Pipeline Post | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.02.2002
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A group of German scientists is looking underground for a quicker and cleaner alternative to freight transportation.


Whizzing down the tunnel - freight transport of the future

While heavily laden trucks crawl at a snails pace along congested streets, a capsule, containing long-awaited cargo whizzes down an underground tunnel, and reaches its destination long before ist four-wheeled counterpart. A vision – made real by a group of scientists in Bochum, Germany. Freight transportation via underground tubes, an idea which made ist debut in early 19th century Berlin, is now seeing a renaissance as a quick and ecological alternative to cargo transportation. And the Bochum group "Cargo Cap" is looking set to lead the way.

The sleek-looking Cargo Cap capsules, which could mean a revolution in freight transportation, have their roots in Berlin around the turn of the century. Here, the remnants of the world’s once largest, fastest and most modern tube transport system can still be seen in the German capital’s city centre. With the help of the tube system, Berlin’s post offices sent packages encased in protective capsules whizzing down underground tubes. These would reach their destination in what is said to be twice the time as today’s bicycle couriers.

The network of tubes which was launched in 1865 grew to a size of 400 km in 1940, and connected post offices, ministries, banks and offices. Every 15 minutes a 10 cm long capsule would make its way down the burrow of tubes and tunnels, at times reaching 40 kmh. Berlin’s so-called "Rohrpost" was so successful, it was copied in cities all over the world.

However, with the increasing popularity of the telephone, the damage done by World War II and, later the building of the Berlin Wall, the system was slowly destroyed. In 1976, the last message was sent via Rohrpost in what were the remnants of West Berlin’s mutilated tube network.

Today, in the days of traffic congested streets and polluted city centres, researchers are remembering the qualities of underground freight transportation. Not are these modes of transport quick, safe and clean, but existing infrastructure can be used too – an idea which led to the success of the network in 19th century Berlin. The then Head Post Master Heinrich von Stephan had the idea of avoiding traffic congestion by using the existing canalisation to lay pipes for post. Today’s concepts for underground freight transport rely on the same attitude.

Traffic gridlock

According to the director of the "Cargo Cap" project in Bochum, which developed the new alternative to transporting freight, Professor Dr. Dietrich Stein, "Flexible, quick and reliable distribution in traffic sensitive conurbation needs transportation systems being independent of but nevertheless interactive with the existing infrastructure". Therefore, he says, automatic tunnel transportation systems provide economical delivery and especially long lasting solutions. Solutions to a transport problem in an area in Germany which is well know for ist daily highway gridlock.

Today, only a few mouse clicks are needed to order anything from a toothbrush to a refrigerator, but by the time the goods get to their destination the pleasure of New Economy-ordering is daunted by Old Economy-delivery: At least 100 billion euros are said to wasted each year in Germany on traffic jams that delay goods getting to customers and workers getting to their jobs.

Today, the Ruhr Valley in Germany is a perfect example of modern day’s traffic problems. Truck traffic connecting around 6 million people and many of Germany’s heavy industries is slow and tedious. One of the reasons why, according to Britta Schößer from the "Cargo Cap" project, the underground tunnel system is so ideal for transport in the region. "The Ruhr Valley is a special area when it comes to transport problems," she told DW-online. " It is so densely populated that transporting freight underground is much more suitable than in congested streets". While trucks crawl at around 12 kmh in Bochum’s city centre, the capsules developed by Cargo Cap can reach 35 kmh, despite being the size of two refigerators – or the average size of European shipping pallets.

As backups stretch sometimes for hundreds of kilometres in the Ruhr valley area, planners in the region have applauded the ideas conceived by the Cargo Cap group, led by Professor Stein from Bochum’s Ruhr University. With financial support from North Rhine-Westphalia’s Education and Science Ministry, the 16 professors, engineers and logistic experts under Professor Stein’s supervision have devised a system of freight pallets which are electronically dispatched along rollers which could connect hundreds f offices, households, individuals and big businesses using the existing underground systems.

As the Cargo Cap project is set to launch an outdoor test track this year, the plan is already catching the eye of various companies in the area. The capsule may look futuristic, with ist sleek, shiny form and high reaching transport speeds. But it is, in fact, an idea that go backs 2 centuries ago. According to Schößer, the scientific Cargo Cap experts took a good look at the Berlin system before getting down to work.

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  • Date 18.02.2002
  • Author Louise Brown
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  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/1jka
  • Date 18.02.2002
  • Author Louise Brown
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/1jka