Are underground tubes the future of logistics?

Gemma James
posted by Gemma James
17 May 2015

The government has announced grant funding to Mole Solutions for a nine-month feasibility study in Northampton. It will assess the viability of transporting goods in driverless steel carts via underground tubes, powered by magnetic waves produced by electricity.

This technology already works above ground with maglev trains, and could be employed underground to propel freight from the town's outskirts to inner town nodal points.

The technology could revolutionise the logistics industry and reduce traffic and air pollution. Without traffic jams, goods could be transported at high speeds and to accurate timetables around the clock, theoretically without causing disruption to people living near main roads. Other services (e.g. oil, gas, water, and electricity) are delivered via underground media - the Post Office employed underground delivery methods years ago in London - so the idea feels feasible. The development and operation of this new system could also boost employment in the construction and engineering sectors.

The question for logistics companies is whether to get on board immediately if the study proves successful in the hope that investment could lead to market domination. There is a danger of getting left behind if customers choose the potentially more environmentally-friendly and reliable underground methods even if the costs are greater. Meanwhile, as roads get slower and more expensive to travel on, the traditional model of a logistics company may need reviewing.

However, despite reports of certain companies’ (e.g. DHL) involvement from early on, others may be sceptical. Developing technology of this nature is slow and costly, without the guarantee it’ll ever be put into practice. Digging tunnels for tubes will cause protests by neighbours even if scientists can locate routes to avoid disrupting existing pipes, supply lines and drains.

Inhabitants may worry about ground stability, vibrations and noise from the tubes below. Recent fracking-related protests are a prime example of how a community’s sentiments can cause disruption to proposed developments. If the tunnelling companies are unable to buy all the land they need, will the landowners grant them tunnelling rights under their properties or will the government have to pass legislation to give them rights, possibly with compensation to the landowners?

Even if there’s sufficient funding for the development and operation of the system, it’s hard to predict reliability and safety, which may be harder to control and maintain than overground transport methods. Rafts of legal contracts would be necessary throughout the operation for the initial purchasing or leasing of land, for the grant of rights to create and use tunnels, for general construction work, for use of the tube and between carriers and their clients ensuring transmission of goods from and to the drop-off and pick-up points of the tunnels.

Where additional forms of transport and carriers are involved, there’s an increased potential for damage to goods, resulting in litigation. Depots and storage premises would be required wherever the tubes surface, potentially leading to more construction and property transactions as the industry shifts its focus to both transport methods and prime locations for business.

Logistics companies should watch the developments carefully. The science fiction of today could easily become reality tomorrow and success in the future may literally lie beneath our feet.

☛ Gemma James is a partner at law firm Mundays

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