Underground logistics might sound as science fiction. However, going underground for people transport and to bring hazardous materials and wastes to and from urban areas has been a solution to improve the citizens quality of life since almost two centuries ago.
Delivering effectively and efficiently in congested metropolitan areas is a problem really hard to solve. Besides a number of practices being tested (employing ICT solutions, bonus/malus schemes), also completely out-of-the-box innovative solutions have been proposed, which due to their wide scope, ground breaking view and potential impacts can be considered as innovative business models. This is the case of underground logistics.
Benefits of underground logistics regard both the service providers and the customers. The latter enjoy improved service levels, as underground deliveries in metropolitan areas do not suffer from the congestion problems of road transport, avoiding late deliveries, delivery unpredictability, parking space shortage, etc. Logistics services providers can exploit a more efficient and effective distribution mode for congested areas, permitting unseen and unobtrusive 24h distribution, realising significant cost savings (freed up vehicle/driver time, low maintenance cost). Last but not least, the society as a whole could benefit from reduced emissions and noise in urban areas, and from the overall improvement of the quality of life.
The first (and only, until now) real-life application of underground logistics was the Mail Rail system of London which was in operation from 1928 until 2003. This was a fully automated underground train system connecting nine stations and transporting between 4 and 12 million postal items on a daily basis (equivalent to 80 vans).
Other initiatives such as Metrofreight, Foodtubes, Pipe§net, ULS, and CargoCap, were also initiated with a level of maturity ranging from conceptual design to prototype testing. The last two are probably the most interesting ones: the first as a learning example of a case that was abandoned, and the second as an ongoing endeavour.
ULS was conceived as a solution to the increasing international competition in the flower market and the congestion problems around Schiphol airport and Amsterdam. It was to connect, through a dedicated underground infrastructure and with the use of AGVs (transporting unitised loads), the Aalsmeer flower auction market to the Schiphol airport and the Hoofdorp rail terminal. Realization of the ULS solution had to face a few obstacles, among which (Wiegmans et al, 2010): the high initial cost, the conservative nature of the freight transport sector, the existence of a technological rather than a business focus, and the limited volumes to be handled. An important driver for deployment of that solution came from the perspective of saved costs: provided the infrastructure cost was covered, operational costs were expected to be 25% less than those of the road transport service.
CargoCap on the other hand is an underway project, aiming at economically transporting goods in congested areas by underground transportation pipelines. It consists of fully automated transport vehicles (capsules) travelling in underground pipelines of 2.0 m diameter, loaded with 2 euro-pallets each. The pipelines are to be installed in public streets next to existing supply and disposal lines. The capsules are powered by electric motors and are moving at a constant speed of 36 km/h, considerably faster than a truck driving in a congested urban area. Conventional technologies are used for the automatic loading/unloading at the designated stations. Currently, CargoCap is being tested at a model track at the Ruhr University of Bochum, with the support of organisations such as Deutsche Telekom, EuroPipe, DHL Hochtief, Thyssen Krupp, and many others.
Does all this sound as science fiction?