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An innovative underground urban freight system could make its debut in the UK after an engineering company was awarded a feasibility study grant by the Department of Business.
Mole Solutions will test the viability of driverless freight pipelines that could replace town centre truck deliveries.
The UK firm has developed a system it claims could reduce the use of “road freight within urban areas by using freight pipelines carrying goods in capsules to link edge of town consolidation centres with strategically placed inner town nodal points”.
The company has now teamed up with researchers from the University of Northampton to survey interest from businesses in Northampton – the Midlands conurbation is deemed to be particularly suited as a pilot project site as there is a disused underground rail line between Brackmills Industrial Estate and the town centre.
The technology employs driverless, electric-powered capsules running along dedicated underground lines under automatic control.
Dr Andrew Gough, Associate Professor at the University’s Northampton Business School, said the scheme could provide a key part of efforts to rejuvenate Northampton town centre.
“The big picture here is the regeneration of the high street as a shopping destination. This system provides a reliable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution to transporting goods into the congested centres of our towns and cities,” he said, adding that initial research had led to confidence that “there will be sufficient demand for it to become a reality here”.
He added: “Shops in the town centre could get rid of their stockrooms, which take up valuable space, and extend the shop floor. They would store their stock on the edge of town, where cheaper storage space is available, and transport it to the town centre as, and when, they need it.
“Mole takes freight off the road, which cuts pollution and congestion and makes our roads safer for other users. By following a disused railway line, there is the potential to install a path and cycleway along the route – another measure which will keep cyclists and pedestrians safe.
“There’s also almost no limit to the amount of goods which can be transported, as more capsules can be added to a system which can run 24 hours a day, and without the need for a driver,” he said.
DHL is also involved in the project, advising on the requirements of logistics providers, while other project participants include Morgan Sindall (tunnelling and pipe construction), Laing O’Rourke (civil engineering), Force Engineering (capsule propulsion), WGH (capsule and track) and SoSustainable (socio-environmental).
Mole Solutions is the project leader and system integrator of the project. The system is not only receiving attention in the UK. In the US, Mole Solutions has also been invited to sit on the steering committee of a research project run by the University of Texas to develop similar technology in its congested cities.
The Texas Department of Transportation has awarded $1.2m to a University of Texas team by civil engineering professor Mo Najafi, to possibly construct a “two-to-three mile stretch of underground freight tunnel in downtown Houston, or the border area in Laredo, due to heavy traffic freight in these areas”, according to local open government procurement site.