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Dead medium: Freight Tubes
From: (Brett Shand)

Source(s): "Tube Freight Transportation" by Lawrence Vance and Milton K. Mills

(((Brett Shand remarks: Well this ain't dead, but it sure the hell is interesting!)))

(((bruces remarks: Tube freight is not dead, and not a medium either, but it is clearly a technology with apparently great promise that has conspicuously failed to deliver. This four-year-old government report by a pair of US federal engineers casts an interesting sidelight on a long-time Dead Media darling, pneumatic mail. Tube freight is the (mostly conjectural) big brother of the pneumatic post. The appeal is obvious: why settle for rapidly puffing mere "petit bleu" mailnotes beneath Paris, when the Russians and Japanese can ship entire trainloads at high speed through closed tubes? Furthermore, I confess myself thrilled to discover a credible reference to the long-abandoned underground railway of Chicago. If memory serves, Chicago suffered a catastrophe in the 1980s when this abandoned system broke open and was extensively flooded by the river. New York's abandoned pneumatic subway is notorious, but Chicago's dead subterranean railway still lacks its Dead Media chronicler.)))

Tube Freight Transportation by Lawrence Vance and Milton K. Mills


"Under a research program on advanced freight movement, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with the support of the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center is examining the technical and economic feasibility of tube transportation systems to address future freight transportation requirements.

"Tube freight transportation is a class of unmanned transportation systems in which close-fitting capsules or trains of capsules carry freight through tubes between terminals. All historic systems were pneumatically powered and often referred to as pneumatic capsule pipelines.

"One modern proposed system called SUBTRANS uses capsules that are electrically powered with linear induction motors and run on steel rails in a tube about two meters (6 feet) in diameter. The system can be thought of as a small unmanned train in a tube carrying containerized cargo."


"Potential Advantages of Tube Freight Transportation Systems

"Tube transportation systems have a number of attractive features that make them worthy of evaluation as alternatives for future freight transportation systems. Because such systems are unmanned and fully automatic, they are safer than truck or railroad systems. When traveling down grades, the capsules may be able to regenerate energy for improved energy efficiency. Because they are enclosed, they are unaffected by weather and are not subject to most common rail and highway accidents. Hazardous cargo can be more safely transported than on surface systems. The tubes could also be used as conduits for communication cables for the future information highway."


"The tubes can be placed above, on, or below ground. Underground locations are useful in environmentally sensitive areas and are important where surface congestion makes surface right-of-way difficult or expensive to obtain. Much right-of-way potentially exists below our present highway system."


"Tube transportation has a history that extends back at least 200 years. During this period, systems for both passengers and freight have been built and operated. Some are in operation today. In addition, there have been many more proposals that were never built. All of the historical tube transportation systems were pneumatically powered.

"George Medhurst, a London businessman, is considered the earliest proponent of pneumatic-powered railways although there were a few earlier, brief suggestions from others. He first published a freight proposal in 1810, a passenger proposal in 1812, and a more comprehensive set of proposals in 1827.

"Despite four demonstration systems, including a 95-m (312-ft), underground system built in New York City in 1869-70, no large-size tube transportation system has been introduced into common carrier service. The primary result of this activity was to lend support to the development of underground electric railway systems for urban passenger transportation. However, small diameter pneumatic pipelines have been providing reliable freight transportation around the world for more than 150 years.

"Common applications of pneumatic pipelines before World War II were the high-priority movement of documents and parts in industrial environments and movement of letters and telegrams under city streets to bypass congestion. These systems were built with tubes ranging from 5 to 20 centimeters (2 to 8 inches) in diameter. Such systems are still being built today to expedite small shipments."


"After World War II, larger pneumatic systems were developed and built in Japan and Russia to move bulk materials such as limestone and garbage. These systems had considerably greater throughput as a result of both their increased diameters of 0.9 to 1.2 m (3 to 4 ft) and their mode of operation, which allowed more capsules to move through the tube at one time. By the early 1970s, several groups began to give consideration to the use of these pipeline designs for common carrier, general merchandise freight applications using tubes 1.2 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 ft) in diameter.

"Nippon Steel Corporation and Daifuku Machinery Works Ltd., using an early license from TRANSCO of Houston, Texas, have built a 0.6 m (2ft) diameter, 1.5 km (0.9 mi), double line to move burnt lime in Nippon Steel's Muroran Number 2 steel plant. This elevated line was built in the mid-1980s and uses capsule trains (two cars per train) to move 22,000 metric tons (24,266 short tons) per month. This system is called AIRAPID.

"Sumitomo Cement Co. built a similar system in 1983 to move limestone 3.2 km (2 mi) between a mine and their cement plant. The 1 m (3.2ft) diameter pipe carries three car capsule trains delivering 2.2 million metric tons (2.43 million short tons) per year. This system was originally based on a Russian license but was considerably redesigned by the company.

"A number of tube systems, called TRANSPROGRESS systems, for moving crushed rock are being used in the former Soviet Union. An 11 km (6.8 mi) line for garbage was built in 1983 from St. Petersburg to an outlying processing facility using TRANSPROGRESS technology. This technology has also been applied to intraplant systems.

"Historically, there is a precedent for underground freight operations. The most notable underground freight system was the 80 km (50 mi) electric railway system built under the city of Chicago for the collection and distribution of general cargo and coal.

"The Chicago system operated from 1904 to 1958, interfacing with the main-line railroads."

Brett Shand (
Managing Director, Earthlight Internet Services
Dunedin New Zealand