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  • 04.24.15

No More Trucks: Send Packages Through Underground Tubes Instead

The delivery service is a series of tubes.

Here’s an idea to cut congestion and pollution around major cities: dedicated freight pipelines that flow from out-the-way distribution centers to urban hubs.

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Sounds outlandish? Of course. But the concept is perhaps closer to reality than you might think. A British company has much of the technology in place–it’s built Maglev-type levitation rail prototypes–and it’s got support from the U.K. government. It’s now running a feasibility study in the city of Northampton, in the geographic heart of England.

“We’re establishing the economic viability and social and environmental impacts–for instance, what is the number trucks that can be taken off the road?” says Roger Miles, managing director of Mole Systems, the company behind the idea. “We know it’s much more energy efficient than using a truck and wagon and the operating costs are lower. But, of course, you have to justify the infrastructure, so you need significant volume.”

The tubes are between four and approximately eight feet wide and are designed to carry conventional pallets, which load and offload themselves automatically. Miles says the most likely scenario would be pipelines between freight consolidation centers on the edge of cities and high-demand hubs downtown. That might include shopping malls, hospitals, and universities. So-called “last mile” distribution could then be completed using electric vehicles and bikes to further reduce traffic. The pipelines would probably run alongside (or under) roads and waterways, though remaining above ground would reduce costs.

A previous study looking at the viability of transporting mining aggregates in the U.K. found the tubes could cut operating costs by 27%–though, of course, that doesn’t cover the cost of setting up the pipeline in the first place.

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Though using floating Maglev technology is certainly modern, the idea of freight pipelines itself isn’t new. Chicago, for example, built a whole string of transport tunnels starting in the late-1800s. London used mail delivery tunnels until as recently as 2003.

The costs to build the system are likely to be high, but Miles points to lots of secondary advantages. For example, if you don’t have to worry about congestion or weather, companies could run leaner logistics networks that didn’t store so much inventory. You also wouldn’t need human drivers–who are expensive–or places to park and maneuver trucks.

Mole Systems is working with the DHL logistics company on the project as well as several universities. The Northampton study is due to be completed by the end of the year.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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