet settled the question of the necessity of headed pathways, he told her, but GPS probably made the magnetic induction loops unnecessary. One of the real plusses of the guideway system, he told her, was safety. On highly crowded campuses, with often-careless and transporting carefree young people, the PRT had had no injuries in the first 42 years of operation. One previous November, he had learned, a glitch in the increasingly obsolete computer system had caused a minor collision of two cars, resulting in minor injuries to two students.
Lil. . . had also told Razi what she knew about the problems experienced in the early days. Because this was to be a featured success of the Nixon Administration, impossible deadlines had been set by Washington, resulting not only in numerous missed deadlines but also in huge cost-overruns. The total cost of the system exceeded $130 million in 1975 dollars.
“But, they did get it up and running, and it’s been transporting thousands of students every day for nearly 50 years,” was Razi’s reaction.
And, Lil. . . noted, an internal study by the WVU Transportation and Parking office compared the operating cost per mile of the PRT with other comparable mass transportation systems in the U.S. and found that only the subway operations in New York and the MTA in Boston — both massively largely systems — were less expensive. In the course of his summer in Morgantown, Razi had also learned of proposals to extend the PRT southward from Walnut Street to the Waterfront area and to the northwest to the Mylan Park area. He had originally thought he might be able to get a job with this expansion effort, but when he learned that the estimated cost of these extensions was $30–40 million/mile, he quickly realized that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“You aren’t going to believe this,” Lil. . ., whose conversation was usually extremely limited and focused to the work at hand, effused to a somewhat startled Madeline the following Monday, “but I met an engineer up in Morgantown Friday night who I think you should hire. He’s finishing up his masters in engineering at Michigan State, where he specialized in ‘vehicular robotics’ — specifically, self driving vehicles. He came to West Virginia to study the PRT because he’s interested in latest generation people movers that combine features of light rail and robotic vehicles.”
And so it was that Razi Hadid came to the Eden Project. The first true professional hired, he became supervisor of transportation projects in Eden. His first major undertaking was to oversee the design and installation of the twelve and a half mile PRT from Huttonsville through the riverfront Labyrinth in Eden to the federal courthouse in Landsdown. When Razi came to Huttonsville for an interview, there had been a few moments of inter-generational tension as he and Ralph Deigh got their respective egos under control. It was quickly apparent to Ralph that not only did Razi have engineering expertise far beyond Ralph’s limited understandings. He had also quickly grasped the larger objectives of Ralph’s intention to make Eden a post-car culture environment in which the automobile was merely one component of a larger system design, and not the be-all and end-all of local and regional transportation. In fact, when Razi said more or less that to a larger gathering of the Advisory Committees at the Mueller Foundation offices, Ralph whispered to Madeline, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Razi also revealed at an informal meet-and-greet after the interview that his interest in PRTs was first stirred by the popular television show, Green Acres, starring Eddie Albert, Eva Gabor, and his favorite inanimate character, The Hooterville Cannonball. The Cannonball was an 1890s steam locomotive pulling a single passenger car. It ran on a neglected, forgotten or abandoned rail spur from Hooterville to Pixley. Under Engineer Charley Pratt and Conductor Fred Smoot, both retired railroad employees, and despite the continuing efforts of J. Homer Bedlow, supervising V.P. of the C&FW Railroad company, who tried unsuccessfully to end the service, the Cannonball operated more like an on-call taxi service than a regularly scheduled transportation utility. (In PRT parlance, this is known as “demand mode.”) “For the residents of Hooterville and nearby Mayberry, it was personalized rapid transit!” Razi would tell anyone who would listen. “Whenever events in their lives called for it, the train would even make unscheduled stops for the passengers to go fishing or pick fruit, or whatever else they might want to do.
“The first time I saw the show, I thought ‘why not?’ That’s the way urban subway systems function. When I want to get from my hotel in London to the British Museum, I just hop in the Tube and get off at the right stop. That’s how personal transit should operate in rural areas, also. First, we had Yellow Cabs and now there is Uber and
As Razi indicated at that gathering and frequently later on, that simple ideal meant that he also shared Ralph’s vision of a multi-modal transportation system that included walking trails, moving sidewalks, escalators, bicycles, pedicabs, funiculars, aerial tramways, and his own personal favorite, personal rapid transit.
Like the Cannonball, the Eden PRT should be on call practically anytime someone needed to go from Eden to Huttonsville, or return. Razi, working with Ralph, Adam and Madeline, agreed to a total of 12 stops along the 19.3 kilometer route. There would be a stop at five of the six village nodes in Eden, two stops at the northwestern end in Huttonsville, one at the edge of town and one in the downtown area, a stop in Barley Mill, two at small settlements (actually former coal camps) along the route, one in Barley Mill and the eastern terminus at the federal courthouse in Landover.
It had been fortuitous that with only a few adjustments, the route through Barley Mill crossed six properties. Five of the six were owned by residents who were either planning to relocate to Eden or move away and it was very easy for Madeline, through the foundation, to acquire them.