Cargo sous terrain to enable sustainable freight transport beneath Switzerland

The future goes underground

Europe’s roads and cities are becoming increasingly crowded. Trucks play a large role in this development – and as a result of this fact, the environmental footprint is also growing steadily. Consequently, eco-friendly and low-traffic transport options are increasingly in demand while new strategies for supplying urban centers are being sought. With “Cargo sous terrain” (CST), an innovative solution for freight transport infrastructure, the Swiss are looking for solutions underground. Because we all know the Swiss are good at making holes – and a kind of “freight subway” seems to be a practical solution.

While it’s true that the Cargo sous terrain project has been under discussion for some time, it is finally becoming rock-solid: according to plans and after overcoming some hurdles, CST will enable the Swiss to flexibly transport small-scale goods starting in 2031. Underground tunnels will connect production and logistics sites with Switzerland’s main urban centers.

Plans for gradual expansion

The project will kick off with a first section that will connect the Härkingen-Niederbipp area with Zurich. This first link in the underground network will be around 70 kilometers long. It will join ten connection points, or hubs. Additional important logistics and distribution centers in Switzerland will be connected successively. The plan is to build a comprehensive, 500-kilometer network between Lake Constance and Lake Geneva that will span the small mountainous country by 2050. A lot of money is being spent on this ambitious project. The construction of the first segment will cost about 2.8 billion euros. Another 27.8 billion euros have been budgeted for the final network. Fairly unconventional for a project of this scope: Cargo sous terrain considers itself a market-based initiative with free financing. The construction of the infrastructure and the tunnel operation are not backed by public funds.

Efficient servants underground 

The increasing inner-city traffic problems and the fact that freight transport plays a particularly large role in this have prompted Cargo sous terrain to design a unique urban logistics system. The goods will be transported in subterranean tubes at a depth of 20 to 40 meters. The tunnel will have a diameter of about 6 meters and will have three lanes. Yes, you read that correctly: no tracks will be laid because the cars will move on large rollers in their own lanes.

The vehicles will have an electric drive system and be “steered” via an induction rail. They will move at a speed of about 30 kilometers per hour, transporting the freight through the tubes either on pallets or in adapted containers. Another great advantage is that the vehicles can be cooled, enabling the transport of fresh and refrigerated products.

To top things off, an overhead track will run along the tunnel ceiling so that smaller goods can be conveyed in special boxes at 60 km/h.

Smart role distribution

The lane division in the underground is simple and effective: there is one lane for each direction. Additionally, a central service lane can be used for repairs, to get around blockages or for temporarily storing goods and vehicles.

The individual goods are bundled right in the tunnels, so they are then ready for distribution at the hubs. The loading and unloading of the delivery vehicles at the hubs is expected to be fully automated. Furthermore, hubs will be linked to existing logistics hotspots, offering connections to additional transport options. This means the suppliers won’t have to deliver their goods individually, but instead can coordinate the final deliveries to the various end users.

Model for the future?

With its innovative and digital technology for a new kind of freight transport, CST is contributing significantly to the development of future smart cities. The principle of a modern and fully automated conveyor system with underground transport routes does indeed herald the future. The use of self-propelled, driverless transport vehicles that automatically pick up and deliver bundled merchandise at the designated ramps or lifts are the epitome of efficiency – and this around the clock.

Moreover, the system will be tasked with more than just supplying goods. The disposal of waste or recyclables is also being considered and would be easily feasible.

20-40% fewer trucks

Cargo sous terrain is an important step towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly freight transport in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Roads Office and Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development expect the freight traffic volume within Switzerland to increase by more than 35% by 2040. This growth would not be sustainable for the long term using the current transportation infrastructures. So an unchecked expansion of traditional transport methods would not be a future-oriented solution – after all, free space in the Alpine country is far from unlimited.

The operating company projects a 40% reduction of trucks on the road once the system is fully developed, and a 20% reduction already as a result of the first section between Härkingen-Niederbipp and Zurich.

In the scope of a life cycle assessment, Cargo sous terrain has researched the environmental impact of the entire logistics system and was able to complete an extensive overall assessment. The study focused in particular on potential effects on the air quality, noise emissions, the extent of the space usage and costs in terms of health. The result confirms the assumption that Cargo sous terrain offers clear advantages over the current transport systems. In different reference scenarios, the eco-balance was even projected to improve by up to 80%.

Less emissions, less noise

Accordingly, a switch to underground freight transport can reduce delivery traffic in the cities by up to 30% and noise emissions by up to 50%. The CST is also suitable for both the supply and disposal of waste or recyclable goods. In terms of a sustainable design, the power supply is a particular asset: 100% of the power for the CST will come from renewable energies. That is certainly good news – not just for the eco-balance.