What seemed like a normal PRT shutdown at West Virginia University had some students worried after a video showing one of the cars smoking circulated online last week.
“We just saw a bunch of sparks, and it just kind of stopped. The PRT guy just kind of told us to wait it out,” said freshman Ian Hank, who was on the PRT at the time. “Then, it started happening again, and it got a lot worse to the point where smoke was just kinda filling up the entire cabin.”
WVU said the incident these students witnessed near the downtown station is very rare and that riders were never in any danger. According to a statement the University released last week, the smoke was caused by something similar to a short circuit, which can blow a fuse in a home, for example. A part of the PRT system called a "collector arm" slipped and connected with a power rail, which resulted in an electrical arc and smoke.
“There’s three prongs that reach out and actually engage the power rail,” said Senior Associate Vice President of Facilities and Services Randy Hudak. “In this instance, something either hit something, or it just broke on it’s own, and a piece fell and crossed two phases of the power.”
Power was immediately and automatically shut off to the car, and staff made contact with the students, asking them to stay in the car for their safety.
“If they would open up the door, which sometimes they do, or kick out the back window, then it shuts the entire system down,” Hudak explained. “We have to go recover the car, and it could be a 30-minute outage versus two minutes.”
After power was shut off, the students were helped from the car, which was then removed from the rail. No injuries were reported, and repairs were quickly made to the rail, officials said.
“That kind of stuff doesn’t really scare me,” Hank said. “I know that the PRT breaks down. The guy who was with me said it’s never been that bad, but it is what it is. I still have to get to my classes some way or another.”
Upgrades to the PRT to prevent issues like this from occurring again are already underway, Hudak said. The past two summers, the University has been working on the first two phases of the upgrades, including the train control system, which is like the brain of the PRT.
“It’s all the electronics, the software, things within the cars, communications on the track, things like that,” explained Hudak.
Eventually, the PRT will have new cars and an improved track.
“Phase three’s going to be the cars themselves,” Hudak said. “Some of them have 600,000 miles on them. They’re due for replacements. The guys do an amazing job on them."
One of the final phases will include work at the stations, which will mostly be aesthetics, Hudak said.
WVU estimates the entire upgrade could take several more years. In the meantime, they’ll continue with routine daily maintenance.
“Right now, in a given year, we do about 2.2 million trips, so that's a lot of ridership,” Hudak said. “(There are) very few instances (of incidents like last week's occurring). The PRT is extremely safe to ride.”
Last week's incident remains under review.