5 July 2018

Underground transport is in the pipeline

Pipelines through which large volumes of goods can be transported underground over long distances may seem like science fiction, but a Swiss project proves otherwise.

The kick-off event for the Future Proof Transport Initiatives (FPTI), a conference sponsored by ING in the Dutch town of Roosendaal at the start of this month, got Flemish and Dutch organisations thinking.

Underground transport systems

“Underground transport can drastically reduce the impact the logistics sector has on the environment,” says Bart Vannieuwenhuyse from TRI-VIZOR, an impartial orchestrator of cooperation in transport and logistics.

Vannieuwenhuyse and three other entrepreneurs from Belgium and the Netherlands set up FPTI to promote the concept of underground logistics systems. Through conference and workshops FPTI encourages companies, knowledge institutions, governments and citizens to take action.

This so-called fifth mode of transportation – in addition to road, rail, water and air traffic – provides opportunities not only in the field of sustainability but also of capacity. “Current transport methods are not always efficient,” says Vannieuwenhuyse. “Roughly one lorry in four in the EU is driving around empty, for example, while the road infrastructure is becoming less and less satisfactory.”

"Roughly one lorry in four in the EU is driving around empty"

Cooperation needed

Although several relevant pilot studies have already been conducted on the subject, including one by Colruyt, the logistical use of pipelines in the region is still restricted to the transportation of liquids and gases by chemical companies.

“Companies are still afraid that the system will be unprofitable, although a study by the University of Antwerp (UA) shows the opposite is true,” says Vannieuwenhuyse. “However, major investment is needed to install the infrastructure, and this is where cooperation between companies is desirable.”

Until now, pipelines have been built and used by a single company. If enterprises join forces, the costs can be shared. “To ensure that competitors become competitive colleagues, good agreements are of course needed,” says Vannieuwenhuyse.

"To ensure that competitors become competitive colleagues, good agreements are of course needed"

Swiss efficiency

The groundbreaking Cargo Sous Terrain project in Switzerland, presented at FPTI’s kick-off event, shows what such a cooperation can lead to. Several companies, with two major retailers as the driving force, have put their weight behind the construction of an underground pipeline network that connects major distribution centres. The government is providing a regulatory framework.

In the Swiss project, automated vehicles will carry 3 pallets at a time through tubes approximately 50 metres underground, at a speed of around 30 kph. The project was launched in 2009 and now being developed in detail, with the first section – 65 km in length – due for completion by 2030.

Opportunities and challenges

In Flanders and the Netherlands the FPTI team sees opportunities primarily in ports and cities. Among other things, underground transport there could reduce congestion, increase capacity, free up space above ground, and improve safety and air quality.

The hope is that major retailers, like Colruyt and Delhaize, will take the lead. “But the government also has an essential role to play in terms of rules and regulations, and there is an urgent need for it to develop a clear vision,” says Elvira Haezendonck, Professor of Management and Strategy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Innovative solutions

Professor Maarten Van Acker, specialist in urban planning and design at the UA, underlines the desperate need for innovative solutions here, given that Brussels and Antwerp are the most congested cities in Europe. He points out that the function of such pipelines may be a combination – of goods, heat and water transportation, for example – to increase their efficiency.

The need was highlighted during the event by two public-spirited young people, who pointed out that swift action is needed to attain the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, the international sustainability goals for 2030. Setting up partnerships is crucial to this.

ING is sponsoring not only this project but also a bi-annual study on logistical developments in ports. The latest, published in 2017, contained a survey which revealed interest in the development of pipelines. 80% of those surveyed saw pipelines as having an important role to play as a link between port and hinterland.

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