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This proposal was moved here from Transportation Workspace 2016


AFM is a network of Urban Freight Stations connected through underground conveyance system for carbonless goods transportation in a city



The urban freight in a city constitutes 10 to 18 per cent of all city road traffic, and 40 per cent of air pollution and noise emissions, are directly related to commercial transport.  The Automatic Freight Mover (AFM) envisages development of a comprehensive network of Urban Freight Stations (UFS) connected through underground conveyance system in the city akin to baggage handling system in major airports.  The transportation of freight shall be done in standard size containers through rail borne carts running on underground conveyance system. The major Urban Freight Terminals (UFTs) may be located at outskirts of the city where city bound freight is received, stored, packaged, stuffed in containers for  distribution in the city though AFM system.  The movement of containers is tracked and controlled electronically using RFID by Movement Tracking & Control System (MTCS).  The container are de-stuffed at the destination UFS and goods sent for  delivery at final destination through electric freight carriers. An UFS may serve a catchment area of around 5 kms radius. A comprehensive network of AFMs spread across the city is desirable for effective distribution of goods in a city.  The Linear Induction Motor (LIM) technology can be used for moving containers on dedicated tracks at a faster speed (60-90 kmph). The proposed AFM system will obviate the need of movement of trucks in a city for distribution of goods. The AFM will allow movement of goods throughout the day without any traffic congestion or pollution.The distribution of perishable items like fruits, milk, fish  may be done in refrigerated containers during night so that these are available for consumption in the day. The underground AFM system can  house other utilities like cables for optimum utilization of the facility. The  benefits would be saving on carbon emission, decongestion of roads, faster freight movement, reduction in air and noise pollution, saving in manpower. 

Is this proposal for a practice or a project?


What actions do you propose?

The solution envisages development of a comprehensive network of underground Automatic Freight Mover (AFM) System in the city in line with Baggage Handling System (BHS) of any of the major airports.  The network of AFMs shall consists of following:

  1. Urban Freight Terminals (UFTs)

A Urban Freight Terminal is a big ware house like facility where

  • city bound freight is received by train or tucks as bulk consignment
  • Freight is received, stored and segregated according to the destination
  • Freight is stuffed in the standard containers destination wise
  • The Containers are RFID Coded with information of destination
  • The containers are despatched through underground conveyance system 

The UFTs are equipped with mechanized handling of freight, separate refrigerated facility for perishable goods (Milk, Fish, fruits, vegetables etc), mechanized loading and unloading of containers. 

2. Rail based underground conveyance system

The conveyance system is a network of underground rail system designed to carry carts loaded with containers. An underground network of tunnels underneath the existing road network may be a workable solution. The freight tunnel may be constructed using simple open and cut method without use of sophisticated methods like Tunnel Boring Machines used for underground subway networks. A dia of 3-5 ms would be sufficient to carry the desired freight load on rail bound vehicles. The tunnel sections in the form of rings may be pre-fabricated in construction yards and can be fixed together at site for faster and cost effective construction. These tunnels may be developed multi- purpose facilities for utilities carrying cables, water pipelines, gas pipelines & sewerage.  A typical layout of underground multi-purpose tunnel is as under:

3)Automatic Mover system

The Containers may be loaded on Destination Coded Vehicles (DCVs) called carts to be moved on network on track. The track includes flat linear motors, giving thrust to free running carts.  The DCVs are carts propelled by linear induction motors, and these carts are mounted on tracks. They transport the containders at high speed on a “mini” railway network. Linear Induction motor (LIM) technology is proposed to be used to propel DCVs on tracks.

The Linear Induction Motor (LIM) System offers a potential technical and cost effective solution to increase the speed of transportation. A linear induction motor is a kind of electric motor with stator and rotor flattened. Instead of generating a rotation it produces a linear force along its length.  In this design, the force is produced by a moving linear magnetic field acting on conductors in the field. Any conductor, be it a loop, a coil or simply a piece of plate metal, that is placed in this field will have eddy currents induced in it thus creating an opposing magnetic field, in accordance with Lenz's law. The two opposing fields will repel each other, thus creating motion as the magnetic field sweeps through the metal.

Principal of Working of Linear Model


A speed of 1-1.5 m/s (60-90 Kmph) may be achieved using LIM technology for freight transportation.

The LIM technology can be effectively adopted for transportation of freight in carts from one place to other.

4) Urban Freight stations(UFS)

UFSs are locations in the network of AFM where containers are received as per the assigned destination. The containers are destuffed here and goods are despatched to final destination (consignee) through battery operated freight carriers. Every UFS is assigned unique identification code. The containers destined to a particular UFS is tagged with the identification code of the destination UFS. The UFS is equipped with following facilities:

  1. Mechanised unloading of containers
  2. Mechanised Destuffing of containers
  3. Segregation of goods as per the local address (Shops, malls eetc) of the catchment area served
  4. Loading in Battery operated Freight carriers

  The location of the UFS shall be identified so that it is nearest to the market of the catchment area served.  A UFS can easily serve a catchment area upto 5 kms of the radius i.e an area of 78.5 sqkm ( = pi x 5 x5).

For a city like Paris having around 3000 sqkm urban area, around 38 UFS would be required to cater the whole city.

5) Urban Freight Interchange Stations (UFIS)

These are the locations where containers change the track from one line to other line to reach the desired destination. The change is automatic as per the destination code embedded in the RFID tag of the containers. The tags are read at the entry point of the UFIS and the Movement Tracking & Control System (MTCS) diverts the containers to track going in the direction of the destination of the container. The whole change over take place automatically by the system without any manual intervention.

The UFIS can work as only interchange point or may work as UFS with required facilities if location of UFIS is such that it can serve a catchment area. It is better to integrated UFS & UFIS for optimum utilisation of the facility.

6) Sorting & Distribution

Every cart shall have a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) tag for the purpose of tracking, monitoring, sorting and distribution of carts as per the destination.  The RFID in every cart can be fed an electronic destination code which would guide the flow of carts along the rails as per the destination.  If required, the containers may change to track at UFIS. The RFID readers may be installed at the approach of these interchange UFISs. The readers would read the destination code of the cart and direct the cart towards its destination by changing the track, if required. The complete system can be controlled by computer based Movement Tracking & Control System (MTCS). 

At every interchange UFS, the carts would be sorted and further distributed to coded destination automatically by the system.

7) Battery operated Fleet for last mile connectivity

The distribution of goods from UFS to final destination may be carried out through battery operated road based Freight carriers. The fleet of battery operated carriers may be operated by the operator of the AFM system or it may be outsourced.  The carrier as shown in Fig below may be used for last mile connectivity.

Fig 4- Battery Operated Freight Carrier


8) Movement Tracking & Control System (MTCS)

The movement of Coded containers is tracked and controlled by an advanced MTCS.  MTCS is a computerized vehicle control system equipped with following functionalities:

  • tracking the movement of containers from the origin to destination through RFID tag of the containers
  • Sorting and distribution at UFIS as per the destination
  • Control the movement of containers over tracks- speed, adequate separation among the containers

All the above activities take place automatically without any manual intervention. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) solution may be used to monitor and operate the system.  The container movement can be monitored from an Operation Control Centre (OCC).  The OCC is manned by dispatch controllers who supervise overall functioning of the AFMs. If required, the dispatch controller can control the system by giving commands from OCC. For example, he can accord high priority to a particular consignment and expedites its movement by increasing the speed of AFM etc. 

9)Network Design

The movement of freight may be managed through a network of UFSs spread throughout the city. An optimal design of network is essential for fast and efficient delivery of freight. In case of a polycentric city the distribution UFSs may be created at the various city centres and the UFTs may be set up at the entry points of the city where main highways connect the city roads.   One UFS may serve a catchment area of around 5 kms radius. The capacity of AFM system may be designed as per projected demand for next 20 years. A suggestive network design for a polycentric city is presented below:

10) E-Commerce

The proposed solution would be ideal in a scenario when most of the freight demand is served by e-commerce i.e the customer orders the product on internet and delivery is made directly from warehouses to the door of the customer obviating the need of retailers. The ecommerce is already witnessing double digit growth worldwide, more and more retail business is likely to be shifted to e-retailers in next 10-20 years. The e-commerce dovetailed with AFM system of delivery is going to be further cost effective as there would be substantial saving in cost of transportation, cost of commercial space, operations & Maintenance required by retailers.

11) Integration with Urban Transport System of the city

The AFM may also be integrated with the subway stations (Metrorail) so that the end customers may pick their order from the AFM while returning to their home from the nearest subway stations. The delivery system at AFM may also be automated wherein the end customer would have to simply enter a code and the product would be vended to him from the UFS.

Who will take these actions?

Today urban freight is mostly handled by private logistics companies. The individual private logistics companies would not find it financially viable to invest in proposed AFM system. Considering the economic benefits of the AFM, it shall be treated as a public good.  The following actors are fundamental to the success of AFM system

a) Government: Government may explore Public Private Partnership (PPP) model to install AFM system in a city.  A concessionaire may be engaged to build and operate the system on long term concession (30-40 years).  Government may arrange Viability Gap Funding (VGF) to financially support the concessionaire during the construction phase.

b) Private Concessionaire

The concessionaire, who will built and operate the system, shall be allowed to collect suitable user fee from the user of the services to meet the operational cost.

c) Freight Carriers (Trucks)

The entry of freight carriers inside the city boundaries shall be restricted except emergency needs like medicines etc once the AFM system is operational.

d) End Users

The end user of the services like retailers, commercial malls, markets shall may be encouraged to use AFM system  for transportation of their goods.

Where will these actions be taken?

The AFM can be adopted in any of the city in the world. However, to start with it can be tried in a linear city having elongated urban formation like Hong Kong, Mumbai (India). The linear city can be easily covered with the network of AFM with minimum number of interchange points (UFIS).

In addition, specify the country or countries where these actions will be taken.

No country selected

Country 2

No country selected

Country 3

No country selected

Country 4

No country selected

Country 5

No country selected


What impact will these actions have on greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?

Being a rail based transportation system, the proposed AFM system will help in significant reduction of carbon emission from Urban Freight Sector. The rail systems are generally six times more energy efficient as compared to road based transportation system.

If it is assumed that around 60%  (Conservative estimate)of urban freight will shift to AFM system, the carbon emission on account of urban freight will be reduced to 50% ( 60 x1/6 +40=50). Thus a saving of 50% of carbon emission can be expected from the AFM system.

In London, the estimated annual carbon emission from Urban Freight in 2010 has been 2 million tonnes (including Greater London). A saving of 1 million tonnes per year in London is expected from the proposed AFM system if 60% of the urban freight is transferred to AFM system.

Further, there will be significant reduction in air pollution in the city due to burning of fossil fuels in freight carriers with more and more goods are transported through environment

What are other key benefits?

Apart from the saving in the cost of transport, the UFS system would offer the following economic benefits:

    1. Substantial reduction in air and noise pollution
    2. Reduction in the congestion on roads
    3. Reduction in accidents
    4. Better quality of life for the society
    5. Lower inflation in economy due to saving in cost of freight transport
    6. Improvement in speed of freight transport
    7. The need of keeping inventory would be minimised due to high reliability of the system

In view of the above, the economic rate of return of the UFS system would be much higher.


What are the proposal’s projected costs?

It is difficult to accurately assess the cost of the proposed system for want of any similar system in the world. However, the cost has been estimated on the basis of experience of cost of construction and operations in transportation sector. The capital cost of the system has been estimated on the basis of actual cost of construction of a Baggage Handling System (BHS) tunnel between Airport Metro stations to T3 terminal of Indra Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in India. The tunnel was constructed in year 2011.  

For comparison with international market, the cost in Indian Rs (INR) has been converted into US$ on PPP exchange rate. As per the WB estimate, 17.12 Indian Rupee is equal to one US Dollar in terms of purchasing power in 2014 (Source:

Table 1- Cost of BHS Tunnel, IGI Airport, Delhi, India



*Source: IRCON Report on costing of assets of Airport Express Line (2015)

Taking into account inflation and some contingency expenses, the cost of construction of AFM system would be around 50 million US $ per KM.





With the advanced means of construction, the AFM system can be installed very quickly. The AFM system can be developed in the phased manner as described below:

Phase I (around 5 years) – Develop a UFT at the outskirts of the city from where major freight traffic enters in the city. The UFT may be connected through an AFM line with major commercial hub of the city where freight deliveries are comparatively high. There is no need of and UFIS at this stage, however, the provision for development of UFIS shall be kept in design of the system and a suitable location. The efficacy of AFM system in terms of reduction in freight vehicle movement and carbon emission may be assessed in this stage.

Phase II (5-10 years) – The network of AFM can be extended to cover the core of the city with multiple lines and UFISs. More number of UFTs in each direction may be developed to serve major highways leading to the city. The city may be covered with the network of AFM so that an UFS is available within 5 km from any point in the city. Once a comprehensive network of AFM is available, entry of trucks in the city except emergency supplies (like medicines etc) may be restricted.

Phase III (after 10 years) – The network of AFM may be expanded as the city grows in size and the need of freight movement increases.

About the author(s)

1) Amit Kumar Jain,  India

Education: Masters in Technology (Civil Engineering) from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, India
Job: Working at middle management level with Indian Railways

2) Ashwini Upadhyaye, India

Education: PhD in Transportation from MIT-Singapore Alliance

Job: Working at middle management level with Indian Railways

3) Surbhi Jain, India

Education: Masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics, India

Job: Working at middle management level with Government of India



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  1. Antonio Comi & Paolo Delle & Francesco Filippi & Agostino Nuzzolo (2012)-“Urban Freight Transport Demand Modelling: a State of the Art” in European Transport/Trasporti Europei
  2. Coquery.G, Chollet.H (2013) ``From small scaled experiments to full scale prototypes, The French experience in linear motor development“, International Symposium on Speed-up and Service Technology for Railway and Maglev Systems STECH’03,  19-22 August 2003 Tokyo.
  3. Delle Site P. and Salucci M.V. (2009) Freight Transport. Thematic Research Summary. TRKC (Transport Research Knowledge Centre) Project, Sixth Framework Programme, European Commission.
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  9. EMISSIONS OF CO2 FROM FREIGHT TRANSPORT IN LONDON: TRENDS AND POLICIES FOR LONG RUN REDUCTIONS Alberto M Zanni and Abigail L Bristow Transport Studies Group, Department of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University, UK ;