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Images: An artist's impressions of the proposed project.


A New Rapid Transit System for Amritsar





Pilgrims to the Darbar Sahib -- popularly known as The Golden Temple --  once took long journeys by foot to the site in Amritsar, Punjab.

But now plans are in place to allow them to travel there in a fleet of driverless cars, the first of their kind on the subcontinent.

The driverless cars, also known as pod cars, are set to run on a dedicated double-decker roadway around Amritsar by mid-2016, according to Ultra Fairwood, a tie-up between a U.K-based and a local company which is developing the cars for the city.

The government of Punjab is expected to rubber stamp the plans imminently, giving permission to introduce the cars to the city on an elevated course with two branches – one from the railway, the other from the bus station –  to the gurdwara.

“We are already ready with the designs and drawings,” said Ashish Kumar, director of the Amritsar project, for Ultra Fairwood, a joint venture between U.K.-based ULTra Global, an engineering company, and Fairwood Group, a company involved in energy, transportation and urbanization.

They will start building the infrastructure for the so-called personal rapid transport system later this year, or in early 2014, it is reported.

The cars differ from monorail systems because they are smaller, run on-demand and travel along guide ways rather than over tracks, according to the company.

Around 100,000 people visit the Golden Temple every day, says Avtar Singh, head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the Sikh religious institution which manages the complex.

Visitor numbers rise to 200,000 at the weekends and reach up to half a million during high holidays.

The high footfall enticed ULTra Fairwood to choose Amritsar as the first location for their pod car system in the country.

ULTra Global already operates a similar system in Heathrow Airport in London U.K., but on a much smaller scale than the one planned for Amritsar.

The system will be entirely computerized and the cars will cover eight kilometers between seven stations.

The company says using the cars will shave 30 minutes off the current journey time between the train station and the gurdwara and the system will carry around 35% of the daily visitors to the Harmandar.

It will operate throughout the week for 20 hours a day, without a timetable, and be capable of carrying 100,000 passengers daily.

Each pod car has a computer loaded with a map of the route. The computer keeps checking the map to determine the car’s position. Laser sensors attached to the rubber wheels read the indentations on the two meter-wide guide way and help the vehicle to maintain the correct position.

An in-built protection system alerts the cars to the position of other pods and prevents them bumping into each other.

Every pod car can carry six passengers and around 200 of the vehicles will run on the tracks through Amritsar.

In contrast, the Heathrow system has just 21 vehicles and runs on a ground-level 3.8 kilometer stretch from a business car park to Terminal 5.

When a passenger buys a ticket for a destination, a pod car is assigned for that journey. A central controlling system manages the movement and the allocation of all the pod cars in the transit system.

As passengers disembark at their chosen station, the pod is assigned another destination based on passenger requests -- "an on-demand system.”

The station at the Golden Temple, which will be the largest in the system, will have the capacity to accommodate 24 pod cars at any one time.

From there, pilgrims will have to walk around 75 meters to get to the Harmandar.

According to the company, journeys may cost between 40-50 rupees ($ 0.70 - $ 0.88).

The whole project is expected to cost two billion rupees ($ 35 million). A state government official associated with the plans couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The vehicles are battery-powered and can travel at a maximum speed of 40 km per hour. It will take less than 10 minutes for passengers to reach the Golden Temple from the railway station – the longest route in the transit system.

Sikh authorities have welcomed the plan.

“People will be able to travel quickly,” says an SGPC official. He said it could help reduce the traffic problems in the city, which has narrow crowded streets.

Another SGPC official says he also has high hopes. “Every person would like to travel in those cars,” he said.

Some experts, however, say the cars may initially attract tourists but they are skeptical about the long-term benefits of the plan.

An associate professor of urban and regional planning at Guru Nanak University in Amritsar, said going to the Harmandar by the pod cars may be difficult for locals. “I have to first reach the railway station, park my vehicle there and then get on to a pod car,” he said.

It would be much easier for the locals to commute with their personal vehicles, he said.

“In my opinion, I don’t think it will be successful,” he added.

Pod cars are relatively new. One of the first pod car systems was introduced in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1975. Box-like compartments run on an elevated track serving downtown and the town’s university campus. Work is being carried out to upgrade the control and propulsion systems in the vehicles in the Morgantown system, according to a report.

Since the first system, they have developed into high-tech, fully automated cars and currently operate in a handful of cities worldwide.

Masdar city, an experimental eco city in Abu Dhabi,  has a pod car transit system and Vectus, a U.K-based company,  is introducing the cars to Suncheon Bay in South Korea.


[Courtesy: Wall Street Journal. Edited for]

June 10, 2013




Conversation about this article

1: Harmeet Singh (USA), June 10, 2013, 11:49 AM.

Whoa! It will make Golden Temple surely look like an airport terminal. Who are these stupid "Sikh authorities" welcoming this plunder of history?

2: Harman Singh (California, USA), June 10, 2013, 7:24 PM.

Amritsar is in dire need of some proper city planning. A well implemented elevated transit system will definitely take some pressure off the narrow city roads. Not every attempt at modernizing is an assault on history. We should keep an open mind.

3: Raj (Canada), June 10, 2013, 10:30 PM.

Why mess up with old character of the city? If they really want to solve traffic problem, they should make it underground like New York's subway system. It should not look like Vegas or an airport, because it's not a tourist place. It's a spiritual abode.

4: Bikramjit Singh (London, United Kingdom), August 10, 2013, 3:25 PM.

Badal and his son seem to be making more and more hair-brained claims recently. They have already announced international airports at places such as Jalandhar, Mohali, Halwara and even Bathinda in the last few years. Yet, the only international airport operating in Punjab at Amritsar is dying a slow death because of discrimination by the Indian government.

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