A world without trucks: underground urban freight networks

Some Western European countries are getting serious about transporting consumer goods through automated subterranean networks. They are introducing a fifth transport mode next to road, rail, air, and water.

Super fast underground cargo transport is a favorite subject of futurologists. Yet, the key to the feasibility of the proposed systems is their very low but constant speed. This rare combination of low-tech sense and high-tech knowledge could lead to a further economic growth for vital cities. LowTech Magazine reports about it.

Back to the future
Transporting goods through underground pipelines is anything but new. As early as the second half of the 19th century, systems for the transport of mail and small packages became common in many world cities. In these pneumatic post networks, little capsules are propelled by means of air pressure through tubes, reaching a speed of around 35 km per hour. Paris and Berlin had more than 400 kilometers of extensive citywide networks that were in use until the end of the 20th century. In Prague, the pneumatic system was even operating until 2002 when it was damaged by a flood.

German CargoCap project
In Germany, the Ruhr University of Bochum is working on the CargoCap project. The German system is designed for smaller loads makes use of unmanned electric vehicles on rails that travel through pipelines with a diameter of only 1.6 metres. Each vehicle, called a ‘Cap’, is designed for moving two European standard pallets. The German system is designed for use on a regional scale.

After Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk’s announced plans to build subterranean tunnels for freight, the Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com said that it is working on a similar plan for underground urban parcel delivery.

Enormous investment
LowTech Magazine concludes: “Developing a new (inter)national underground transport system, on the other hand, asks an enormous initial investment and the results are only visible after some decennia. It’s long-term thinking versus short-term thinking, and humans (especially politicians) invariably prefer the latter”.

Source: LowTech Magazine

Picture: CargoCap

Comments 1

  • Nice piece! A couple questions: Why are concepts such as the one from Bochum University still using rails? I would think rails are unnecessary with computerized driverless vehicles, especially in the environment of a tunnel where the conditions can be well controlled. In fact, why not use driverless electric vehicles that can also be used above-ground. That would seem most cost-effective. Without a human driver, vehicle clearances in the tunnel could be tight thus allowing the tunnels to be smaller.

    Is there any talk of restarting any of the old systems that have fallen on disuse? Presumably the tunnel systems are still there.

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