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Transportation Technology

Underground Freight Networks 284

Posted by kdawson
from the yesterday's-tomorrow-today dept.
morphovar writes "The German Ruhr University of Bochum is conducting experiments with a large-scale model for an automated subterranean transport system. It would use unmanned electric vehicles on rails that travel in a network through pipelines with a diameter of 1.6 meters, up to distances of 150 kilometers. Sending cargo goods through underground pipelines is anything but new — see this scan of a 1929 magazine article about Chicago's underground freight tunnel network (more details). Translating this concept to the 21st century would be something like introducing email for things: you could order something on the Internet and pick it up through a trapdoor in your cellar the next morning."
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Underground Freight Networks

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  • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:28AM (#22663936) Homepage Journal
    you insensitive clod!
    • by calebt3 (1098475) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:39AM (#22664138)
      Don't worry. A basement will substitute perfectly.
      • I think in all my life I've only lived in one home that had a basement. That was well over 30 years ago.
        • by CastrTroy (595695)
          I find that very odd. I thought almost all houses had basements.
          • I believe most basements are created to satisfy a requirement of laying a foundation (or footing) a certain distance below the frost line. In the south the frost line is often less than three feet (in my case 4 inches) and basements are only built to satisfy the home owner's desire for more usable space.

            Since cellars suffer mold problems in the warm and moist climate in the south, it is rare that a house has one down here.

            I forgot where I originally heard this explanation...

        • by plague3106 (71849)
          Do you live in a southern state?
  • Whaaaaaa? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:29AM (#22663940)
    Did someone get ahold of an old Popular Mechanics or something?
  • Fabbing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Smackheid (1217632) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:30AM (#22663974) Homepage Journal
    Meh. By the time they get something like this up and running, home fabbing will probably be very viable anyway.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by OldeTimeGeek (725417)
      And the materials will get to you how?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ShieldW0lf (601553)
        The fabber should be able to recycle things made via a similar fabber.

        They should have an integrated wireless connection and be designed to set up a peer to peer mesh network, then automatically share any new design that is loaded into them with any other similar devices within range.

        That should pretty much destroy the justification for intellectual property laws... everyone will be scratching their own itches, automatically sharing what they create and automatically being able to leverage other peoples cre
        • by tjstork (137384)
          The fabber should be able to recycle things made via a similar fabber

          So your fabber is going to make steel in the basement?
      • Fabbing and Patents (Score:5, Interesting)

        by camperdave (969942) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:09PM (#22664548) Journal
        Recycled from trash, etc.

        Actually, I think that fabbing is going to run into the same "intellectual property" felgercarb that music and video is running into. As far as I know, the only physical objects with copyright hinderances on them are buildings (not sure about china patterns, and silverware).

        Right now, there are patents. Are there fair use clauses for patents? If I download a fabbing pattern from a foreign source, am I breaking patent law, or breaking import law? If I scan an object and distribute a fabbing pattern, have I broken patent law? What if I fab something I saw in a TV show, is that a copyright violation, a trademark infringement, or a patent violation? If a beautiful young female made off with one of my silverware fabbing patterns can I say that the dish ran away with the spoon?

        I think we may look back on the halcyon days of yore when we only had the RIAA to deal with.
      • Re:Fabbing (Score:5, Interesting)

        by JesseL (107722) * on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:22PM (#22664752) Homepage Journal

        And the materials will get to you how?
        The feed [wikipedia.org]. Duh.
  • Pneumatic Telegraph (Score:5, Interesting)

    by StCredZero (169093) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:30AM (#22663982)
    Many large cities in the US had a Pneumatic Telegraph [google.com] at one time. Basically one of those pneumatic tube package delivery systems, but spanning the whole city. This was back in the 1800's. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
    • by Sirch (82595) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:34AM (#22664058) Homepage
      Damn Interesting [damninteresting.com] has a very, ahem, interesting article on the building of the atmospheric railway [damninteresting.com] under Broadway in New York - imagine a subway car propelled in the same way as the pneumatic telegraph...

      A scene from Brazil [imdb.com] springs to mind...
      • by suso (153703) *
        A scene from Brazil springs to mind...

        I was thinking the same thing. Fifth Element has the same thing. Reminds me of going to the bank when I was kid.
      • by csnydermvpsoft (596111) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:55AM (#22664396) Homepage
        From the Damn Interesting article: ...and some of these lines remained in operation until 1953. Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes.

        Ha! How wrong they were! Everyone knows that series of tubes are much more efficient than big trucks.
      • by PaddyM (45763)
        I second the brazil comment.
      • The piston railway would have been a nightmare to construct and operate on a large scale. The difficulties encountered with rounding sharp corners, or switching trains between lines would have been immense, nevermind the difficulties you'd encounter with leakages or blockages in the tunnels.

        As far as cool rail technologies that never made it go, the Gyro Monorail [wikipedia.org] has got to be by far the greatest.
    • So, maybe the internet really is a series of tubes? Are the dump trucks going to be replaced by tiny underground trains? I'm so confused...
    • by Blakey Rat (99501)
      Haha, I was gonna say. 1929 is the oldest they could find? Pneumatics (this same concept, minus the electric motor) go back to the mid 19th century; I think London had one in place for mail delivery by 1870, IIRC.
    • by auric_dude (610172) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:09PM (#22664540)
      The Post Office Underground Railway, London First pneumatic then electrically powered. In 1853, a small vacuum tube about 225 yards (200 metres) long was built to deliver letters inside a Post Office building. The system, now known as a Lamson Tube, became very popular, and in 1859 the Pneumatic Despatch Company was formed to build a larger subterranean line between the Post Office buildings. A test-line 450 yards (411 metres) long was built near Battersea, and the Post Office approved it. Read all about it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3826019 [bbc.co.uk]
    • by binaryspiral (784263) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:51PM (#22665158)
      Three major hospitals around my city use pnuematic tubes to transport drugs, lab samples, and paperwork from labs, clinics, and other offices.

      It's real fun when the tube's routing switches go wacky and start directing stool samples to the billing department.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jdavidb (449077) *

      I am in awe. Your Google link already lists this slashdot article as the third result, noting that it was posted "three hours ago."

      I'm not sure if I'm in awe of your Google-bombing skills, or of Google's spidering skills. Either way, I'm in awe.

  • by JesseL (107722) * on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:31AM (#22663990) Homepage Journal
    I hear that Harriet Tubman has experience with this sort of thing.
    • by jbeaupre (752124)
      She had experience with the underground railroad. And it's true, she still has underground experience http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Hill_Cemetery [wikipedia.org]. But I'd suggest she's earned her peace and we don't bother her.
    • by zappepcs (820751)
      That was funny! Alas, I have no mod points.

      Everyone else has already pointed out the obvious flaws in such a system, but if done correctly, it could actually reduce street level traffic, reduce smog problems, and a bunch of other things, but the mail your ex-boss a bomb problem is pretty scary.
  • Email for things? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by moderatorrater (1095745) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:31AM (#22664014)
    I'm sorry, but that's just a dumb analogy. Email isn't overnight or even fast, it's nigh instantaneous. How about "overnight shipping for free" or something else that doesn't involve breaking it down into bits?
  • Security concerns? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd@harrelsonfa[ ]y.org ['mil' in gap]> on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:32AM (#22664020) Homepage
    How about the security implications? Hack the system, free stuff. Or, mail a bomb to your ex.

    The postal system is more secure because people are constantly in the loop.
  • O rly? (Score:4, Funny)

    by psychodelicacy (1170611) <bstcbn@gmail.com> on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:32AM (#22664024)
    From the article: "Note that pneumatic systems could deliver physical objects, which is hard to do with email..."
  • Series of tubes (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Depili (749436)

    Just hope that a shipment of spam doesn't clog your tubes :)

  • good luck w/ bombs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by GringoGoiano (176551)
    this would be great target for terrorists, especially if it's your society's major delivery network. a few well-placed ticking bombs would bring you down. it ain't 1929 no more.
    • I was thinking this too. How hard would it be to set up a website advertizing amazing deals on pornography, alchohol, wiccan artifacts or any number of things that people get into a religious huff about. Then, instead of delivering the goods each heathen gets a handy bomb delivered to their basement.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by plague3106 (71849)
      This may come as a shock to you, but in 1929 we already had bombs and such. How is this not any different than 1929?
    • by eck011219 (851729) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:01PM (#22664458)
      Let's not get panicky. Many cities already have labyrinths of sub-basements under their downtown areas (the aforementioned one in Chicago, where I live, and many others). Moreover, think about the maze of tunnels running under Washington, D.C.?

      The point is to be sensible about securing it, not to not have it. We still fly planes, don't we? We still allow rental of U-Haul trucks, right? Just because it CAN be used for bad behavior doesn't mean a) it will be, or b) it can't be secured with a reasonable amount of caution. Hell, if we felt THAT way about things, guns would have been outlawed a long time ago. (AND they would still exist anyway, AND people would still use them for bad stuff.)

      All that said, though, of course subterranean tunnels make a tasty target for destructive behavior. The point is that a tunnel system under a metropolitan area should be carefully monitored. And if it can be quickly flooded (or all oxygen can be quickly removed) in the event of fire or "evildoers," all the better.

      In effect, the tunnels under Chicago DID cause widespread damage a few years ago. A construction crew drove a piling down into the Chicago river and punched through the tunnel wall underneath, flooding the entire downtown area's basements with river water. So it can be dangerous to have the tunnels, but better provisions for evildoers and morons (probably more the latter) would have minimized the problem. That's an old tunnel system, but a new one could be built with the ability to quickly isolate one problem section.

      I guess I'm reacting to the terror terror, you know? We must be wise and sensible, but if a tunnel system under the city is the only appropriate and complete solution to a given problem, we can't let fear of something rare (in fact, so rare as to be historically significant when it happens) take it off the table.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tthomas48 (180798)
      If by it's not 1929 anymore you mean there's less bombing and more security on our critical infrastructure. If you mean by not 1929 anymore that we have a media that hypes up how dangerous our ridiculously safe lives are then yes, I'd agree with you.
      However, if you're somehow insinuating that terrorist acts are up you have a disgraceful knowledge of history. I mean, it's been almost thirty years since someone tried to assasinate a US president. Things are pretty mellow all things considered. While Al Qaida
    • by Vellmont (569020)

      this would be great target for terrorists, especially if it's your society's major delivery network.

      Right. Because the existing mail system has never been successfully used for this:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unabomber [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mail_bomb [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_anthrax_attacks [wikipedia.org]

      I'm more than a little tired of the "but the terrorists!" reply.
  • To Your Cellar? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Pinkybum (960069) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:34AM (#22664054)
    Nice fantasy - we can't even get fiber to the home let alone deliver things to your cellar.
  • Amazing! (Score:5, Funny)

    by ObjetDart (700355) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:35AM (#22664068)
    ...you could order something on the Internet and pick it up through a trapdoor in your cellar the next morning

    This would be such an amazing improvement over the current state of affairs, where I can order something on the Internet and pick it up through a front door in my living room the next morning.

  • Minor error (Score:5, Funny)

    by inio (26835) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:36AM (#22664084) Homepage

    ... pick it up through a trapdoor in your cellar the next morning


    I believe you mean Aperture Science Vital Apparatus Vent.
  • Not for the home (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:37AM (#22664112) Homepage Journal
    Even if this were practical for large businesses like the old pneumatic tube system in NYC, there is no way it would be practical for someone to dig it out to every home in the area for a handful of deliveries per month at the most. Digging tunnels is expensive and time consuming.

    The best you could hope for is to have it dug to the basement of a large apartment complex.
    • Some kind of joint venture might be practical, though. If you could get all the various utilities to cooperate (yeah, I know, good luck with that) you could dig one tunnel for water, sewer, electricity, gas, cable, phone, and package delivery. It'd save a fortune over all those entities having to dig their own trenches (or set up their own poles for above-ground service), and repairs and upgrades could be accomplished without having to dig anything up.

      Probably never happen, though.

      You could maybe make an ar
    • by rhartness (993048)
      I had the same thought and I was planning on posting a response with such a sentiment. Here is another way of looking at it. If ISPs and government organizations find to expensive to run a tiny, glass thread to every home (a fiber-optic cable for the slower ones) for the sake of advancing our current information infrastucture, what in the world makes you think any organization or government would attempt to embark on a system like this? Tunneling is expensive, especially when you consider the "last mile"
    • by ps236 (965675)
      For new builds it'd be OK. They will generally install tubes for various things, such as gas, water, sewage etc into most houses anyway, so just add another one.

  • This sounds a lot like a retooled vacuum tube system. While these were very popular years ago, they have gone out of style aside from banks and other niche markets because the number of tubes can easilly get out of control, and the infrastructure is costly compared to other solutions.
    • by pyite (140350)
      This sounds a lot like a retooled vacuum tube system. While these were very popular years ago, they have gone out of style aside from banks and other niche markets because the number of tubes can easilly get out of control, and the infrastructure is costly compared to other solutions.

      And because of transistors.

  • Like DIA, DOA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DieByWire (744043) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @11:50AM (#22664302)

    Denver International Airport tried something along that line [wikipedia.org].

    Things went so badly that when they sent camera equipped luggage to trouble shoot the system, they lost their camera equipped baggage. Forever.

    United finally abandoned the system a few years ago, though they're still paying for it.

  • I wonder how much alcohol was smuggled through those underground tunnels in Chicago during prohibition.
  • A huge network of tubes! He probably even has a name for it. internet?
  • by sgauss (639539)
    Apparently a contractor was doing work driving pilings into the river bed near one of the bridges, and in the process they damaged the roof of one of the tunnels where it went under the river. Chicago's system had been largely abandoned, but it still connected into subbasements of buildings all over downtown. It shut down downtown for days. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Flood [wikipedia.org]
  • flying Cars won't happen because people are idiots and can barely pilot automobiles. Add another dimension to their travels, and it blows their mental buffer in a big way. It's why we pay pilots large sums of money to get us home in one piece.

    The post says:

    Translating this concept to the 21st century would be something like introducing email for things: you could order something on the Internet and pick it up through a trapdoor in your cellar the next morning."

    Suuuure... Let's dig up the ENTIRE NATIO

  • Although I can understand picking a modest diameter, this network will only be valuable if it minimizes the handling costs at each end. That implies picking a size that permits efficient multi-modal shipments without repacking the containers. Otherwise the labor for handling the freight would far far exceed any energy cost savings.

    The "best" solution might be a 20' or 40' TEU-compatible form factor (e.g. the trailer boxes seen on ocean-going ships). This would require a tunnel with an inside diameter of
  • Most large scale transportation technologies/systems have been developed with the military in mind, so an equivalent here would be appropriate.

    1. Roads - Built to make cross-country marching faster (The Romans could project force rapidly with their road systems, keeping rebellion in check for centuries)
    2. Freeways - Built to be an even FASTER way to get things across country for the military (see the Autobahn, for example, it was one of the most effective force multipliers the germans had)
    3. Airplane - The
  • I thought the first rule of Freight Club is that you aren't supposed to talk about it?
  • Pipelines are just swell for moving liquids.

    Tunnels are not so good for moving solid items. There are just too many logistical and physical problems. Every foot of tunnel is a potential point for derailments and jams. Not too bad for a short tunnel, but if you have hundreds of miles, the chances of a jam get quite high. And jams take a lot of time and effort to clear. And think of the logistical problems of shuttling off loads at intermediate places.

    The system under Chicago was abandoned, which giv

  • This would have happened already if it made economic sense. We already have freight networks above ground. For long-haul freight, this system would have to acquire rights-of-way and then build. Since traditional rail freight is actually a money-making system for the rail roads, why would they want to disturb their existing operations? Maybe if they could add carrying capacity without disturbing track, they would do it, but it's a heck of a lot easier to add another car, and if there are too many cars ad

  • by Simonetta (207550) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:20PM (#22664706)
    The first thing that one must ask, after ohh-ing and ahh-ing over the fantastic concept, is 'Why did this fail in the past?' Because really great ideas in city planning are never new, and have always been tried before. If it is still around, then it worked. If not, then it was abandoned because it didn't work. Why?

        This mini-tunnel concept was done in Paris about 100 years ago. Small packages were delivered around the city using compressed air in a long series of tubes. It was abandoned by the late 1960s.

        Tunnels have problems. Especially in the middle of cities. The buildings are high and the foundations are deep. The tunnels have to be deeper. And their sides re-enforced.

          How are you going to keep the water out of them?

          What do you do when they become obstructed by cave-in or automated-container collisions?

          Who's going to pay for all this?

          Who's going to pay to fix it in twenty to fifty years when it becomes known that massive amounts of money were stolen during the initial construction phase? (like the 'big dig' in Boston).

          One of the great things about being a student of German history is to watch them meticiously design, craft, and build an elaborate 'solution' and then blow it all up in a fit of Wagnerian madness. Then pick up the pieces, go back into 'DeutscheKraftwerk' (not a real word but a real concept) mentality, and begin the whole process all over again with a new generation purified by fire and the triumph of the will. While the rest of the world just watches and feels sorry for their neighbors.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Grishnakh (216268)
      The first thing that one must ask, after ohh-ing and ahh-ing over the fantastic concept, is 'Why did this fail in the past?' Because really great ideas in city planning are never new, and have always been tried before. If it is still around, then it worked. If not, then it was abandoned because it didn't work. Why?

      This is a very good thing to do. As they say, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

      However, I think these prior attempts at similar systems were mentioned in the article.

      T
  • Whit the whole world using containers [wikipedia.org] that wouldn't be a nice choice.
  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:25PM (#22664800)
    I have already formed HamsterGram LLC, a company that sends messages by tying them to the back of hamsters and then letting them loose in the giant network of empty fiber-optic conduits that cross the United States.

    Routing is easy, as different hamsters have been trained to prefer different types of food - Chicago hamsters prefer pizza, New York hamsters prefer vended hotdogs, Wisconsin hamsters prefer sharp cheddar, etc.

    To solve the last mile problem I have issued them all armored hamster balls, so if you see one rolling down the street for the sake of your car I'd recommend avoidance.

  • a family of rats with a side order of cockroaches, please?
  • I don't see any foot icon...

    The idea that this would work in the U.S anywhere besides 'big cities' is funnier than a rubber crutch. We can't even bury utilities.

    Mod post funny.
  • The Ted Stevens Memorial Intertubes
  • MailRail in London (Score:4, Informative)

    by Animats (122034) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @12:33PM (#22664938) Homepage

    MailRail [ntlworld.com], in London, came closest to the proposed system. Little automated electric trains carried mail since 1928. It was shut down in 2003. (It's still intact, though; it might be restarted some day.)

    MailRail gives a sense of the constraints of a realistic system. The tunnels are 9 feet in diameter and double-tracked, so it's possible to get repair crews and equipment into the tunnels without much trouble. For small-tube systems, breakdowns are tough to deal with. MailRail was a railroad in miniature, with stations, sidings, switches, repair shops, and work trains. Even rails wear out and have to be reground or replaced, so MailRail had the gear to do "maintenance of way" work. All those things are needed, and many of them are labor intensive.

    The operating cost on MailRail was quite high, even though all the capital costs had long since been paid for. Cost was 3x to 5x the cost of using trucks. But the real problem was that it didn't go to the right places; over the decades, post offices had been moved to locations off the MailRail line, and only three of the nine stations were still in use.

    The Chicago tunnel system had a different problem. It was designed when long-haul freight was by rail and local delivery was horse-powered. Bear in mind that trains were routinely hauling heavy loads by 1850, but trucks didn't appear until the 1920s and didn't work well until the 1930s. (1920s trucks had power comparable to that of a small car today.) So for a seventy-year period, local delivery was badly matched to long-haul transport. Early attempts to deal with this problem involved breeding very large horses [shirehorse.org]. This was the period of pneumatic tubes, underground freight rail systems, and similar attempts to fix the local delivery problem. Once truck engines and drivetrains become powerful enough to do the job, those local delivery systems were no longer needed.

  • "In the apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island, residents drop their trash down chutes, and it gets sucked at nearly 60 miles per hour through 20-inch underground pipes that run more than a half-mile up the island. After arriving at the ground floor of a gray three-story building at the north end of the island, the trash is compacted to about one-twentieth of its original size, sealed in a container and trucked to landfills outside the state." http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/19/nyregion/19trash.html [nytimes.com]
  • Speaking of automated networks for distributing physical goods: Pneumatic tubes used to be "the future," and were actually pretty popular for a while. Some buildings were wired pretty well with pneumatic tubes, and there was talk about running them to every house and receiving and sending your mail, etc. through them. This never happened, and I believe the main reason it didn't was that, at the time, there was no such thing as automated switching that could work quickly enough. The pneumatic tube systems th
  • Richard Sauder (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Thursday March 06, 2008 @05:59PM (#22669822)
    Skip the small-fry stuff.

    Google has a few chapters of Richard's book [google.ca] about military tunnel-digging posted.


    -FL

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