MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — Every Morgantown resident and WVU student knows about the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system. It’s the tram that spans both ends of WVU’s campus and helps give the Mountaineers a way over and around those pesky mountains. But how does a system like this actually work? Let’s find out.
The first thing you should know about the PRT is that it’s not exactly a new-fangled piece of technology anymore. Construction on the project began in the early ’70s with the first phase of the system dedicated in 1972 and running from Walnut Street to Evansdale, connecting the two campuses. The full system would complete construction and begin operation in 1975.
A documentary was produced in 1977, highlighting the development and implementation of Morgantown’s PRT and its need in the bustling college town. You can watch it here courtesy of Richard Fauss and the West Virginia State Archives.
But all of this was nearly 50 years ago. While the same structure of the PRT remains in place, advancements in technology, wear and tear and a larger student population have caused the system to require a more modern upgrade. 12 News spoke with WVU’s Director of Transportation and Parking, Jeremy Evans, as well as the Assistant Director of Transportation and PRT, Stephen Vozniak, about the state of the current system and how it’s evolved over the years.
Evans and Vozniak explained to 12 News that the automated system used to be monitored and partially controlled by an operator in the main control facility between the Beechurst and Engineering stations. An operator would be able to see each individual car and distribute them to each station based on demand. Each car was connected to the main control center via wires embedded in the track.
12 News also learned that up until 2018, this system remained in place nearly in its entire original form, running on wires, analog displays and other 1970s technology. Despite the physical age of the technology, the design itself harkens to the original 1950s schematics with only a few changes such as the removal of a planned station at the WVU Coliseum, which you can see the concrete beginnings of when traveling between the Beechurst and Engineering stations. These concrete paths have since been repurposed as access points for repair Jeeps that the crew uses to tow and repair broken vehicles.
In 2018, the system was given a major upgrade as the cars were switched to run wirelessly through radio signals rather than through wires in the tracks themselves. With this, came an entire system overhaul which digitized many of the components and brought most of the system into the 21st century including new monitoring systems, more automation, and new fare gates and signage.
Over the years, the PRT was bound to break down and require repairs to its vehicles and railways. Parts for these things are not always easy to find given the unique construction of the PRT system. To get around this, the engineers take the original parts from Boeing and come up with a more modern solution.
“As far as strictly mechanical stuff, there are certain bolts, like some were made out of titanium. They’re aircraft, they’re off the shelf,” Vozniak said. “Now, if they’re in need of repair, we’re not gonna pay $400 for a bolt. So, we go through the engineering process of determining the use of that bolt, the strength and then just replacing it with a more modern equivalent.”
12 News also asked Evans and Vozniak what thoughts they would like to convey to WVU students and Morgantown residents in general for this upcoming service year, to which they commented on the public opinion of the system.
“I just did numbers for the past service year that we ran and we were 98.4% was our availability number. 98.4% of the time that the PRT was scheduled to be running, it was running,” Evans said. “There’s this big urban legend that we suck. We don’t suck. Our maintenance staff, our operations staff work very hard and the PRT runs very well and very reliably. I would put our numbers up against any other transit system, the New York Metro, new subway system, whatever it might be and I guarantee our numbers are on par if not greatly above what those other systems do.”
The PRT is currently closed for its summer maintenance period but will reopen for the Fall 2023 semester beginning Monday, Aug. 7. WVU students, faculty and staff ride for free with their Mountaineer ID, all others must pay 50 cents per ride.