Freight Rapid Transit

Is it possible to use a rapid transit-style system to carry light freight, such as parcels? So far no such system exists, and very few semi-relates systems exist (like pneumatic tubes for mail). But it remains an interesting potential technology, provided it is done right. Unfortunately, it is very easy to do it wrong through misunderstanding how freight or how rapid transit works. Therefore, advances in policy in this direction are good but should be done carefully.

Instead of giving people one big takeaway, I’m going to suggest a few good principles for this, motivated by both good and bad proposals.

1. Keep the tracks clear for maintenance at night

Germany’s minister of transport, CSU’s Andreas Scheuer, proposed running freight on the U-Bahn after hours. This is a terrible idea: regular nighttime closures are crucial for maintenance, and without them, maintenance costs go up and daytime reliability tanks. New York’s constant weekend service changes are the result of not shutting down overnight for maintenance nor being able to reliably single-track at nighttime headways. Berlin already runs overnight on weekends and does some daytime maintenance – “Ersatzverkehr mit Bussen” is one of the first ordinary German phrases I learned after moving here. Further encroachment on maintenance windows is not acceptable.

2. Use existing station infrastructure

The main cost in digging urban rail tunnels is the stations – boring tunnels between stations is a solved problem. This means that the main difficulty of urban rail freight is where freight gets on and off the trains. Loading and unloading container-size freight is impossible without massive station digs, all in expensive places. Having a freight car wait on a siding is not possible either – that interface between the customer and the freight railway relies on cheap land and time-insensitive shipping.

Most likely, shipping parcels by rapid transit requires using the existing stations and platforms. There is almost certainly no room at rush hour, when trains are sized to take up the entire platform interface to increase capacity. But in the daytime off-peak, there may be some room for using a portion of a subway station for parcels.

3. Keep up with passenger rail traffic

If freight trains can’t run at night, they have to slot on the same timetable as passenger trains. This isn’t a problem on the tracks – just add an EMU car loaded with parcels rather than passengers. But keeping dwell times under control is critical. Alert reader Mordy K. wrote about this, suggesting a “dynamic Rubik’s cube” that “shifts the packages around in 3D.” This is the real challenge: figure out how parcels get from the train to a designated spot on the platform or from the platform to a designated spot on the train during a 30-second dwell time.

4. Be aware of all interfaces between different systems

There are, at a minimum, five legs to a parcel trip in a city using rapid transit: origin to station, station to train, trip on train, train to station, station to destination. The boarding and alighting steps, so easy for the able-bodied passenger and even for the disabled passenger given rudimentary investment into accessibility, are difficult for a parcel of freight. Tossing a package from a train to the platform is not enough: the package needs to get to the surface for the final leg of the trip. A courier could carry it, but at a high cost – the courier’s modes of transportation for the surface legs, like the e-bike, are bad at getting down to the subway and back up, so the time and physical effort costs are high.

This in turn means that the rail transit freight system needs to be able to put parcels in a freight elevator. Elevators are not free, although they are rarely as expensive as in New York. The problem is that parcels can’t walk across the platform, so the elevator has to face the exact same place every time, which may run into construction difficulties.

5. Don’t wreck passenger rail service

Berlin runs some trains short, especially after hours. Usually the first train after the beginning of short train service is very crowded, because passenger service demand is still too high for a half-train at the typical density of daytime Berlin trains. (I say typical density because I have never seen a Berlin train as crowded as the busiest off-peak trains in Paris or New York, let alone their busiest peak trains.)

What this means is that in practice there isn’t that much space on the train for freight. Running trains every 5 minutes until later at night but then cordoning off half for freight may be feasible – right now headways rise to 10 minutes around 9 in the evening – but it’s still just a few evening and early night hours for delivery.

This principle is equally important at the stations: cordoning off parts of the platform for freight is fine, but only if it does not interfere with passenger capacity or circulation. This may further constrain where freight elevators go: whatever automated system gets parcels from the train to the elevator will have to cross passenger traffic at-grade, and driverless technology can do it but not cheaply or smoothly.

6. Aim to work with a wide range of goods

Pneumatic tube systems for mail work for mail, but modifying them for other goods isn’t trivial. In contrast, a parcel delivery system should aim to be broadly usable by many goods with a high ratio of value added to weight. Subtle differences are important at this level of detail: glass and china goods can’t be thrown on the floor, fresh food spoils if it’s left outside for too long, jewelry and electronics face a high risk of theft. The technology has to have adequate tracking, punctuality, defense from shocks, and so on.

7. Be aware of the competition

Delivery by rapid transit is not the only alternative to trucks for cross-city shipping. Delivery by drone is in active development, both surface drones and flying drones. Surface drones have good synergy with trains, since surface drones are slow and make better first- and last-mile connections. But flying drones are in direct competition, since they work well at a range of a few kilometers rather than a few hundreds of meters. Flying drones so far only work at extremely high value-to-weight ratios, but if they become more widespread, it’s useful to think of how urban rail can compete.

85 comments

  1. MordyK

    I left the means of shifting the packages and pods around vague, because I’d like to open the idea up for development to as many ideas as possible. But any solutions that can move a pod from the platform to a train car, can also move it along a pathway from package entry to the car, if its not a direct vertical drop.

    That said; a more intricate pathway will be more expensive. But it’s very different from general passenger access elevators, which have access control requirements.

    • Alon Levy

      It depends? There are some solutions that are just directly between the train and a spot on the platform right next to the train: on-board baggage handlers (they can’t walk too long in a 30-second dwell), or an on-board system that yeets packages onto the platform (i.e. robot baggage handlers).

      • MordyK

        I generally don’t think that many of the existing solutions can be expanded beyond their current scope. I think if the idea of freight is to be taken seriously, it needs to be an open conversation across industries.

        I’m familiar with your thoughts on the Hyperloop. But the way it was opened up for participation and input, is a model that can be followed for solutions such as these.

        That’s the main reason I didn’t spell out the full implementation I had in mind. Propulsion can in theory be handled by a mini Maglev system or a warehouse like conveyor system, or any such system of which I am no expert. If this becomes a thing, cities will look at various possible approaches that best suit their needs. The point is to standardize as much as possible, while allowing for choices IMO.

        • michaelrjames

          The earliest plans for a subterranean transport system in Paris was in fact for commerce; it was proposed for the then redeveloped Les Halles markets in central Paris which actually made a lot of sense and funny enough it would have delayed the eventual relocation of the markets to Rungis (next to Orly airport and massive railyards and roads). I have no idea how Les Halles functioned into the 60s with only road access! It was also the motivation behind the use of the Petite Ceinture railway (mostly trenched, some cut&cover, come tunnel & bridge) linking up all the main railway stations in Paris (and to rail marshalling yards). Of course this never really happened and parts of the PC were repurposed very early (1854, St Lazare to Auteuil) to carry commuters not freight.

          • Henry

            It’s also worth noting that a development like this would serve a centralized goods railway stop in Les Halles.
            Even at stations that serve both passengers and freight, you generally have separate platforms for either because they have different needs.

        • Coridon Henshaw

          There are off-the-shelf roller floor systems and automated cargo movers that are widely used by the logistics industry for moving pallets and airfreight containers in sorting facilities. There’s no need to develop new technology for something like this.

          • adirondacker12800

            In a enormous building that you need a bicycle to get around in. Not tucked into a corner of a subway platform

  2. Herbert

    Dresden Tramway carries parts for the VW assembly plant. This is sui generis, but it might indicate that above ground rail systems are slightly easier to use for urban freight than underground systems

    • adirondacker12800

      Whole trainloads for one customer. Not packages that come from all over to be delivered all over.

      • Nathanael

        I’m going to repeat the first principle of trains: they’re for high volume, high capacity transportation. So whole trainloads for one customer are, in fact, the ideal application for urban freight rail. Not many-to-many.

        One potential example are all those supermarkets which receive truckloads of produce every day. Generally from the same distribution warehouse. Generally they had railroad sidings at one time, and so did the distribution warehouses. In New York, because the subways expanded by absorbing surface railways, some of these are right next to the subway lines, with abandoned sidings.

        The decision of the US mail to abandon rail for bulk mail transport has already been regretted by the US mail. Problems like “how do we get all our mail from this downtown post office to the airport, and vice versa” are the sort of problems which running mail on the subway would make sense for. Not distributing parcels house to house.

        • adirondacker12800

          I’ve actually looked at the trucks delivering stuff. The produce comes in on refrigerated truck. The stuff for the aisles comes in on pallets that the computers generating the restock lists arranged so the stuff at the beginning of the aisle is on top and stuff for the end of the aisle is on the bottom. And there is a different truck for the frozen food. And a different truck that comes from different direction for each of the bakeries that deliver. And haul away the day-old. And a truck from the Coca-Cola distribution center and truck from the Pepsi distribution center and a truck for the dairy or diaries that deliver that aren’t in the same place as the meat distribution, which large chains do themselves..Which doesn’t come from the same place as the beer trucks. . You are living in a fantasy world if you think this stuff all gets there from one distribution center. And that getting it from a subway station to the store is possible. And the large chains, since they are sending an refrigerated truck, a refrigerated truck and truck with frozen food on it don’t have those distribution centers in the same place.
          The USPS puts mail on trains all the time.You have to squint at the white containers or trailers in the railfan videos of the “UPS” train. And they put it on UPS and FedEx carriers and UPS and FedEx put in it USPS vehicles and they all toss scraps to DHL and you have no clue it’s not the REA and RPOs anymore and people trundling stuff off boxcars on the team tracks.

    • F-Line to Dudley

      Dresden’s a real unicorn example, because the streets where the plant is located aren’t equipped for the otherwise heavy truck traffic the operation would generate and VW cut a deal with the city with some financial incentives to use a fairly underutilized branch part of the tram network instead.

      It’s an excellent example of creativity in solving a specific problem: namely, wanting a plant right downtown to attract talent pool diversity that they would not have otherwise been able to get in the suburbs (where the trucking would obviously be less locally impactful). So I guess you could call it a model for “leave no stone unturned” deal-making that may have some lessons for right-sizing industry to a modern urban fabric. It’s working very well for them, but it really is a fluke set of conditions that says nothing meaningful about rapid transit freight because the fit there was one-in-a-million specific. Odds just don’t favor reaching the same exact *right* fit arriving at that particular answer ever again elsewhere. Sure, include Dresden in modeling for the sake of leaving no stone unturned, but that plus RPO’s plus other general street-running freight just aren’t going to ever point at “tram” after all their variables are fed into the planning blender. The paydirt matchups are too rare, and there is still LOTS of gap-filler yet to explore in bridging the big Class I intermodal rail yards outside the regional beltway with more efficiency on last-mile delivery closer in/around the city. Including just exploring the bounds of precision truck scheduling vs. anti-congestion times of day. But that’s all a much larger and less specifically relevant breakaway discussion unto itself. . .

  3. Benjamin Recchie

    I was thinking back to the days when light freight was run on Chicago’s rapid transit system, in the early 20th century, The main cargoes, if I remember correctly, were newspapers and milk. Both of these were time-sensitive goods that were also extremely predictable (in terms of schedule, departure and arrival stations, and volume). Although more modern transportation systems have made it easier to move news and milk, it seems to me that any future “parcel transit” would have to be similar–predictable, light, and of modest value.

    The ‘L’ also ran some light freight for companies that built sidings off the main tracks; this is probably much more expensive than simply building a loading dock for trucks today, but could be an alternative in a very special situation in a congested city like New York. Finally, several cemeteries were connected to the ‘L’ for funeral trains. This also seems unlikely to come back, except perhaps for wealthy railfans.

  4. adirondacker12800

    Most likely, shipping parcels by rapid transit requires using the existing stations and platforms.

    Like courier companies do now? Anything other than high value, small, extremely time sensitive stuff isn’t going to go down into the subway. The labor would cost to much to get it to a platform. You want to build a dedicated one, they used to exist, the one in London was in use until 2003. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Post_Office_Railway

    There aren’t a lot of things getting slung around downtown any more. ( The Google building in Manhattan started off life as a freight terminal. ) The symbol manipulators made it too expensive to do stuff you can do at the edge of town. Or half way around the world. And just how much small parcel traffic is there between Fern Rock and City Hall?

    Keep up with passenger rail traffic

    It had no choice in the past. On obscure low volume lines. If you are expecting to a lot of volume, there is no space.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combine_car

    … rubiks cube….

    Sounds like an R.P.O. Though that had hundreds of little pigeon holes. What is there to ship between Fern Rock and City Hall? And unless you want there today, there is plenty of time for it to go the USPS, UPS, FedEx or their much smaller competitors sorting center, where the whole city’s shipping gets consolidated, sorted and sent back out. Along with the rest of the stuff collected all over the city, state, country and except for the few really remote places UPS or the post doesn’t go, all over the world.

    But keeping dwell times under control is critical.

    Which is why there is no baggage car for the passenger’s baggage. They bring it to the station themselves and haul it away themselves.

    • MordyK

      With respect. You explain why current systems don’t work well for packages and light freight, and the incarnations that existed had to be shut down because they became outdated. But that’s like saying we outgrew the Victorian signal system so shut it down, but instead the industry went about developing multiple generations of continually improving automated signal systems.

      Light freight never really had an opportunity for industry to create new solutions due to various timing and circumstance issues.

      Today light freight can not only ingest packages from traditional carriers, but a whole new breed of local delivery carriers clogging our roads.

      I live in Brooklyn and spend much of my time in its downtown. Yet when I go to either of the downtown Trader Joe’s I barely buy anything, because I have to carry heavy bags around the subway, and so I instead make a trip with the car to Queens for a proper shopping. All those bags can in theory be checked in and picked up at my destination station, if the opportunity presented itself.

      • adirondacker12800

        It Trader Joe’s doesn’t deliver they aren’t clogging the roads are they? Checked in by who and how much do they get paid?

        https://www.fairwaymarket.com/ ?
        A jug of this or a carton of that is the same whether you buy it at the supermarket or CVS/Walgreens-masquerading-as-Duane-Reade or Target. Or Fairway. You can’t get name brands at Trader Joe’s just like you can’t get name brands at Aldi. you have to examine the labels carefully at Walmart because they have enough volume to have multinationals make stuff in Walmart-only sizes. You have 15 bags of Trader Joe’s delivered to your subway station you will still drive out to Queens because collecting 15 bags would likely be three trips by foot. Don’t buy frozen stuff, it’s likely to defrost during the three hours it takes to get there.

        • MordyK

          No, But I made a special trip and clogged the roads. If we want people to shop in stores without taking their cars, we need to think of how we get them home.

          Once upon a time railroads couldn’t ship frozen stuff either, but then they invented the icebox and refrigerated car….

          • adirondacker12800

            And you are responsible for maintaining the cold chain from the retailer to your house. How do you maintain it to the refrigerated locker down at the subway station? And who or what is going to clog the platform putting your order in locker 1 and someone else’s in locker 2 etc. Your neighbors who don’t own cars lead happy fulfilling lives going to the supermarket more than once a week. Or they have Fairway deliver.

        • MordyK

          It’s like when your’e in London, you always carry an umbrella with you. I can just see everyone walking around with those things…:)

      • Henry

        I mean, why is the subway the thing we want to make do that?
        Smaller electric vehicles like electric vans or electric cargo bikes are already successfully used for this purpose, it seems like adding more steps for the purpose of shoving a square peg into a round hole.

        • michaelrjames

          Because we have put countless billions into building the transit system to service these cities, and this conceives of leveraging that massive investment while simultaneously declogging the streets above (which many global cities are desperate to do) and greening such transport.
          It’s probably not going to happen but worth thinking about, especially as it might partly cure the poor finances of mass transit. Or it might be worth thinking about when designing new subway/metro systems.

          • adirondacker12800

            Smaller stores get a quarter truckload once a day from their main distribution center. On pallets. Bigger ones whole truckloads. How do you get a carload of pallets from the subway station to the store? Without interrupting passenger service or maintenance time?

          • michaelrjames

            Like I wrote, it’s really the Irish joke problem: I wouldn’t start from here. The Chicago Tunnel Company story is interesting (and its failure to deliver on time for the post office). If you were building a new system one could envision a system whereby each pax train had one or two extra carriages at the end of the train and which had their own separated platform where the containerised goods were simply shunted off the train onto the platform in seconds. The Chicago system used a mix of many big users (department stores) had their own platform while others were served by an elevator system to the surface.
            The marginal costs of building this when the whole system is built would not be much, and it would represent a stable income for the transit orgs. But retro-fitting does seem very unlikely, not least because of the cost.

          • adirondacker12800

            And how does the pallet get from the subway station to the supermarket six blocks away? The big buildings in Chicago were burning enormous amounts of coal and generating enormous amounts of ash. It never got much beyond the Loop.
            United Parcel Service has a building on 11th Avenue that takes up the whole block between 43rd and 44th Streets and 12th Avenue. And that’s just for uptown. They have another building on Houston St. between Washington St. and Greenwich St which stretches shorter blocks to Spring St.. That help fill a 747 full of only air packages out of Newark Airport every evening that comes back in the early morning to send trucks to both of them where it merges with the ground shipments. You have no concept of the scale and you have no hope of involving the subway with any of that except for people who rush into the customer service center two minutes before they close so they can make the last drop off of the day.

          • michaelrjames

            And how does the pallet get from the subway station to the supermarket six blocks away?

            Six blocks? There’s yer problem right there. In Paris you could never get that far from a station. Of course there would be a strong tendency of such heavy users to co-locate with stations, a bit like the giant department stores in Japan (well, they’re owned by the transit companies and make a fortune from the billions of captive pax flow thru all of their space). Or Hong Kong where any extension of the Metro (one just opened a few days ago, the Tuen Ma line) always has new stations as part of big retail and commercial complexes; plenty of the “old” ones have them too like Times Square etc. Or indeed in Paris, where my local store, BHV (now BHV-Marais), has its own Metro entrance in the basement. Come to think of it, the same line (my work commute line M7) also has a very convenient direct connection with the retail, commercial, entertainment Italie complex in the 13th which I would often stop off on my evening trip home. Provide such a service and, like ballparks, they will come. Even Gare du Nord – Gare de l’Est is getting remade into such a complex.

            Ideally anything using the service would be within range of those electric pallet trollies.

            As I said, planning from scratch would enable all this with little extra cost. For example, look at the axiometric drawings of Les Halles with it Metro stations, RER stations, pedestrian tunnels/travellators, and its subterranean road network (partly to connect adjoining roads but also for delivery to the complex).

          • adirondacker12800

            How much of the stock in Asian department stores gets there by subway?

          • Eric

            Streets exist for a reason. They are there to transport people and goods without the expense of building tunnels. As long as there is street space, there is no reason to invest in tunnels.

            If people choose to navigate those streets by private car, then they quickly get congested, which means limitations have to be put on car transport and a suitable bus/tram system planned instead. With that in place, cities up to the size of roughly 1 million have no need for transport tunnels (of course they still need water, sewer, utility tunnels). Above roughly 1 million, there are too many passengers even for this, and a metro system is needed.

            Freight is unlike passenger cars in that it requires relatively few vehicles. In old European central cities there are numerous stores, restaurants, etc. Passenger cars are highly restricted in those areas, but a few delivery vehicles come early in the morning and supply all of the businesses’ freight needs for the day. The limited road space there is enough for all the delivery vehicles. That gives an idea of how much freight traffic there is in a city – very little. This freight traffic can travel on the surface streets with no problem. So it is extremely unlikely that underground building works for freight will ever be worth doing.

          • Henry

            > As I said, planning from scratch would enable all this with little extra cost.

            I don’t buy this. Stations are easily the most expensive part of metro stations anywhere, and at the very least you’d need a separate cargo-only section and a lot more elevators to make this work.

            > the giant department stores in Japan […] Or Hong Kong where any extension of the Metro always has new stations as part of big retail and commercial complexes […] plenty of the “old” ones have them too like Times Square etc. Or indeed in Paris

            All of these locations are extremely high-traffic, where even during off-peak hours any capacity should really be used for people and not freight. A train car’s worth of people taking cars is a lot worse for congestion than taking two or three delivery vans off the roads for one train car.

          • MordyK

            It’s true that stations are the most expensive part of a building, but the flip side of that argument is that if you can use a standard station module – like a pack-home, you can get costs to drop drastically.

            The trick IMO, is not to look at how things have been done, but how they can be done. Once you have that clear perspective, you can go back and see how to make it work with existing infrastructure and operations.

    • Nathanael

      Travel times from the USPS / UPS / FedEx sorting centers to the downtown mail distribution routes are actually becoming the major delay point preventing Amazon from accomplishing two-day delivery

  5. Eric

    Interesting post. This sounds like one of those ideas that’s a worthwhile niche in theory, but in practice once you add the inevitable technical and political complications, there should be a big flashing “DO NOT DO THIS” sign to dissuade anyone who attempts it.

  6. R. W. Rynerson

    All of this was done before, but with human labor interposed. See the last segment of my father’s 8mm 1954 video:

    He remembers when he started in news circulation in Portland that the evening News-Telegram was delivered to sales boys from the front platform of streetcars.

    In 1964 I found out why some SP Commute midday trains were slower than others: they carried RPO’s.

    In 1971 there was still a wired spur into the brewery in Eningen unter Achalm, Germany for the narrow-gauge streetcar system, but I didn’t see any activity.

    In the COMECON countries this lasted longer. Moscow ran electric trucks on their trolley coach system. Today’s BVG Line 68 in post-WWII as Line 86 carried bakery products to Alt-Schmoeckwitz, albeit with a shrinkage problem with some sticky-fingered motormen and conductors.

    Solve the handling problems or else the labor and/or delay costs will kill the business as they did before.

  7. Michael Noda

    Thinking about this from the perspective of “what use case are we displacing, here?”, per your point #7.

    I think that at the level of the single package or item, the e-cargo bike will dominate for last-mile delivery. At much larger volumes, like say from warehouses to larger distribution hubs, trucks will still have the efficiencies of scale, right up until you scale up to where it makes sense to have dedicated trains, spurs, and platforms. The application that seems most applicable for hitching onto existing rapid transit infrastructure is the pallet-sized pile of packages that’s going to a hyper-local neighborhood pickup point, whether that’s a UPS Access Point, or an Amazon Locker, or similar. In that case, you have enough volume to warrant a human courier accompanying the trip, but not so much volume that you need new infrastructure (beyond what you need already for ADA compliance).

    • MordyK

      Let’s remember that labor is getting ever more expensive and complex, and is why companies across industry are spending tons of money on R&D to get rid of – their already underpaid – workers with automated solutions, i.e. robots, self-driving cars, etc..

  8. Henry Miller

    How is this better than a UPS type truck driving around the neighborhood like we have today? I feel like this is a solution in search of a problem. I don’t think rapid transit offers any advantage for freight over the truck – there isn’t enough demand even in dense cities to create traffic congestion. If you are getting something big you probably need help getting it in.

    There will always be a small group that is better off with a truck. Plumbers need all the different sizes of pipe they might need on the truck. Handymen need a lot of tools in the truck. Delivery drivers need a lot of space for all the packages they deliver in a day. Stores will continue to get a large truck in every few days (in some rare cases a freight train stops at their siding).

    I can think of ways to make this work, but the infrastructure required both gets in the way of humans, and costs a lot of money for the little use they will get. Thus it isn’t a good investment.

    Mass transit should focus on solving the problems it can solve well. The only freight on mass transit should be carried by a human (or pulled in a wagon).

  9. plaws0

    Even it you ship something with an extremely high weight to value ratio, air drone delivery just doesn’t scale. It’s not a thing. Maybe in 25 years there will be a way (battery tech) to get the payloads big enough that you can haul something with less value/kg than tritium or gold or antimatter, you’ve still got the issue of a single drone per package meaning *thousands* of drones in the air simultaneously each with different destinations. Sure, AI, right. What could go wrong? And then, unless they have gunship escorts or built-in self defense means, they’ll get stolen. A lot. Or batted out of the air or … or …

    Figure out how to move freight in the subway – much simpler problem (and yes, I RTFA! 🙂 )

  10. yuuka

    I believe Tokyo Metro tried delivering parcels on their network a while back. Not sure how it worked out.

    But the best analogue for a rapid transit-like freight system would be Hong Kong’s Airport Express. It’s luggage, not parcels, but the concept is similar – at the collection point (downtown check in), manpower is needed to consolidate the items into the containers, then the containers can be automatically loaded into the trains within the 1-2min dwell time. At the other end, more manpower is needed to unpack the containers and send the items inside on their way (to the respective flights or early bag store).

    But it works since AEL is the main trunk line to the airport, so you’d need to find other trunks for this service. Thus. the use cases would probably fit intercity services more than intracity service, like JR East have been testing delivering fresh fish from the north by shinkansen.

    • Henry

      The other major difference is that people are bringing their goods to the centralized dropoff, and the ultimate destination (an effectively single terminal airport, since only one HKG terminal has gates) is also centrailzed.

      Urban ecommerce parcel delivery is the reverse; the warehouse or a few of them are probably centralized and the subway station for pickup is, but the destinations are all over the place.

      • yuuka

        In Singapore we have parcel delivery lockers located in train stations. You can have your parcel delivered to one of these lockers and then you pick it up from the locker on your way home or something.

        But that doesn’t excuse the fact that you still need someone (or something) to unpack the containerized delivery coming off the trains and put items into the lockers.

        • michaelrjames

          That’s a good idea but it’s not the same thing. Those parcels are not delivered to the station by the Metro (I would be fairly sure …). In fact probably delivered by trucks.

          • Eric

            Yeah, that’s just a well located post office. Not notable in any other way.

    • michaelrjames

      then the containers can be automatically loaded into the trains within the 1-2min dwell time.

      Do they use the same trains, ie. the pax trains? I doubt it and suspect they run a special train once an hour or whatever. I wasn’t even sure they used the train because a truck was probably more efficient at direct delivery to the different points within the airport it needs to get to.
      I’ve used that downtown check-in myself and it’s fantastic, especially as you can use it up to 36 hours before your flight. I use it the day of my departure so I am free of luggage and all the check-in hassle for the rest of the day (and into the night, I usually take the last flight out at about midnight).
      Remember that it is a full airline check-in service so from that point your luggage is handled automatically the same as the airport, even if it has another (30km long) step. Just like at major airports there won’t be much manual (human) intervention once that luggage is barcoded etc. And it takes a load off the same service at the airport so probably pays for itself.

      • Tonami Playman

        But I remember reading that all other airports that tried to replicate the downtown airport check-in have cancelled the service or planning to do so due to high operating costs. Hong Kong can get away with it possibly because the service was designed along with the airport and Hong Kong’s urban layout that’s hostile to carrying luggage about.

        • michaelrjames

          Well, it was certainly planned when they built the Airport Express and its terminal in Central at IFC. So there was no big initial barrier to overcome.
          I am not aware of other airports that have tried the same thing? Security theatre would probably kill it in most places.
          Incidentally I am sure it pays for itself if you look at the tourist dollars spent that otherwise wouldn’t: people often go to the airport hours earlier than necessary just because they can’t do anything else if they have their luggage (and leaving it at hotels is both a hassle and a risk and consumes time on two unnecessary trips).

          And, per my earlier post, does anyone know if it is uses rail or truck to move that luggage from Central to the HKI?

          • Tonami Playman

            Seoul’s Airport Rail Express has city checking at Seoul station for travel through Incheon Airport. So does Kuala Lumpur’s Express Rail Link between KL Sentral and Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Also One can do a city checking at Tokyo City Air Terminal for travel via Haneda or Narita. TCAT is actually an express bus terminal, but is connected by a moving walkway to Suitengumae Station on Tokyo metro’s Hanzomon line.

      • yuuka

        The 1st car on the Hong Kong end is a luggage car with equipment for automatic loading.

        • michaelrjames

          OK. Tx for that pic. That’s the kind of thing I imagined in one of my other posts, ie. an extra carriage set up like that for mini-containers, airline style, and with its own platform zone segregated from pax.

          There is an old CityLab article on it: (and with a recent comment by MordyK!):
          https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2014/08/every-city-needs-hong-kongs-brilliant-baggage-check-system/378826/
          Every City Needs Hong Kong’s Brilliant Baggage-Check System
          ERIC JAFFE, AUGUST 22, 2014

          MordyK points out that it is only one-way, to the airport. But I don’t think the reverse journey presents the same problem, except for people with too much luggage (for which I have little sympathy!). From the airport you are heading straight to your final destination (hotel or home).

          • MordyK

            The question to be asked is: is the reason its so popular because it offloads the hassle of baggage, or because it gives you a predictable and convenient one-seat ride without traffic. If its about the baggage, then its the same baggage issue both ways with only one being addressed. That said I handled baggage, and the layout was extremely considerate with long low-pitch ramps and not a stair or escalator in the way. So it really wasn’t the end of the world as the extremely high capture rate attests.

          • michaelrjames

            or because it gives you a predictable and convenient one-seat ride without traffic. If its about the baggage, then its the same baggage issue both ways with only one being addressed.

            No. Not at all.
            I thought I had already posted something about this but can’t find it …
            The journey from the airport (ie. arrival) is quite different to the journey to the airport (ie. departure). When you arrive you don’t have to go thru much security theatre and it’s fairly straightforward to collect your baggage and depart*; and then you usually want to get to your hotel or whatever a.s.a.p. so intermediation re baggage or tickets are irrelevant. You don’t want any delays but a delay isn’t consequential like for a departure.

            Departure is very different. For me there are two main advantages of intown-checkin: 1. avoiding part of the hassle at the airport; one still has to go thru security theatre but it is more tolerable if you checked-in hours ago, and at HKI it is a breeze anyway. 2. freedom from baggage on your last day, so you can usefully use that time other than hanging around a sterile airport hours before the hassle of checkin etc. It also means you don’t have the awful anxiety about arriving at the airport in time to cope with all that hassle (and airlines keep lengthening their recommended time to allow for it, transferring the “cost” (time penalty) on to us the traveller). It also means you can arrive “just in time” rather than hours ahead; at HKI you can do this in practice since it is so efficient, and this is where the absolute reliability of the Express train is an advantage. And you already have your train ticket (obligatory when you do intown-checkin).

            So, the point is that the two journeys are very asymmetric.
            ………………….
            *There is also the peculiarity in HK that the airport express bus (#31 IIRC) is both more convenient (for the hotels in Kowloon; it has a clearly marked map with stops and the hotels each stop serves along Nathan Road, plus the lower deck of these buses has ample provision for big baggage with CCTV of this area displayed throughout the bus) and a more interesting journey–I recommend it to all visitors, especially first-timers, to get a seat up front on the top deck and have an amazing panoramic view as it crosses the Tsing Ma bridge, passes the docks (that not long ago was the biggest container port in the world) and hi-rise housing then enters the top of Nathan road etc… I’ve been doing it for decades and never fail to find this entrance into HK quite thrilling. By comparison the airport express train is nothing–it is on the lower deck of Tsing Ma so you can’t see anything (from the top deck of the bus on the top deck of the bridge is your first glimpse of the harbour & HK Central in the distance) and then it is mostly underground or trenched and again you see nothing and unless you are a moneybags/bizoid staying at either Central or Kowloon West (both with v. expensive hotels only) it is not convenient for the normal hotels that are just deux pas from the bus down Nathan Road. I also like the fact that seconds after checking into the hotel I am back out on the lively streets of HK, just deux pas from the Temple Street night markets (as I usually arrive at night) etc.

    • MordyK

      If such a system were to be implemented on existing lines, solutions would need to be found for getting the freight loading dwell time down to the same as pax dwell time. Otherwise it would be defeating its own purpose.

  11. Paul

    I saw an informal version of this in Vietnam. Motorcycles are the most common vehicles, and there aren’t that many cars or delivery trucks. If you have something that’s too heavy or bulky for a motorcycle, a city bus is the biggest vehicle that most people have access to. The buses operate with two man crews – a driver and a conductor. The system seemed to be that you can put something on the bus and then have someone else pick it up downstream. The conductor tells people where to put the freight (usually in the aisle or behind the driver) and alerts the person waiting downstream that their package is on his bus.

    This system might be more labor-intensive than what you’re imagining, but you could cut out the courier/delivery driver as long as the shipper and receiver are on the same route.

    • Matthew Hutton

      It Vietnam a good wage 10-15 years was $100 a month. So super labour intensive solutions were viable.

  12. Herbert

    A similar concept is high speed rail freight. I am aware of one example of it done in reality, TGV La Poste which seems to have lasted roughly one vehicle generation. DB looked into freight ICEs but ultimately abandoned them before ever doing so much as a test run. There have been some announcements of plans that never went anywhere…

    I’m thinking, if you add cars to trains that aren’t running to the full 400m during low load times of the day, maybe you could have a delivery system where one customer drops the goods off at a station and the other picks it up at the destination station? The crucial issue would be fast loading and unloading, but ICEs do have to schedule in restocking the restaurant car, so a fast enough system might have a chance…

  13. Tonami Playman

    I think history has clearly shown that combining freight with passenger service is not as efficient in practice. We used to have combi-planes which have a portion of the fuselage dedicated for freight. The Combi-buses in Nordic countries, and as mentioned before on earlier incarnations of rapid transit, but they all went away. There are still a small fraction of combi-planes operating in very Niche markets like rural Alaska. Just as segregation of freight from passenger traffic is far more efficient than combining them especially when huge volumes are involved, segregation of freight from passengers on rapid transit seems like the best use of available resources. The light truck parcel delivery have evolved to be quite an efficient process. Then again it’s a fun concept to think about.

    I can see utilizing unused capacity on mass rapid transit during off peak times working for something like an Amazon locker distributed package pickup point. In the scenario of running trains at high frequency during the lowest use periods and using the excess capacity for freight, I can see the use of autonomous standard pallet sized carriers moving between the train and the platform. Japanese subway and commuter rail cars tend to have stanchions along the longitudinal seats compared to the stanchions in the middle of the car like hong kong and singapre. The japanese arrange creates a wide are that can house the autonomous pallets on their train journey.

    Below is an image of the interior of the E231 series rolling stock used by JR East

    Most subway cars have door widths of 1.4m and the largest american standard palet is 1.2mx1.2m (48″x48″). So they can get in and out of subway cars. The pallets would transport themselves to the distribution center adjacent to the station where the packages would be broken down and sent to their various destinations or held for pick-up. These facilities are space intensive. so we would have to make a choice on giving valuable station proximity space to high value housing and commercial development or taking some of that out to host low value package sorting.

    • Thomas K Ohlsson

      There are still quite a lot ofwhat you call ‘Combi-buses’ in rural/northern Sweden, and probarbly in Finland and Norway too.

    • Tonami Playman

      For what it’s worth. China’s courier companies already use the HSR network for fast time sensitive deliveries, however this just further reinforces the point that freight can be mixed with passengers on intercity travel, but would have serious issues trying to mix it up with urban rapid transit passengers.

      • adirondacker12800

        And I see too much labor compared to emptying whole trucks or airplanes into a semi automated sorting system. The Chinese picture seems to imply it was a one time event when they had extraordinary volumes. Windows are expensive. They don’t put windows in freight cars. that’s not a freight car they use everyday.

    • Yom Sen

      CarPostal/PostAuto in Switzerland was also originally mixing mail and passengers in rural lines, hence its name, but is now a pure bus company and separate subsidiary of Swiss Post.

      • MordyK

        I’m sure these were cancelled at the time with good reasons. But re-examining those reasons with an open mind to see if they can be addressed with today’s capabilities should not be dismissed out of hand by just saying ‘it’s been tried’. nearly everything you see as ‘innovative’ today, was tried or at least discussed before and failed. Webvan anyone… 🙂

  14. Coridon Henshaw

    What advantages would freight-over-urban-rail (FOUR) provide over existing trucking to justify the expense of adapting urban rail infrastructure for freight use? FOUR will never be adopted unless it can provide a compelling advantage over existing, and expected emerging, transport models.

    At first glance, it seems FOUR could offer better reliability in cities with extreme traffic congestion and reduced emissions should air pollution & CO2 ever become a politically critical issue. It seems improbable that either of these benefits are substantial enough to justify the costs of modifying urban rail networks to support FOUR outside of very special cases, such as the Dresden VW plant.

    If anyone was crazy enough to try this, however, containerization would be essential to preserve 30 second dwell times. Instead of trying to do 3D Tetris with individual packages in 30 seconds, use powered roller floors to swap ULD-inspired containers at every stop. Do all package sorting off-line.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with containerization is that volumes of freight between a specific origin and a specific destination are less than carload.

      • adirondacker12800

        Which is why the Post Office has those peculiar green boxes on lots of corners and UPS flies domestically from JFK and to Tokyo, London and their trans-Pacific hub in Anchorage Alaska from Newark. And FedEx flies domestically from JFK and to Paris and Anchorage from Newark. And UPS and FedEx are the only companies flying to Anchorage from Newark but there are umpteen of them flying to Anchorage from JFK.

      • Coridon Henshaw

        Package shipping companies don’t do point to point shipping in most cases. Everything gets shipped to a central hub then redistributed to its destinations. FOUR ought to follow the same principles: every package dropped each station would be containerized at the end of the day and sent to a central sorting hub. The hub would sort the packages overnight then containerize them for delivery the next morning.

        If there isn’t enough potential demand to mostly fill something akin to an LD2 container (3.5 cubic meters / 1 133 kg) to/from every station every work day then I don’t think a freight system is worth building. Even if the business case is satisfied using government subsidies (e.g. as part of an extreme de-carbonization scheme), a service that doesn’t have the demand to fill small containers routinely is a solution in search of a problem and is probably far more trouble than it’s worth.

      • Nathanael

        Trains don’t make sense for less than carload.

        The parcels example I keep thinking of is a central post office sorting center / distribution center in NYC, where all the non-local mail has to be carried out to a different post office sorting center located further away. You don’t want to be running dozens and dozens and dozens of postal trucks through the congested road tunnels.

        Direct trains from the Morgan Processing Center in Manhattan to the JFK Postal Center and the various processing centers in New Jersey would probably have enough volume to make sense, and would be more reliable than using trucks. Due to the particular track locations, the trains to New Jersey should be running on Amtrak (and they used to). But how about the ones to JFK? Oh, right, AirTrain uses incompatible track to everything else. Sigh.

        The UPS Sorting Centers in Maspeth and Meadowlands are another example — they probably have enough volume that there should be direct trains Maspeth to Meadowlands. Of course they’re mislocated for any direct connection.

  15. Alex Mazoomer (Season Seven!) (@mazuretsky)

    Urban rapid transit was developed to move large volumes of time-sensitive passengers within urban areas. Freight is much less time-sensitive, but it is much slower and more expensive to transload. Therefore, I fail to understand what problem is this system supposed to solve. Historic urban goods railway operations mostly existed in an era when roads were not a practical way to move anything for any considerable distance, due to their poor state and lack of trucks (British milk trains for example). Also, tracks were much emptier back then. Today, doing two transloadings to move some goods twenty or so kilometres sounds silly. It’s even worse when you consider that urban rapid transit typically lacks junctions, so any interchange will require ANOTHER TRANSLOADING. (and as Alon has correctly pointed out in an earlier post, building such junction for a busy urban rapid transit will probably entail constructing a railway analogue of a stack interchange in the city centre.

    For all this hassle, we are not gaining much: the system will probably be slower, and more expensive. The only possible justification for this is CO2 emissions, however, the vast majority of transportation emissions come from passenger transport, not freight. And we would still need a low-carbon mode to solve the last mile problem, freight cannot just walk. Also, if this system does inconvenience passengers, it may entice some of them to use more carbon-intensive transportation modes than rapid transit, negating our emission benefits.

    So no, I do not agree that this is an interesting potential technology. I think that this is a technology that doesn’t exist in the real world for very good reasons. In general, it seems to me as more of a “solution in search of a problem” type of situation.

    • adirondacker12800

      The usual suspects in the U.S. are the USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL. They all have people who make careers out of squeezing a fraction of a mil out of operating costs of small delivery vehicles. The small delivery vehicles don’t travel far in a day. They are already evaluating charging stationary batteries all day with PV and then charging the trucks with the stored PV. Because people make a career out of squeezing a fraction of a mil out of delivery vehicle costs can tell you how much it costs to fill the fuel tank every day and how much they would save if the vehicle charged while it was being unloaded and…. And have the I.T. staffs that can generate projected costs for thousands of scenarios… There isn’t enough PV in Manhattan but they can tell you how much it costs to refill fuel storage tanks per annum and how much it would cost to upgrade the electric service that is going to last 50 years.
      And the herd of elephants in the room is that private cars cause the congestion not small delivery vehicles.

      • Herbert

        Problem is: once you bring congestion down enough that deliveries run smoothly, the private cars press back into the roads and make a mess of things.

        Unless you do something that’s rarely done: delivery only roads

        • adirondacker12800

          Not if you are discouraging them with congestion tolls. As near as I can tell they would have to be realllly painful for Manhattan.

    • Ryland L

      I think the big issue, in the United States at least, is that freight companies own all of the trackage for most urban commuter rail systems. Without a rapid, electrified freight rail system, the freight companies will never institute the electrification needed to ensure higher-frequency more sustainable train service.

      • Alon Levy

        Not for urban commuter rail, what are you talking about? In Boston the allergy to electrification is in the context of a state-owned system (the only tracks not owned by the state are owned by Amtrak and are wired but the MBTA still runs diesels on them), in New York the allergy to extending electrification is on state-owned tracks, in Chicago most of Metra is owned by RTA…

      • adirondacker12800

        To beat a dead horse one more time, we owned it all, across the Midwest and the Northeast and the free market zealots made us sell it off. New Jersey narrowly avoided having the “Cutoff” sold off to someone who wanted to salvage gravel from it and sell the other pieces to developers.

  16. gertikan

    Mr. Scheuer is tossing around these fantastical blingbling schemes like subway freight (or air taxis) to distract from his severe legal problems and his inability to do his job.

    It simply doesnt work for the above reasons. If you want more freight on rails then you have to built explicitly for freight. E.g. the Swiss “Cargo Sous Terrain” project that has some actual money behind it. Even that one is questionable due to its est. cost of 33 billion CHF and its unclear additional benefits.

    • adirondacker12800

      Sounds vaguely like those plans the hyperloop fanboys come up with where I’m tearing down my garage so I can put in an elevator that connects to a suburban Elon tunnel system so I can go to the supermarket.

    • Herbert

      It’s a minor miracle anything in German public transit is as well run as it is, given the string of utterly incompetent fools at the head of the ministry of transportation…

      • Alon Levy

        Yeah, now the question is whether this keeps going on forever under Laschet or if Merz manages to throw the election to the Greens…

        • Herbert

          The greens have – without any need – already said they’d do a coalition under Merz…

          • Alon Levy

            Agreeing beforehand to a GroKo… not having a clear candidate for chancellor… are they trying to throw the election on purpose?

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