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Unimodal Maglev PRT

Last week we spoke with Chris Perkins, the CEO of Unimodal, Inc. regarding their SkyTran personal rapid transit (PRT) system. Readers may already know that SunCal has proposed 6,000 homes for Alameda Point, bringing roughly 14,000 to 15,000 additonal people to Alameda (20% of the existing population) and deploying a PRT system to provide transportation for those people.

Mr. Perkins describes SkyTran as a 3rd generation PRT system, one which uses a suspended car system, rather than a guideway deck that the cars ride on top of, with as few moving parts as possible, to minimize required maintenance. The SkyTran system runs by magnetic levitatation (maglev) and Perkins says that feature, plus the suspended-car design, allows for fewer moving parts but maximum passenger comfort – particularly during turns – and provides significant advantages over wheeled systems that run on a concrete deck, such as ATS’s Ultra, the system going into Heathrow Airport and which Peter Calthorpe mentioned at the August 7th SunCal community meeting.

Perkins also claims that the maglev design provides for higher potential cruising speeds for the cars – wheeled systems might average 15-21 MPH when factoring in stops, and post a 25 MPH top speed. Rail-type systems such as Vectus might achieve 30 to 40 MPH, but Unimodal claims a top speed of 150 MPH and a typical average speed of 115 MPH, which make their design well suited for competing with automobiles and freeways to cover long geographical distances. Decked designs, such as Ultra, Perkins says, also have the problem of debris, tree limbs, people, snow/ice and other objects accumulating or sitting on the deck in the path of oncoming cars, a problem their suspended design doesn’t have as the guideway is designed to let things fall out of it.

We didn’t discuss details of how Unimodal might tackle the Oakland-Alameda estuary crossing, but Perkins conceded that Alameda would present some unique challenges. It seems self-evident that a suspended design like Unimodal’s would likely require an elevated estuary crossing rather than a subterranean crossing under the estuary.

In either case, we’re still waiting for SunCal and Calthorpe to explain how they plan to navigate the political issues of funding for the system, (Current PRT systems can run has high as $15 million/mile to build), funding for an estuary crossing, and securing City of Oakland/Port of Oakland support and participation for a PRT landing and guideway on the Oakland side to connect to BART. There also remains the question of whether 6,000 homes and 15,000 people is appropriate for Alameda Point or not.

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