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Volume 24, Number 2March/April 1973

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Dr. Elias and the Morgantown El

Written by John Luter
Illustrated by Ed Davis

Thanks to the vision and perseverance of an Egyptian-born industrial engineer, Morgantown, West Virginia, a small college town in the Appalachian foothills, will soon have a mass-transportation system unlike any other in the world. Known as the PRT—for Personal Rapid Transit—the system will transport local residents over 2.2 miles of double-lane, elevated track in small, electrically-operated, fully automated cars at speeds up to 30 miles an hour. Although construction is not yet complete, the first in a year-long series of exacting operational tests began last October, and by December 1973, PRT will be ready to carry passengers on a regular basis—by which time the United States Government will have invested an estimated $52 million in the project, in the belief the Morgantown experiment may help other small and middle-sized communities solve the increasingly difficult problems of moving people around.

The man responsible for this pioneering project is Dr. Samy S. G. Elias, chairman of the Department of Industrial Engineering at the Morgantown-based University of West Virginia and special assistant to the president of the university for all matters concerning the PRT. It was Dr. Elias who first recognized that Morgantown needed a rapid transit system to shuttle students between the university's three separate campuses and eliminate the traffic jams that were clogging the two roads through the town. It was Dr. Elias, also, who convinced university officials of the need, led in drawing up plans for the project, and became the prime mover in enlisting the support of local government and civic groups. And, after two years of inaction by Federal authorities on a request for government financing, it was the Cairo-born professor again who persuaded the new president of the university to make a new appeal, which resulted in Federal grants for a feasibility study and later for construction of the first three PRT stations, 2.2 miles of elevated track, a control system and some 70 to 90 of the system's specially-designed 15-passenger cars. If the project appears successful in its early stages—and results of the tests so far have been encouraging—it is believed that the U.S. Government will provide most of the money necessary to build another 1.4 miles of track, three more passenger stations and as many additional cars as the traffic requires.

A scholarly, soft-spoken 42-year-old specialist in mass-transportation problems, Dr. Elias owes his interest in engineering to his father, Elias G. Elias, an Egyptian professor who taught mechanical engineering at the University of Cairo and later became general manager of the water works in Asyut, Egypt's third largest city. Young Samy, the eldest of five children, found his father's work exciting and, after attending the English Mission College in Cairo and then the public schools in Asyut, he enrolled in the University of Cairo, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Encouraged by his father to undertake advanced studies abroad, the new graduate wrote to universities in the United States and England and left home at the age of 25 to accept a full scholarship at Louisiana State University. On arriving at Louisiana State, however, he found that it had too few graduate students in his specialty to offer the courses he wanted. He switched to Texas A. & M., and after completing work for his master's degree in aeronautical engineering, went to Oklahoma State University for a doctorate in industrial engineering, a relatively new and growing field in which he had taken his first course at the University of Cairo. While at O.S.U., he married an Oklahoma girl and wrote a doctoral thesis on the use of computers in the management of mass transportation.

The young engineer's concern with mass transportation might have stopped there but for an unusual twist of fate. He became an assistant professor at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, and for more than two years gave no thought to the topic of his doctoral research. True to the traditions of the Arab world, however, Dr. Elias is karim—a hospitable person. In 1961, with his American wife Janice, he returned for a year to Cairo and while teaching in a management institute there, received a letter from Kansas State asking him if he would mind showing Cairo to a young lady going to Egypt.

Dr. Elias and his wife responded graciously. They invited the teen-age tourist to stay in their home and entertained her for two weeks. In return the girl's parents invited the Eliases to visit them if they ever came to Kansas City. Six months later, Dr. Elias, by then an associate professor, did, and over dinner a lasting friendship developed.

The girl's father, it turned out, was general manager of the Kansas City transit system, and when he discovered on a social evening several months later that Dr. Elias had done research on the use of computers in transit management, he appointed himself as the young professor's sponsor. As Dr. Elias puts it: "He almost took me by the hand and introduced me to transit managers in other parts of the country as a specialist who might help solve their problems."

Dr. Elias has since served as a consultant to the transit systems of a half dozen major American cities. For St. Louis, he applied computer science to the scheduling of buses and drivers. And for New York City, he made a computerized study of subway crimes, as a guide to the scheduling and placement of transit police.

No transit problem has proved more challenging to Dr. Elias, however, than the one he encountered when he moved to Morgantown in 1965 as an associate professor of industrial engineering at the University of West Virginia. Morgantown is small as American cities go. A glass-making and coal-mining center in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it counts 29,000 year-round residents, and during the September to June academic year adds some 16,700 university students. The population of the immediate area has been estimated at 50,000. To many cities of this size, building rapid-transit systems would border on the irrational, but Morgantown's problems were unusual, if not unique. Built largely on steep inclines, the town lies wedged between the Appalachian foothills on one side and the Monongahela River on the other. Two modest roads run through the valley, but many of the town's narrow cross streets have grades of 12 percent or more—much more suitable for mountain goats than for motorists. Complicating the traffic problem are the students. Since the University of West Virginia was located on a downtown campus in 1867, expansion has forced the building of two additional campuses, which for lack of room downtown have been located on suburban hilltops. To move students and faculty between the campuses, each about a mile and a half from the other, the university has operated a fleet of 17 buses. But the buses contribute to traffic congestion and move so slowly that the university must forbid students to schedule successive classes on different campuses.

"The terrain is too rugged for bicycles," Dr. Elias observes. "And when you come to Morgantown it doesn't take you long to realize that adding more cars and buses wouldn't solve the problem."

By the time Dr. Elias came to Morgantown, the growing traffic congestion in U.S. urban centers had already become a matter of national concern. The Federal Government in 1966 appropriated money for a series of seminars for top management officials of rail and bus systems, and two such meetings were held at West Virginia University in the summer of 1967. But, Dr. Elias recalls: "The most important thing we did was talk. It soon became clear that most of those present were interested in transit systems for large metropolitan areas or even on a national scale. The idea of a rapid-transit system for small cities was discussed but there wasn't much enthusiasm."

The seminars, however, prompted Dr. Elias to talk with his faculty colleagues about a mass-transit system for Morgantown. As he tells the story: "Some of us at the College of Engineering decided that a rapid-transit system was going to be built in some small city sometime in the future—and that it might as well be in Morgantown and it might as well be now. So we drafted a proposal."

For almost two years, the request for Federal financing went unanswered. But Dr. Elias refused to be discouraged. He worked patiently to line up support in the community, and in 1969 he wrote to the university's new president, Dr. James G. Harlow, urging that the appeal be renewed. President Harlow, after talking with Dr. Elias, gave the project enthusiastic support, and, with the help of a West Virginia congressman, arranged for a Morgantown delegation to meet with John A. Volpe, the Secretary for Transportation in President Nixon's cabinet. The timing was ideal, as Secretary Volpe had been saying in speeches that more attention should be given to the problems of small communities. An immediate review of the Morgantown proposal was ordered, and two months later the Department of Transportation granted the university an initial $100,000 for a feasibility study. Dr. Elias's dream was on its way to becoming a reality.

From then on, events moved rapidly. An evaluation team headed by Dr. Elias considered some 200 proposals for transit systems, many of which existed only in the imaginations of the proponents. Morgantown's rugged terrain ruled out any thought of a subway, but three widely differing elevated systems were selected for detailed study.

Meanwhile, Dr. Elias and his colleagues planned routes, made soil tests as a guide to placement and construction of the massive support pillars, and arranged for rights-of-way. The route has been laid out carefully, to avoid ecological damage and eliminate the need for any major relocation of homes or businesses. The university, local school board, city, county, and state all cooperated in making land available, with the result that only two properties—one home and a junkyard—had to be purchased to clear a path for the PRT.

The system finally chosen, although it bears some resemblance to a monorail, differs in one important respect: the low-slung cars, weighing 12,000 pounds and built to carry eight seated passengers plus seven standees, do not run on a rail. They travel instead on four rubber tires on narrow flat-bed guideways, flanked by side walls two feet or more in height. The side walls and the low placement of weight keep the cars securely on their path.

Controlled entirely by computers, the driverless cars will travel at an average speed of 20 miles an hour and can reach 30. When the PRT is in full operation, plans call for computers to move the cars at 15-second intervals in peak traffic periods, giving the system a top capacity of approximately 1,200 passengers every 20 minutes. During off hours, when no regular schedule is maintained, travelers will be able to summon a car by pressing a button, much as they would call an elevator. By pressing other buttons, they will select their destination. To further reduce the need for manpower and keep operating costs low, collection of fares will be automated through the use of tokens and coded passes.

Morgantown is viewed as an ideal place in which to test the system. The movement of students between the university's campuses will provide five peak demands for transportation daily, and it has been said that if the PRT works well over Morgantown's rugged terrain—in a sharply varying climate that includes ample quantities of ice, snow, rain, fog and sunshine—it can work in almost any city.

Although testing got underway last Oct. 24—with President Nixon's Tricia on hand as an observer—trial runs are expected to continue through next September so that all possible problems can be eliminated before regular operations begin. It will take even longer for the PRT to prove itself economically. But Transportation Secretary Volpe has already hailed the Morgantown experiment as "the beginning of a great breakthrough in transportation... a project that will, in the years ahead, certainly have a profound effect on the lives of every man, woman and child living in the great congested urban areas of this nation."

To turn Dr. Elias' concept and plans into a working system, the Department of Transportation has drawn on the resources of major U. S. firms. The Boeing Company of Seattle, known around the world for its aircraft, is in overall charge of design and construction, including development of the PRT's novel vehicles; the Bendix Corporation has developed the control and communication equipment, and other contractors are handling other phases of the work. But Dr. Elias remains deeply involved. As assistant to the university president on PRT matters, he is engaged in keeping a watchful eye on construction and testing, and in drawing up plans for extension of the system, which, if all goes well, will include a total of six stations and 3.6 miles of track by January 1975. He also is busy talking with other transportation specialists, who are streaming to Morgantown to learn more about its imaginative people-moving experiment. The visitors, he hopes, will soon include his father, now retired and living in Cairo, with whom he has corresponded regularly about the project.

A modest man, Dr. Elias says that his ideas for a mass-transit system would never have become a reality without the support he received from his university colleagues, and especially from the university president, Dr. Harlow. But by the people of Morgantown—whose Junior Chamber of Commerce selected him as the town's 1972 "Boss of the Year"—and by officials of the Department of Transportation, the Egyptian-born professor is recognized as the man responsible for PRT. When Secretary Volpe came to Morgantown this October for ceremonies officially dedicating PRT, which he described as "a revolutionary new concept in urban transportation," he singled out Dr. Elias as the person who "first saw the potential for testing such a system in Morgantown." The tribute echoed sentiments expressed at the ground-breaking ceremonies a little over a year ago by President Harlow, who described Dr. Elias as the "one man above all others who has devoted his life to this project." The university president then went on to say: "His patience, persistence, insight, and courage made all this possible. He has been a worker of miracles."

John Luter, director of the Cabot Prize Program in Inter-American Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, is a former foreign correspondent for Time and the now-defunct Life, and was twice president of the Overseas Press Club.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the March/April 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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