Management & Operations

U.S. to follow Europe's APM lead?

Posted on May 29, 2007 by Lawrence J. Fabian

The growing strength of the global automated people mover (APM) industry was evident at APM07, the 11th conference in a series initiated by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Amid the splendor of Vienna in late April, approximately 350 architects, planners and engineers from around the world gathered in the Austrian capital to discuss driverless metros, including small ones well below "subway scale."

There was ample evidence that Europe is firmly committed to improving and expanding metros across the continent.

While late 20th century metro projects in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are impressive in their swift service and expansiveness, the European transit industry clearly holds the lead in this field.

In fact, there is no U.S.-based supplier of metro railcars. Amid America’s low-density lifestyles, buses are the current champs in the marginal role that public transit plays in public life.

One interesting feature of modern metro projects in Europe is their full automation. For over a decade now, every new metro project in Europe has opted for driverless operation. Twenty driverless metro projects are either in service, in construction or in the planning stage. The newer ones in Copenhagen, Rennes (western France), Toulouse (southern France) and Turin (northern Italy) are doing very well, all with expansions planned.

Looking forward, an impressive new crop of driverless metro projects is sprouting across Europe. This is the continuation of a long history of mass transit, now intensified by strong political pressures to reduce street and highway traffic and stop global climate disruptions. Environmental concerns are driving politicians and "big business" investment strategies, strengthening the metro industry.

In sharp contrast, driverless metros are nowhere on radar screens in the U.S., and the private driverless monorail in Las Vegas is faltering. North America does, of course, include Vancouver — home of the long-running, successful and expanding SkyTrain, supplied by Bombardier. But that’s off in exotic Canada and doesn’t impact domestic policies in Washington.

Austrian ropeway designer, supplier and operator Doppelmayr has emerged as the major supplier of cable-drawn APMs for light metros (also airports and entertainment districts). So has Italy’s Leitner, which now owns the French Alpine con-veyance supplier Pomagalski. What stood out in Vienna is that electronically intelligent mini-metros — even micro-metros as in the Dorfbahn (village metro) in Serfaus, Austria — are attractive solutions to urban problems of the 21st century.

"APMs are the modern way of moving people," proclaimed Austrian traffic consultant Ortfried Friedreich at the opening of APM07. It is "just the right time for APMs."

Austrian researcher Rainer Muenz advised that “public transport will be more important in the future,” while Swedish transit official Peter Eklund pointed out that greatly improved services are needed to counter ongoing declines in conventional mass transit use.

As informed bus operators know, there is a lot of business out at the airport these days. Passenger levels are rising, not just for access to and from the airport, but also for circulation between airport terminals and out to “airfront” locations — hotels, expo and meeting facilities, parking, car rental stations and regional transit connections.

So dense is this traffic that it often clogs airport roadways. APMs can be used to better manage airfront circulation, so vital to the regional economy and sensitive to security concerns. With climate change a hot political issue, airport officials are under intense pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, there is a growing pipeline of airport APM projects.

Participants at the APM07 conference heard about recently opened installations at Dallas/Fort Worth and Paris/CDG airports. Interesting projects are currently underway in Houston, Mexico City and Singapore-Changi. Others are planned for Oakland, Calif.; Phoenix; and Baltimore-Washington, D.C. Honolulu just recommitted, and the list goes on, assuring good cash-flow into the industry.

The most sophisticated APMs — and the most promising in terms of attracting major numbers of car drivers to public transport — are called personal rapid transit. PRT is more akin to automated taxis than a driverless metro. The vehicles are small. Service is direct and non-stop. PRT has operated almost flawlessly in Morgantown, W.V., since the 1980s. The quest for commercially viable PRT is moving forward.

Automated on-street vehicle operations are part of these technologies. They too have demonstrated proto-PRT services in Europe. These were described by France’s Michel Parent and Robbert Lohmann from the Netherlands. Two prototype PRT installations are underway — one at Lon-don’s Heathrow Airport and the other in Uppsala, Sweden.

At APM07 there were also presentations about PRT work in South Korea, Italy and the U.S. One attractive English PRT plan appears very close to realization, and several locations in Sweden are vying to be demonstration sites. An Oct. 1-2 conference, focusing on PRT in cities, will take place in Uppsala, Sweden, organized by a small but global non-profit organization called the Institute for Sustainable Transportation. For more information, visit

British consultant Malcolm Buchanan presented a very strong case of the economic viability of PRT to serve the small but growing community of Daventry in central England. Meanwhile, ARUP engineer Tony Kerr described the ULTra installation at Heathrow Airport, which is to go into service next year. A team of Swedish planners gave an overview of the multi-dimensional studies underway in their Nordic country that seem ready to nudge PRT into commercial reality.

There wasn’t much talk of buses in Vienna. At some point, BRT planners may engage with “dual-mode” APM, bringing some of the advantages of driverless operation — greater safety, more flexible management and more jobs in a growing industry — to the bus industry.

CDs of the papers presented at the APM07 conference are available from the Austrian Academy of Architects and Consulting Engineers. Contact Ulli Schaufler at The next APM conference will be held in spring 2009 in Las Vegas, where BRT and APMs are already in service. Will a symbiosis take place in this high-stakes world? Stay tuned.

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