When freight travels underground

In Switzerland, future freight transportation will be shifted from road and rail traffic into underground tunnels. An interview with Gabriele Guidicelli, the technical director of the Cargo Sous Terrain project.

Mr. Guidicelli, Switzerland has an extremely sophisticated road and rail infrastructure. Why are you now adding a third option underground?

Projections made by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office have shown that freight traffic will increase by more than 35 percent by 2040. This increase is expected to mainly take place in Switzerland’s urban areas. We regard Cargo Sous Terrain not as an additional infrastructure but rather as a chance to find a solution for the current situation in the Swiss economic region, which is nearing collapse. And from our perspective, this solution consists of taking the freight that is now being transported on roads in urban areas and moving it underground, thus creating more free space on roads and railways. In our concept, freight is delivered to logistics centers, then transported through our tunnel system to other centers, and finally distributed to end customers from there. As part of our vision, the distribution to the customers will also be handled by electrically driven autonomous transportation systems.

When did people start working on this concept?

It all started with a support association. A feasibility study was launched in 2014, and after that the idea gradually became more concrete. A revision of the study in 2016 showed that the concept is economical and can be financed. As a result, the support association was then converted into a stock company. This company is now engaged in making its plans a reality.

All the vehicles, including those that will cover the last mile in urban logistics, will be electrically powered and will drive autonomously.
Gabriele Guidicelli, Project Manager Technology at Cargo Sous Terrain

What are the plans for the network? Will it extend throughout the entire country or only connect the urban areas? And when will the network be completed?

At the moment, Cargo Sous Terrain is being planned for the economic region in the Swiss Central Plateau, from St. Gallen to Geneva and from Basel to Lucerne, with a branch going from Bern to Thun. In the first phase, the section between Härkingen/Niederbipp and Zurich will be completed by 2030. When the network and all of its branches are completely finished, its total length will be approximately 500 kilometers. Three lanes are planned for the tunnel, with the middle lane used for overtaking or for combining transportation units. The tunnel tubes will be about six meters in diameter. The plans also call for an additional electric monorail conveyor for package deliveries to be built above the three traffic lanes. All the vehicles, including those that will cover the last mile in urban logistics, will be electrically powered and will drive autonomously. The tunnel vehicles are designed to accommodate two Europallets, so that we can deliver cargo flexibly. The energy for these transporters will come exclusively from renewable sources.

Are we talking about a two-part network that will be extended north and south of the Alps?

Our network is planned for the Swiss Central Plateau. The Alps stand in the way of a southward expansion, and the construction of a separate tunnel through the Alps simply cannot be financed. Consequently, the southern connection will be secured through the newly constructed Gotthard Base Tunnel, together with our partner SBB Cargo. We still need to study the possible construction of a separate freight network in the South. In any case, our system will relieve the pressure on the people living along the heavily used road sections by reducing the aboveground freight traffic.

Our system will relieve the pressure on the people living along the heavily used road sections by reducing the aboveground freight traffic.

Will the trains be autonomously? And will the delivery vehicles also be electrically powered and autonomously?

We’re not using the term “train” in its conventional sense, because it automatically suggests railroad tracks. Our vehicles are designed as self-driving vehicles. They don’t run on rails. They have wheels, and they can autonomously connect themselves into a convoy and also detach themselves from one another. This is only one of the many digitally controlled functions that characterize this logistics system. The tunnel vehicles’ maximum permissible speed is 30 km/h for freight vehicles in the driving lanes and 60 km/h for the monorail conveyor. The vehicles can be charged en route, but we still haven’t decided on the final technology. Our first section will only go into operation in 2030, so we still have time to think about the final technical system.

Have conventional logistics companies already expressed their interest in cooperating with you?

In our consortium we have a variety of logistics companies that are involved in the project and will also be future users of the system. We consider our system a supplement that will relieve the pressure on the existing transportation routes. We are planning railroad connections for our freight centers so that the freight will not have to be transported by road vehicles at all.

How much will the system cost?

The total construction costs will amount to 33 billion Swiss francs. The first section, from Niederbipp-Härkingen to Zurich, will cost three billion Swiss francs. The amount of 100 million Swiss francs that was announced in January is needed for the construction permit and planning phase alone.

We will conduct the first operational underground transports starting in 2030.

And how much time will be required for this construction?

We will conduct the first operational underground transports starting in 2030. By that time, the network from Gäu to Zurich will be completed. After the first section has gone into operation, we will continue with the construction of the next segments. We will have completed and commissioned the entire network by 2045.

In California and now also in India, people are planning a kind of underground pneumatic tube system for transporting passengers. Will this also be possible for Cargo Sous Terrain?

Our system has been designed exclusively for freight transportation. After all, the SBB offers a well-developed infrastructure. An underground passenger transportation system would require additional system characteristics. In freight transportation, reliability and planning security are much more important than speed. Things are different if the vehicles are transporting passengers. Besides, completely different safety measures would be necessary — for evacuating the passengers in an emergency, for example.

Of course, it would be possible to export our system to other urban areas.

Would it also be possible to build a comparable network in Germany?

Of course, it would be possible to export our system to other urban areas. In other words, if another economic area offers to implement this system in a cost-efficient way, we would be interested in a cooperation. However, to date we have not had any concrete contacts with potential partners in Germany.

 

In the years ahead, the initiators of Cargo Sous Terrain are planning to build an underground freight system that can transport packages, piece goods, and bulk goods on pallets and in containers. Cargo sous terrain will also take over the fine distribution of the freight in the city centers. In addition to freight transportation, the company will also provide underground waste removal services. The Swiss Federal Council gave the green light for the company’s activities in November 2016. However, the Federal Council also called for private investment commitments amounting to 100 million Swiss francs. This amount was reached in January 2018. The concrete planning of the first section, between Härkingen and Zurich, can now begin.

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