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UP-AGT test runs

Happy New Year!

I start the year with a short feature on the Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) prototype at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) campus. The prototype has been featured in a number of articles in quad media in the recent weeks of November and December after its delivery and a few runs along the elevated test track at the campus. A project of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) through its PCIEERD and MIRDC, and in cooperation with UPD, the vehicle has caught the attention of the general public and particularly those who have advocated for better public transport services in Metro Manila and other Philippine cities. Many are excited about the prospects of a “home-grown” system being constructed and operated in Metro Manila, and the buzz about the AGT replacing the IKOT jeepneys of UP Diliman is still very much alive despite clarifications by both the DOST and UP about this being a R&D project as well as questions regarding sustainability and practicality. Following are a few photos of the AGT prototype during one of its demonstration runs last December.

IMG05182-20121213-1036Unfinished platform at the Jacinto Street end of the test track allowing access to the vehicle’s underside and bogey and the loading platform

IMG05185-20121213-1048View of the test track from the platform – note again the absence of rail tracks as the AGT employs rubber tires. Wheels travel along the two concrete guideways shown in the photo. That’s the CHED building along C.P. Garcia Ave. downstream from the position of the AGT

IMG05187-20121213-1107Driver’s perspective of the test track – the vehicle will eventually be driver-less (hence, automated) but for the test runs, there will initially be a driver to make sure the train operates correctly

IMG05195-20121213-1117Connection – the two prototype vehicles are connected by this crude assembly that is definitely one of the things that would need to be reconsidered in subsequent vehicles. Perhaps an automatic coupler should be installed in the future?

IMG05213-20121213-1148Dr. Ric Sigua of the Institute of Civil Engineering inspecting the pick-up system for the AGT prototype with DOST project staff.

IMG05242-20121220-0947DOST-PCIEERD and UP Diliman faculty (from the Institute of Civil Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute and School of Urban and Regional Planning) exchange ideas on the prototype.

IMG05190-20121213-1110View of the end of the test track showing the two guideways employed by the vehicle and traffic along the University Avenue

The initial runs of the AGT have been exclusive demonstrations to government officials including those in national agencies, guests from the private sector, and partners with UP Diliman. The formal test runs will start in January 2013 but there are still no details on how these will be carried out in order to determine the functionality and safety of the prototype. Already, there are informal discussions on what needs to be improved in the prototype based on the initial observations and inspections conducted by faculty members from UP Diliman’s College of Engineering who will be involved in the technical evaluation of the prototype. Hopefully, such evaluations can be completed at the soonest and improvements are considered prior to a full system eventually being constructed and made available for public use. Where that system can be constructed and operated is still up in the air but should definitely be somewhere where the system is needed and where it can be a showcase for localized technology.

Updates on the UP AGT

The prototype vehicles for the Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) project of the DOST through its PCIEERD and MIRDC were delivered last Sunday, November 25, at the test track site in UP Diliman. The two vehicles will form the train that will be mounted on the test tracks and subject to experiments to test the performance and functionality. Researchers from UP Diliman, including faculty members from its College of Engineering and College of Science, will be cooperating with the DOST to provide advise on issues that are certain to crop up once the tests are underway.

Contrary to many reports coming out that it will be an “upgrade” or “replacement” for the Ikot and Toki jeepneys currently operating inside the campus, the truth is that a Phase 2 creating a loop around the campus is not viable for the foreseeable future. For one, the system will be too expensive to build, operate and maintain for a very limited ridership that is attributed to UP Diliman, even with the increasing numbers of through trips using UP public transportation. Of course, it would be nice to have a system like this in campus but the costs cannot be covered by revenues from fares. Funds for construction (investment costs), seen from one perspective, may be of better use elsewhere where resources are in dire need to support other very important endeavors. A full system would be appropriate elsewhere and with funding coming not from the DOST or UP budgets but from airports, developers, local governments and others who can be the proponents for such systems.

AGT vehicle delivered at the test site in UP Diliman – the streamlined body was designed by DOST project staff. The skirt helps to hide the bogey, which includes the mechanism for the vehicle to pick up power from rails embedded along the guideway.

Inside the vehicle – there are few seats behind the driver’s cab to maximize space for (standing) passengers. This layout is very much similar to other AGTs and monorails including those serving airports where users would also have luggage with them.

Driver’s cab – although the intention is for the vehicle to be ultimately driverless, tests will initially be conducted with a driver.

Back seats – there are a few more seats at the back but the layout maximizes the number of standing passengers.

Another look at the AGT vehicle – the DOST logo is prominent in the front and one side of the vehicle. The UP logo is on the other side of the vehicle.

Test tracks – the AGT guideway is elevated and stretches to almost 500 meters. For reference, the photo was taken from near the project office/power house with the CHED building along C.P. Garcia Ave visible downstream of the elevated guideway. The line of trees on the right is along the University Avenue.

While it is understandable that certain rail aficionados have become excited about the prospects of having an operational, functional AGT or monorail, the UP-AGT is really an experimental system. It is best considered as a “proof of concept” project that will hopefully encourage the development and promotion of public transport in many of our cities that seem to be mired in having unsustainable transport modes. But of course, any transit system such as this will not survive if no rationalization in transport services are implemented and this is particularly true if an AGT or monorail would have to compete directly with buses, jeepneys or tricycles.

Update on the UP AGT Test Track construction

Visiting the site at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) where a test track for the Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) is currently being constructed, one wonders if this is a precursor of a transit system that might eventually replace the ubiquitous jeepneys plying several routes within the campus. There have been misleading stories about this “replacement” going around the internet and being passed on from one person to another. I am aware of both as I regularly see posts in some online discussion threads that make it appear as if the UP administration and DOST are in discussion for a mass transit system to replace the IKOT jeepneys. They are not in any such discussions that I am aware of considering I am a member of the UP Diliman Transportation Committee. Perhaps people are inspired by an existing system in Germany at the University of Dortmund. I caution the reader against making any sweeping conclusions as UP Diliman’s travel demand characteristics are quite different from that of the University of Dortmund’s.

I also get asked a lot about what will happen to the jeepneys once the “monorail” is operational. My response is always that nothing will happen to them because there simply won’t be a monorail. What is being constructed is the superstructure for the test track of an Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) prototype. Being a test track, its being operational means it can be used for research & development (R&D) for future systems (hopefully, homegrown) that can be constructed where they are needed and appropriate.

The site has been fenced off to minimize the appearance on-site of curious people (usiseros?). One such person even climbed a column to take photos of the construction work and posted these in the internet. As this is a construction site, such incidents are not supposed to happen mainly due to safety concerns.

Construction work continues despite the wet weather. The week-long monsoon rains have rendered the ground muddy or mushy but workers are busy as if it were summer.

The columns for the elevated structure are all in place but in various stages of completion. Those along C.P. Garcia until the intersection with the University Avenue only have the reinforcing steel bars in place and awaiting the pouring of concrete.

Construction materials are piled up on top of tarp-covered ground as workers take some time-out from their work.

The test track  is supposed to be completed by October including the installation of power lines and a power station for the electric-powered vehicle. The DOST has also bidded out the assembly of the vehicle that will be used for the experiments. Hopefully, the vehicle will be ready by the time the test track is completed. It is expected that the AGT would have manned tests by late November or early December, in time for a demonstration before or on the day of UP Diliman’s Lantern Parade.

Ongoing construction of the AGT at UP Diliman

People have been asking me if what was being constructed at the vacant lot near the College of Fine Arts and visible from the University Avenue and C.P. Garcia Avenue is the test track for the Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) project of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). I always replied in the affirmative even though I haven’t seen the construction site myself. I finally had an opportunity to visit the site though I could not go directly where people were working due to the ground conditions (it has been raining heavily in Metro Manila the past few days) and the fact that it was an impromptu visit.

The following photos confirm the ongoing construction in the area where steel bars for the columns of the elevated test track are already jutting out of the ground from the foundations. The contractor is MIESCOR, a sister firm of electric utility giant Meralco. The latter, of course, has a history with public rail transport as it operated the electric tranvias in old Manila. Meralco actually stands for Manila Electric Rail and Light Company and so it seems quite fitting rather than just coincidence that it is involved, through MIESCOR, in this project.

Project site as seen from Jacinto Street

Project site as seen from the corner of Jacinto Street and the access road to the UP Veterinary Hospital and the Campus Maintenance Office (CMO).

Columns rising – steel bars forming the reinforcement for the concrete columns of the elevated test track

Construction materials piled up at the site – the expanse of the area where the test track is being built can be appreciated in the photo. That’s the rooftop of the CHED building in the background in the upper left side of the photo.

I tried to get a photo where the other columns are visible

A view of the excavations and the line of columns leading to the track end near Jacinto Street

The closest shot I could get of a column under construction

The structure should gain form in the next few weeks when work on the columns are completed and the girders forming the tracks are laid out. Perhaps the power room for the test track will also be constructed in preparation for the power system installation along the track.

AGT at UP Diliman: some clarifications

There have been too many articles hyping a proposed transport system at UP Diliman. What seems like a DOST media blitz started with an article posted by Malaya Business Insight online that announced a project developing what was allegedly a train that’s the first of its kind in the world:

The article was inaccurate in many ways including the fact that there are already many such vehicles operating in public transport systems around the world including our ASEAN neighbors. Articulated buses can be seen regularly along the streets of Singapore and there are Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines in Jakarta and Bangkok. There are others in South America, most notably in Curitiba and Bogota. In fact, Cebu City is on the way to realizing the first BRT system in the Philippines with an FS already underway (Note: one can search the internet on articles and official statements on this project). Rubber-tired trains are not new, there are even automated or driver-less systems that have been operating in Japan, Europe and North America for quite some time now. Those who have been to Tokyo probably have ridden the Yurikamome. Among these are the following:

First things first. The prototype vehicle to be developed and tested will be an AGT and NOT a monorail. These two were proposed and discussions among DOST and UPD led to the decision to develop an AGT rather than a monorail. To support the project, a test track had initially been built on the DOST grounds as a “proof of concept” exercise. The “success” of the exercise apparently led to the decision to move forward and pursue full scale development and testing of a system. Thus, after several discussions with the UP System and UP Diliman a test track will be constructed in UP Diliman.

The test track will not be a fully functional system for commuting although the location will be conspicuous enough for those interested in the project. The alignment was also decided based on the potential for a full system to be built should it be found to be feasible. By feasibility, this meant that the environmental and financial impacts of such a system for the campus will have to be evaluated. In fact, one of the biggest questions that has still to be answered is who will pay for such a full system and whether it can sustain itself given the limited ridership in the area coupled with the limited supply the system can provide.

The test track will be constructed at the lot bounded by the University Ave in the north, C.P. Garcia Ave. in the west, Jacinto St. in the east, and the UP College of Fine Arts (CFA) and Campus Maintenance Office (CMO) in the south. This location is shown below:

Map showing test track location and layout.

One idea already put forward before was the possibility of a full system being constructed along C.P. Garcia Ave., effectively connecting Commonwealth Ave. (at Philcoa) and Katipunan Ave. (near the National Institute of Physics). Such a system might be viable but it has to be two-way and with a fleet of vehicles to support the demand along the corridor. Perhaps stations along this line may be located at Philcoa, National Computer Center (between CHED and Phivolcs), the old Stud Farm, College of Engineering Complex (near the junction to the Hardin ng Rosas residential areas), and NIP (perhaps across it at the lot near the technology incubator?).

UP’s official pronouncement on the proposed AGT

I wrote about the proposal for a transit system at UP Diliman in a couple of posts where in one I included a figure of what was being put forward as a possible route for a loop at the Diliman campus. In another post, I included photos of the test track that was constructed at the DOST compound in Bicutan and featured a prototype vehicle that was more of a “confidence builder” than a viable transit vehicle. In the posts, I already articulated that a transit system such as an AGT or a monorail would most likely be not viable for an area like UP Diliman considering the limited demand and the prospect of having high maintenance costs. These are aside from the issues pertaining to social acceptability and other impacts of such a system on the campus. Perhaps an AGT or a monorail would be feasible elsewhere like how they are currently being used in CBDs or airports, where the demand would be enough to at least allow for decent revenues.

I’ve read a few articles including one that appeared a few days ago where it seemed to me that the writers were not really knowledgeable of what was going to be the collaboration between UP and DOST in as far as the transit prototype was concerned. Articles have even gone to the extent of saying farewell to the Ikot jeepneys as the primary mode of public transport when going around the campus. All these are mostly theoretical at best considering that perhaps road-based transport is still the best option for UP Diliman. We only need to ensure that such transport will be of the environmentally sustainable kind.

Meanwhile, UP’s official statement regarding what will really be constructed at the Diliman campus may be found at the university’s website. It is clear from the statement that a test track will be built and that a prototype will be tested to determine whether local designs actually work. This perhaps will be the basis for determining whether the system can be replicated elsewhere, even considering the prospects of scaling up where such transit may be applicable. Studies will also be able to validate the costs of a system since it is being touted as something that should be less costly than other systems that are already in operation elsewhere (i.e., other countries). For what its worth, a locally developed, cost-effective system will be a welcome option for many Philippine cities that badly need a modern public transport system.

Yurikamome – AGT in Tokyo

I lost a lot of photos and negatives to Ketsana. These included many about transportation systems in Japan during my 3 years while taking my doctorate. We loved to take pictures at railway platforms and I had a collection of photos of various trains approaching the platform including those taken by friends where I was in the picture as the train was approaching in the background. Fortunately, I have photos taken from more recent trips to Japan when I already had the benefit of having a digital camera for my shots. As I was browsing old photos, I came upon a set taken from a trip to Tokyo back in 2005. Following are a few photos I took when we went around the Odaiba district and used its popular Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) system called the Yurikamome or Seagull.

Station platform – notice the doors that automatically open and close along with the AGT doors

Another view of the station platform – notice the markings on the floor to designate queuing areas as well as standard  guides for blind commuters (these are the yellow, dimpled tiles)

Passengers’ waiting area with simple benches. The information boards for train arrivals are visible from this photo.

Entrance and exit to the station platform – both stairs and escalators are available to passengers.

The Yurikamome’s guideway, which looks like a road. The AGT uses rubber tires much like road vehicles and employs a suspension system that ensures a smooth, comfortable ride.

The Yurikamome is driverless (thus, automated). This is the view from the most coveted seats on the transit as the AGT approaches a station.


Locally made AGT

I got my first look at the vehicle currently being developed by the DOST-MIRDC at the DOST complex in Bicutan. This was the same vehicle that was shown on some news programs a couple of days ago when there was some buzz about a MOA being signed between UP and DOST for the development of an automated guideway transit (AGT) prototype and test track at UP Diliman. The DOST Secretary was supposed to have said that it would cost somewhere between a fourth or a fifth of those developed elsewhere (read: other cities abroad) and that it would have a capacity of 60 passengers. The Secretary also was reported to have said that the AGT would eventually be travelling at 100  – 120 kilometers per hour! That’s quite fast for something that’s being packaged as an urban mass transit system.

Together with the reports, both on TV and print (I haven’t heard anything from radio.), were images of a transit vehicle used by DOST in publicizing the project. What appeared was an artist’s impression (or so it seems) of what looked more like a monorail than an AGT. But coming to Taguig for a meeting, I made it a point to ask our friends at DOST to give us a brief tour of the test track they constructed at the complex where the MIRDC with a little help from another agency involved in rail transit was testing a prototype vehicle that was shown on TV. I wasn’t able to catch those news reports so I was a little excited to see the vehicle being developed and by local engineers and scientists. Below are a few of photos of the vehicle together with the test track.

I’m sure a lot of pundits out there were disappointed with what they saw after getting all the hype about the UP AGT. However, it turns out that this won’t even be what will run along the test track to be constructed at UP Diliman. Our friends at the DOST say that this was just a practice vehicle of sorts that DOST staff experimented on just to prove that we (Filipinos) are capable of  developing a transit vehicle and the track that will carry it. Of course, the future track and the proposed loop in UP Diliman will be overhead. Also, there will be other challenges pertaining to the superstructure (foundations, columns, girders, stations, etc.). Then there is the vehicle itself that should be safe and comfortable with designs adhering to ergonomic standards, an efficient motor and controller (it will be electric), and a suspension system that should give a smooth ride. Needless to say, the vehicle should also look good to be able to attract people and for it to be marketable. These are tremendous expectations indeed and it could really use all-out support from the government and maybe the private sector. I would not be talking about the funds and other resources required for this undertaking. Info on these are already available from the DOST and UP, and there are already initiatives to attract the private sector into having a look at the project and perhaps provide support in whatever way they can.

I can’t help but be proud of what has been accomplished and what is still to come in as far as the project is concerned. I believe we should be eager to pitch in what we can in order to ensure the success of this collaboration between UP and DOST. Who would not want to be involved in a project where Filipino engineers and scientists will come together to come up with a product we can not only showcase as home-grown but something that would have a significant impact on public transportation in this country.

Meanwhile, it would be better for DOST and UP to temper expectations so as not to put undue pressure on those who will be involved in the project. Pronouncements claiming that the system will replace the IKOT jeepneys are at this stage premature and only raises flags that would not be in the interest of the project. Claims, too, that the vehicle will run at 100 kph is unfounded and unnecessary considering, for one, that the average running speeds of such systems would be between 30 and 40 kph and probably top at 60 kph if there were sufficient distance between stations. I understand that the statements made were probably words of encouragement but I guess we have our work cut out before us and the challenges have been revealed on the way to the development of a home-grown AGT.

Technology-driven transit system development

The proposed UP transit system, whether it will be an AGT or a monorail, is a technology-driven project. As such, it can be argued that it does not need hard studies to establish the need for the system. Indeed, it is packaged as a prototype and one which, if implemented properly, will hopefully be a good example that can be deployed elsewhere where such a system is necessary. Such places may include CBDs like the rapidly emerging one in Bonifacio Global City or in small cities where there is a need for a more efficient form of mass transportation but could not afford the conventional MRTs or LRTs that have been constructed in Metro Manila. Also, a significant part of the initiative is the development of the vehicle, which is being undertaken by the DOST’s MIRDC. Their design and their production process should be replicable and they should have been able to bring down the costs according to the marching orders of their Secretary. After all, this system is being touted as something that would cost a fifth of a conventional system.

The conventional way of planning, designing and building transit systems require a lot of studies including the so-called ridership studies that would establish the demand for the system. Of course, there are also considerations pertaining to the stations and analysis of the superstructure that will also cost something. It is no joke that the best examples of AGTs or monorails in other countries are priced so because of all the effort and expertise that went into their developments. We should not kid ourselves by claiming this will cost much less because we did not take into consideration just compensation to people who will be devoting their time and expertise to develop a “home-grown” version of what has been built in other cities. We shouldn’t also sacrifice the quality of the superstructure that includes the stations just because we want to reduce costs. We have to keep in mind that the infrastructure should be able to resist typhoons and the possibility of earthquakes. The foundations for the columns, in fact, should be designed well considering UP’s soil characteristics.

On Wednesday I might just get my first look at the prototype vehicle when I visit the DOST for a meeting not quite related to the proposed transit system although it would be about customized vehicles. The vehicle that is the rolling stock for the proposed system is supposed to have already been built and being tested on a very limited basis at the DOST compound. Perhaps I can see for myself if it is something that will eventually be an impressive piece or something that will need much work once it is brought to UP.

An AGT at UP

The signing of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and groundbreaking for a proposed prototype transit system at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus is scheduled for the morning of July 18, 2011, Monday. The site will be at the open lot near the corner of Lakandula and Jacinto Streets just across from the College of Fine Arts and near UP Diliman’s Campus Maintenance Office (CMO). The prototype system is a pet project of the DOST Secretary and was originally billed as the system to replace the IKOT jeepneys of UP Diliman. It will be a major undertaking for the university considering that its expertise (i.e., faculty, staff and students) will be tapped to undertake the studies and designs for the system. It will be a multi-disciplinary project that would involve architects, engineers and planners as well as social scientists who will be assigned with the unenviable task of securing social acceptability of the project.

The prototype system will have several phases in order to complete a loop. It is to be designed as a one-track, and therefore likely a one-way system. The “rolling stock” of modified buses each with a capacity of 60 passengers are supposed to have already been finished and are being tested at the DOST compound in Bicutan. It is still not known what the capacity of the system will be since there have been no studies to support demand (i.e., ridership), which will be affected by factors such as the route, direction and headways. among others. The project is one that is technology-driven rather than demand-driven. It is going to be an experimental system and one that will probably have to be tweaked from time to time given that it will be “home-grown” and attempting to reduce costs commonly associated with existing systems in other countries. Below is one of the proposed alignments for the system showing the initial phase from Philcoa (in yellow). The circles indicate the 2-minute walking distance radius although this is a crude concept considering people will be walking along the roads or sidewalks and not necessarily along a straight line leading to the proposed stations.

Whether it will eventually replace the jeepneys is still up in the air but the stakes are high considering that a locally made AGT may be transferable or feasible in other settings. Perhaps areas such as Bonifacio Global City, the reclamation areas along Macapagal Boulevard and even the Batasan can have their own AGTs in the future. My only hesitation for the prototype at UP Diliman is that it is still unclear who will be shouldering the operations and maintenance costs of a system that is sure to have revenues that won’t be able to cover such. Then there is the issue of aesthetics that cannot really be addressed now considering most plans are still in the minds of the proponents and have not been transferred unto the drawing boards or computers. We hope to be able to answer these questions and answer them correctly and appropriately. Otherwise, our legacy for the campus would be a white elephant that nobody would have wanted in the first place.