Cargo sous terrain
A visionary project aims to move freight transport to a place it can roll with no delays: underground.
Freight traffic will roll along where there is never any traffic: underground.
In 2017, 25,853 hours were spent in traffic jams on Switzerland’s national highways. As in years past, the Swiss Federal Roads Authority has named traffic congestion as the main cause of the chaos. The national highways carry 70 percent of heavy freight transport, and the trend is climbing. One of the consequences of this gridlock: More and more goods are arriving later and later at their destinations.
In order to address the increasing transportation of goods, the plan is to move it to a place where it will have a much smaller impact on people, the environment and traffic – namely, underground. Equal parts innovation and ambition, a logistics system called Cargo sous terrain (CST) has been in the works since 2010 and is designed to transport and temporarily store freight below the earth’s surface.
Almost 500 kilometers long, completely automated and operated using renewable energy, the tunnel network will extend along the routes most plagued by traffic jams, stretching from Geneva to St. Gallen and from Basel to Lucerne, with an offshoot from Berne to Thun. Packages, cargo and bulk materials will be transported 20 to 40 meters below ground, around the clock. CST will also become Switzerland’s largest warehouse, with one million square meters of space underground.
The vision looks like this: Goods will be transported on pallets or in containers on unmanned and climate-controlled, computerized transport vehicles. The vehicles travel along a six-meter wide, three-lane tunnel at a constant speed of 30 kilometers per hour. They are able to navigate freely within the lanes, connect to trains, and enter and exit the traffic flow. Installation of a suspended monorail is planned beneath the tunnel’s roof where smaller freight units can be transported at 60 kilometers per hour.
HUBS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN Over 80 transfer points will be built along the route for loading and unloading industrial and trade goods. These hubs will be constructed on the outskirts of cities, preferably near existing logistics centers. Pallets and containers can be picked up or transferred to the underground transportation system using elevators. Distribution over the final kilometers can be taken over by zero-emission electric vehicles like bicycles, small delivery trucks, scooters or someday even drones or self-driving cars using sophisticated software to follow an optimized route. This city logistics concept and the IT platform behind it will already be available for short-range distribution within the cities even before the first section of the CST tunnel system is finished, says CST spokesperson Patrik Aellig.
The project was initiated by Swiss companies Migros and Manor. Like many other businesses, these companies
depend on timely and efficient deliveries. A project group including partners like Coop and Manor was established in 2011, and 20 businesses in Basel founded the CST Foundation in 2013. This foundation was later converted into a jointstock company in March 2017 in order to attract investors. By doing so, CST was also complying with a Federal Council guideline that required it to convert to a joint-stock company as one of several conditions for initiating the necessary legislation to regulate underground freight transport. The government aims to support the project with this special law, and work on drafting it will begin soon.
PRIVATE - SECTOR PROJECT Its transformation to a joint-stock company also allows CST to take on investors who will provide the private funds to realize the project, the cost of which is estimated at a total of 33 billion Swiss francs. Along with Migros and Coop, the 16 major shareholders holding a seat on the board of directors include SBB Cargo, Post, Mobiliar, the German software group SAP and the Californian start-up Virgin Hyperloop One. Together with Swiss and international investors such as Credit Suisse, European infrastructure developer Meridiam and Dagong Global Investment Holding from China, the company has secured investments of 100 million Swiss francs. The massive project will be realized in sev- eral stages, and construction is set to begin in 2025. A first, 67-kilometer long section of tunnel will connect the logistics hub of Härkingen-niederbipp to Zurich by 2030. Price tag: 3 billion Swiss francs.
If everything goes according to plan, the entire network may become operational in 2045 when it will be accessible to all companies. Switzerland will then have access to an automated, digitized comprehensive logistics center which, according to CST, “will promote the competitiveness of its economy and quality of life over the long term.”
The number of heavy-duty trucks will drop by 40 percent by moving freight transport underground. Freight traffic could be 30 percent lower in cities. This off-ramp from traffic jams would boost the security of supply, because punctuality is more important to logistics than speed. “Goods have to move dependably and therefore predictably; it doesn’t matter if they move slowly,” says Aellig.
Voters seem to support the visionary project. In the Credit Suisse Progress Barometer (starting on page 55), the call for Switzerland to move traffic (not only freight) underground enjoys the broadest support.