Japan: Where's the gadgetbahn? - 1
Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
If there is a country where Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) "should" work and "should" already have been built, then it's Japan.
Having traveled extensively throughout that country over the past three decades, I shall take this a step farther: if there is a place in Japan where PRT "should" work - and "should" already been built - then it's _____.
One could fill in the "blank" above with a number of locations, based on empirical observation of the built environment. During the past five years, maps and aerial photo images became available online and quality has been improved steadily. It is now possible to study the urban geography of Japan, "armchair" style, whether or not one has any knowledge of Japanese. This series shall present several examples of locations in Japan where the built environment appears conducive to PRT development. It shall also consider results obtained by other transport modes, e.g. automated guideway transport (AGT), in specific locations.
The year was 1974 or 1975. The place was Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was a "numbers geek" even back then. If I had a couple of hours to kill, traveling by intercity bus, I gave not a thought about the "nearest bar." Instead, I headed for the nearest library - especially in a state capital like Cheyenne - state libraries, state archives and all that.
I came across an editorial that day, published in the local newspaper - which, I surmised, was circulated throughout the state. The date: August 1965. The subject: a hometown event perhaps best known as the Watts Riot. I shook my head a bit, heaved a sigh and started to read.
In sum, and in paraphrase, the writers asserted their inability to believe that such an event - no matter how bad things might be for "Negroes" in Los Angeles - could possibly occur except as the result of a Communist conspiracy. No such thing, they wrote, could possibly take place in the United States unless it was planned, instigated and directed from abroad. The writers stated their conclusion that the riot took place as the result of a Communist plot - and stated their resolve not to reconsider same, absent evidence sufficient to prove the opposite.
Unbelievable - for about a second. No surprise that this was written, and published in 1965, I thought; consider the location. I hoped that some readers had disagreed, but knew well that many concurred. Again, no surprise: people who have neither information ("knowledge bases," past experiences) nor perspectives ("viewpoints," "belief systems") in common tend not to reach common conclusions. This is true in particular of subjects that stir strong emotions.
I chose, 35 years ago, not to say a thing - why bother, I thought? However, I might have approached one person in particulat - the librarian who assisted me as I researched a topic of interest. I could have introduced myself as an "Angeleno" (I might well have mentioned perviously where "home" was), offered a few additional details - and asked, politely, for his perspective on the editorial. Was this believed widely back in 1965? In 1974 (or '75)? Was the paper’s editorial board known for bias on certain topics? And so forth. The ensuing conversation might have been very interesting. Such is the potential of reasonable, civil dialogue.
I am a PRT skeptic.
From previous experience (and accounts of others), I know that some individuals view the short string of characters above as a virtual declaration war (or, perhaps, as a raunchy insinuation in the style of the comedian born John Elroy Sanford). Such is not my intent, and I hope that those inclined to transmit virtual torrents of "flames," invectives, "X-rated" images, derogatory remarks about my maternal parent and so forth will find some more productive use for spare time.
I am well aware that some readers might object, perhaps strenuously, to the title of this series. My response to such concerns: tough.
Attempts over the past near-decade to "credit" my associate, Michael D. Setty, myself, or the two of us with coining the word gadgetbahn grew tiresome long ago. I first saw this term used in print - as in "hardcopy" - years ago. This seems unlikely, but I cannot rule out years back to 1974-75 (during the same summer excursion that brought me to Cheyenne). Perhaps even farther back: I consider this highly unlikely, but I cannot rule out years back to 1965. In sum: I did not coin this word and neither did Michael Setty. I know from firsthand observation that it was in use - on paper - perhaps 35, perhaps even 45 years ago. Given time (and funding; I shall not consider doing this "for free") I might be able to locate the source(s). "Might:" one of my favorite "hangouts" from 1965 was the Los Angeles Central Library, and some titles that I remember clearly were lost in the arson fires of 1986. I shall consider myself free to use "that word" with impunity, with reference to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) or other public transport technology or service, prospective or not, for as long as my name or that of Michael Setty is associated with its coining.
Unless stated otherwise, I have visited the locations and ridden the transport facilities described herein.
I have used the the Modified Hepburn (Hebon-shiki) system to transcribe Japanese into the Latin alphabet, with long-vowel symbols, adding capitals and hyphens as appropriate (using an ad-hoc style devised in collaboration with J. Wallace Higgins). I have also used mean-value symbols (<>) to set apart foreign loanwords and acronyms as appropriate, e.g. <system>, <PRT>. This, I admit, is an idiosyncratic practice used by virtually no one else. All Japanese personal names are presented Japanese style, family name first (and written in upper-case letters if so presented in the reference cited). Spellings of Japanese personal names in the Latin alphabet may differ from those preferred by the authors cited.
Glossary of terms
I have provided this section to document the searches I conducted while writing this series - and to facilitate those that others might wish to undertake.
The Japanese technical term for PRT is 個人用高速輸送システム, Kojin-yō kōsoku yusō <system> ("Personal Rapid Transit System").
The English-language acronym "PRT," transcribed into Japanese katakana phonetic characters, is ピーアールティー. In some cases, English-language acronym <PRT> appears in Japanese text (but without the mean-value symbols, i.e. as PRT).
In Japan, various automated guideway transport lines (AGT) lines are called 新交通システム, shin-kōtsū-<system>, sometimes <New Transport System> or <NTS> after the English translation.
Readers wishing to conduct searches using the three terms above might simply "cut and paste" each one, in sequence, into a search-engine field, together with the name of some location (in Japanese). It helps to enclose the search terms in quotation marks. It also helps to use an "advanced" search function, with the "language" preference set for "Japanese" (i.e. to find Web pages in Japanese). Readers are cautioned that online translators (e.g. "Google Translate") may give misleading or inaccurate results.
One website, 未来鉄道データベース (Mirai tetsudō <database>, "Future Railways Database," 種村和人, Tanemura Kazuto, webmaster) provides a convenient summary (in Japanese) of railway lines under construction and in planning. Although not an "official" website, this is useful nonetheless when "parsing" various plans and proposals for fixed-guideway transport in Japan. Anything not listed in Mirai tetsudō <database> has probably not advanced past the discussion and early planning stages.
Where's the PRT? - Overview
More than three decades ago, Japan developed what was the world's most advanced PRT system up to that time. Plans for commercial application reached an advanced stage, then stalled. Today, Japan has no PRT line or system in commercial operation, nor is one planned for deployment at the time of writing.
At one time, a reasonable answer to the question raised throughout this series might have been:
The "ministry responsible" was not likely to license a PRT system for commercial operation.
I assert that this answer - today, at the end of 2010 - is no longer reasonable.
Japanese industry and government agencies started a large-scale effort to develop a domestic PRT system in 1968. The result was the コンピュータ・コントロールド・ヴィークル・システム, "Computer-controlled vehicle system," abbreviated <CVS>. This was exhibited at the Okinawa International Ocean Exposition, which opened in July 1975 and closed in January 1976.
(The acronym <CVS> was used in Japanese as well as English. Today, in Japan, <CVS> is used as an acronym for コンビニエンス・ストア, "convenience store.")
Japan's first commercial PRT installation was planned as a four-lane <CVS> line extending from central Tōkyō northwest to Ikebukuro, 8.5 km. Between 36 and 50 stations were planned, each built to accommodate passenger or freight vehicles, but not both. The planned minimum headway during peak periods was one second. Planning was reported as about 90 percent complete at the end of 1974, with submission to the Construction Ministry planned for early 1975. Subsequent approval by the Finance Ministry and the National Diet (Parliament) was required (Automated Guideway Transit: An Assessment of PRT and Other New Systems (NTIS order #PB-244854). 1975. Washington, DC: Office of Technology Assessment, United States Congress).
This project stalled during the late 1970s and was ultimately cancelled. The explanation provided through English-language channels was that guideway construction cost estimates were too high.
I have not seen a contemporary English-language source, or reference to same, that addressed safety issues related to <CVS>; indeed, these are not addressed currently by well-known sources (e.g. Anderson, [John] Edward. 1996. Some Lessons from the History of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT); Description of the Japanese Computer-controlled Vehicle System (CVS). 2008.).
The following unsourced statements may be found in a number of articles and blogs online:
1.) CVS was cancelled when Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport declared it unsafe under existing rail safety regulations, specifically in respect of braking and headway distances.
2.) In 1978, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport declined to grant CVS a license under existing safety regulations, citing issues with the short headway distances.
These statements are at least partially false, per se, simply because the Japanese "Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport" (MLIT) did not exist at the time (it was created in 2001 by consolidation of four predecessor ministries). Technicalities aside, refusal by the "ministry responsible" (運輸省, Un-yu-shō, the Ministry of Transport, or 建設省, Kensetsu-shō, the Ministry of Construction) to grant a license for construction and operation of an unbuilt facility appears more likely than a declaration that an (unbuilt) facility is "unsafe."
I believe that the <CVS> project was cancelled because of safety concerns, and have stated that sources consulted for a previous article suggest this ("New Transport Systems" - A Review of Automated Guideway Transit in Japan - Part 1: Early Development through Initial Application). More precisely, application of uniform safety standards for all "trackguided" transport systems caused AGT construction cost to escalate significantly - and also caused the economic viability of planned PRT systems to evaporate.
With reference to statements 1.) and 2.) above, an online search (albeit relatively brief) failed to failed to find confirmation in Japanese, and failed to find the primary source(s) in English. In other words, although I believe that 2.) above has the ring of truth, I have not located a reference that provides explicit confirmation.
The events described above - development of <CVS>, public exhibition, and planning to a point just short of deployment - all took place more than 30 years ago. The absence of commercial PRT systems resulting from the <CVS> program might be explained, largely or wholly, as the result of regulatory issues. However, given the time that has since passed and the PRT research and development that has since been conducted, this explanation - today, at 2010 December - is neither reasonable nor plausible. If one wishes to gain insight about the absence of commercial PRT systems in Japan today, then one must consider economic, financial and passenger traffic factors in addition to design and regulatory issues. Anderson (1996), to give just one example, fails to do this.
It should be noted that Japanese <NTS> practice represents a fusion of 1.) AGT technology licensed from the US, and 2.) PRT research, notably the <CVS> project, conducted in Japan but also based on technology licensed from the US. Although this research and development did not lead to commercial applications, the PRT heritage of Japan's AGT applications is unmistakable.
Where's the PRT? - A footnote
An intramural transport facility north of Tōkyō, described currently - and incorrectly - by the operator as モノレール, "monorail," was described some years ago (mid-1990s) as <PRT>. The line is in fact a 2.0-km <NTS> (AGT) line connecting two golf courses.
The ニュー・セントアンドリュース ゴルフクラブ・ジャパン, known in English as the New St. Andrews Golf Club - Japan, is located in 大田原市 Ōtawara (also spelled Ohtawara) city, 栃木県 Tochigi Prefecture, about 150 km north of central Tōkyō. The AGT line connects the "new" and "old" courses. It has no intermediate stations and no passing lanes, and so is worked by one car at a time.
The route may be viewed on Google Maps, here; scale 30.5 mm = 100 m, approximately 1:3,300.
The official website of the golf club (ニュー・セントアンドリュース ゴルフクラブ・ジャパン(公式サイト) | オリックスゴルフWEB) has a page with a photo of the AGT line (施設案内・特徴 | ニュー・セントアンドリュース ゴルフクラブ・ジャパン(公式サイト) | オリックスゴルフWEB). The initials "OGM" on the front of the car stand for Orix Golf Management Corporation, which operates the courses and associated facilities, including the AGT line.
A "YouTube" video, NSAJモノレール, shows a trip over the line and documents several details, such as the lack of passing lanes, existence of at least two vehicles, and the possible existence of a third vehicle, perhaps "first-generation," under protective cover.
This line is not licensed by MLIT for commercial operation. It has always operated as an "intramural" transport facility and (apparently) is not open to the public. Technical details are scarce, indeed, virtually nonexistent. The term "AGT" might be a misnomer, because videos suggest that the vehicles are driven manually. Japanese bloggers have posed the question of whether the line uses diesel rather than electric traction, and have suggested that the vehicles are rebuilt minibuses.