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A deep humming sound swells behind the crumbling brick walls of a disused power plant in Bochum in the Ruhr region of western Germany. Few visitors are allowed in here, but those who manage to get past the building’s steel doors – after strict security checks – find a huge disused factory with an oval rollercoaster-like track spread across its floor. A strange vehicle loaded with computers and electric motors circles the construction. It is controlled from a laptop by a man with grey hair.

The man with the computer is Dietrich Stein, professor emeritus at Ruhr-University Bochum. “For the first time, we have the technology to do away with traffic jams and environmental pollution,” he enthuses. The machine making all the noise is a scaled-down model of what Stein calls CargoCap. This is a system of autonomous, computer-controlled capsules that – if everything goes to plan – will one day supply everything from your post to your weekly food shop via underground pipelines. The “caps” – short for “capsules” – will run in formation and deliver to stations buried 6m below the city. Each cap will be able to deliver loads as large as two standard europallets, equivalent to approximately four dishwashers. The service will be for goods only – this is no metro.

The whole system is a giant version of pneumatic mail – those pipes that delivered post over long distances in cities including Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Prague in the 19th century. It appeared that they had been made obsolete, but today their technology is being rediscovered by pharmacies, banks, chemical companies and car-manufacturers, all looking for efficient and green ways of delivering goods.

Stein is thinking of pumping something bigger than a box of aspirin through his pipes, though. For him, the future of logistics is subterranean and he has spent the past 10 years of his life trying to prove this. CargoCap would pick up goods from trains, planes or ships at the edge of the city and – in its first phase – transport them directly to major organisations such as Ikea or mail-order companies. From there you would still need trucks for the last mile to the customer, but the system would nevertheless reduce traffic dramatically.

CargoCap would be run either as a public company with private investors raising the required €3m per km of pipe – which is not that expensive compared with costs for a stretch of Autobahn, which is a minimum of €15m per km.

Stein has won – and lost – government subsidies and has improved his system with the support of engineers, lawyers, and economists from Ruhr-University as well as backing from technology companies such as SEW Eurodrive and the energy corporation RWe ag. Now it seems as though his message is finally being heard: a few months ago the logistics giant DHL decided to help finance a CargoCap feasibility study.

“As long as no one invents Star Trek-like beaming, we are very interested in the system,” says Keith Ulrich, head of the DHL Innovation Centre in Troisdorf. Ulrich says that Stein and his pipelines are “anything but science fiction – rather, it is probably the answer to a problem that will bother us for a long time: how to supply future megacities?” He also believes that the growth of online shopping, with the increased flow of parcels sent to individuals, is only set to rise. Think of all those books from Amazon, or your new wardrobe from Net-a-porter. This is all good business for DHL – and potentially for CargoCap.

Metropolises such as Bangkok or Tokyo are often gridlocked, says Ulrich. That’s not good for DHL trucks – or the company’s reputation for reliability. “In Beijing it’s faster to walk,” says Ulrich. Stein has the statistics for his native Ruhr area – the average speed of delivery trucks is 15km an hour. CargoCap would reach speeds of up to 36km an hour.

However, says Ulrich, it was probably not the best idea to focus on the domestic German market, as Stein has done until now. “We want to expand the project’s horizon globally.” For rapidly growing cities such as São Paulo, Mexico City or Chinese developments currently being built, subterranean supply systems are crucial, he believes.

Other scientists all over the world agree. Tyrolean engineers are fighting for Talpino, a 400km-long tunnel under the Alps with hovercraft-like floating “boxes” that would connect Munich with Genoa. In Alpine, New Jersey, William Vandersteel is working on a Tubexpress, an “automated system for transporting freight through underground concrete pipelines, connecting nation-wide centres”. And Henry Liu, retired engineering professor from the University of Missouri-Columbia and president of Freight Pipeline Company, is suggesting subsurface-vehicles to supply New York.

Again, not a bad idea, says Ulrich. “If you look at illustrations of underground New York, you see that the city is completely tunnelled. There are pipes for gas, water, people and trains – but not for goods. It shouldn’t stay that way.” In its second phase CargoCap could even supply apartments directly, says Stein – so your new Tomorrowland suit would pop out of an opening in your home. Sounds unrealistic? That’s exactly what an existing Swedish company is already doing today all around the world – just in the opposite direction. Envac is the global leader in automated waste collection. For more than 40 years, it has specialised in going underground, and this year the company is looking to boost growth from the current annual rate of 20 per cent to 30 per cent.

“Our system reduces traffic, is safer, cleaner, and has lower emissions than conventional waste management,” boasts Joakim Karlsson, Envac’s international manager for north Europe. You may have seen its bins in the old towns of Palma de Mallorca or Barcelona, in Copenhagen, Hong Kong or Lisbon. Envac’s pipes collect the waste of over two million people at some 600 places around the world and the company is working on almost 280 additional sites, from Beijing and Dubai to the 4,500 new shops and stores surrounding the new Wembley Arena in London.

But when Envac really wants to show off, the pioneers of underground logistics take visitors to Hammarby, Stockholm’s brand new eco-friendly district. On this former industrial site, tastefully designed buildings sit close to picturesque canals. Hammarby has emissions a huge 50 per cent lower than even those in housing developments from the early 1990s.

The core of this showcase lies underground. In Hammarby, smelly wastebins, roaring lorries and wind-blown rubbish simply do not exist. Instead Hammarby residents place their refuse bags into chutes in front of their houses. Then, three times a day, a giant vacuum sucks them through subterranean pipes to a central collection station.

It does not look like a rubbish dump. Even when Joakim Karlsson opens the door there still is no smell. That’s because the refuse is compacted into three huge sealed containers of separate rubbish. Envac uses odour filters and a silencer to avoid disturbing the neighbourhood.

Inside, switchboard and a computer sit in one corner but there are no people. Except for the sporadic glitch, the system works automatically. Everything looks high-tech and incredibly tidy. “In Asia, the main reason for investing is to keep communities clean and hygienic,” says Karlsson. In Europe governments and developers are interested in the environmental benefits and in better working conditions for refuse collectors who, he claims, are not put out of work by the system but can move to the cleaner job of operating the machines.

Of course, it’s more expensive to install underground waste management than to simply go on with old-fashioned collecting by hand, but thanks to considerable space savings and lower collection costs the expenditure is covered after six to 10 years.

The only downside is that Envac still digs old-fashioned trenches to install its system – which creates problems in busy city centres. Stein’s CargoCap – if built – would rely on a more sophisticated technology. With the so-called “trenchless pipe jacking” method, the network can be laid under a city by just digging every 2km along the route and driving the pipes underground in between the two points. “While a new infrastructure develops in the underground, everything stays in motion on the surface,” Stein says.

Though trenchless pipe jacking has been around for 25 years, it has been improved continuously and only now has reached the required level of technological sophistication, he says. From this, Professor Stein derives his most fundamental argument. “Earlier generations built canals under our cities and they lasted for centuries. Now this generation has a historic responsibility: to construct underground freight systems.”

Tunnel love

The first pneumatic letter-chute was built in London in 1853. It was 200m long and connected the Stock Exchange and the Central Telegraph Office. Cities from Prague to Berlin soon adopted the technology. Berlin’s system was gigantic: at its peak it had 400km of tunnels. It ran from 1865 to 1976 when the invention of the fax was said to have put it out of business. Today Prague is the only city that still maintains its letter-chutes. Though the network was badly damaged during floods in 2002, owner Telefónica is now repairing the 55km-long system. Meanwhile, companies such as Hörtig and Aerocom are selling updated letter-chutes to pharmacies, hospitals, chemical companies, supermarkets, banks and car manufacturers such as BMW and Peugeot.

Get on down

From gridlock to cleaning up the city, engineers believe the solution to all our problems is under our very feet: welcome to the world of subterranean solutions.

Chute ’em up
CargoCap envisions a world where lorries are replaced by underground shuttles that deliver parcels and goods to local hubs or even your house. In this brave new world, your new fridge might even arrive on time.

Dig it
Although it is easier to build the tunnels and pipes needed for Envac or CargoCap in emerging megacities, both companies believe that they are systems suited for existing metropolises too. CargoCap has developed a scheme of “trenchless pipe jacking” which means you don’t need to dig up the streets.

Deep thinkers
From plans to bury highways in Sydney to Norway’s underground reservoirs, planners are investing in subterranean engineering. The shops and offices around Berlin’s revitalised Potsdamer Platz are supplied through a network of underground roads – up to 180 lorries a day deliver goods this way.

Smell of success
Envac’s pipes suck rubbish away from the town to clean, quiet and odour-free recycling and collection centres. There are no rubbish trucks and no litter blowing around the streets.

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  • The Entrepreneurs