Freight on Transit as a new concept for city logistics

Mercredi 30 janvier 2019
Ozturk Onur
Assistant Professor
École de gestion Telfer

Imagine leaving work late one evening due to unexpected last minute meetings. You arrive at the subway station around 10 p.m., which is an unusual time since you take the subway generally around 6 p.m. Real time info board shows you have got five minutes of waiting before your train arrives. While waiting on the platform, one subway with no indication of line number stops right in front of you with the announcement that no passenger is allowed in the train. Then, the doors open and the operators wearing green jackets unload boxes from the subway, boxes that are loaded on pallet trucks. Three minutes later, your subway arrives and you take it without further ado. The illustration given here is how freight on transit works in cities with a rail infrastructure.


Freight transport is the physical process of transporting commodities, merchandise goods and cargo. The movement of freight in urban areas is of great importance for the economy of cities. However, it has several problems, including noise pollution, CO2 emissions, congestion and damage to roads. Freight on Transit (FOT) is an operational strategy designed to address these issues by leveraging transit systems and their vehicles for the transportation of goods outside of peak hours. While public transport is generally overloaded during peak periods, they are often underused outside of these times. Therefore, an operational strategy would be to use resources dedicated to public transit for the movement of freight in the cities or even between cities. This can be done either by employing additional public transit vehicles dedicated only to freight or by using the same vehicles as passenger take. 

Some successful examples around the globe have shown the possibility of transporting freight on public transit. In New York City, garbage trains are employed to collect trash from subway stations. These trains are only dedicated to garbage pick-ups and no passenger is allowed on board. Behind the locomotives, there are rolling containers in which garbage is loaded. In fact, a similar garbage collection system was applied in Toronto until 2000 when a fire began in some trash on board. Toronto had to cancel the collection of garbage via garbage trains because of the fire. Thereafter, an outside firm was contracted initially to collect garbage with trucks. Concerning the Toronto garbage train RT-10, it was retained and repurposed for asbestos abatement. Another example is from Dresden (Germany) where a tramway, called CarGoTram, is used to deliver parts for car assembly between a logistics center and a factory of Volkswagen. CarGoTram runs every hour without effecting passenger train timetables. There are other significant implementations in Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and France.

Environmental gains

The road traffic is the first cause of atmospheric pollution in big cities. According to the World Health Organization, millions of premature deaths are caused every year because of air pollution. One major impact of FOT is its ability to contribute to the decrease in air pollution by deploying fewer trucks for the transportation of goods. A successful implementation of FOT from Paris shows impactful environmental gains. In the City of Paris, natural gas trucks delivered alcohol free drinks, textile and beauty products to supermarkets of the retail chain Monoprix. Prior to the loading of goods to these trucks in a downtown crossdocking center, the commuter line D, which is operated by Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, was used once a day to fetch goods from a suburban area. The train was loaded with freight and ran a distance of around 30 km to bring the goods to the downtown crossdocking center. Then, the last mile distribution to the Monoprix stores was ensured with natural gas trucks. According to the estimations, 10,000 fewer trucks circulated in the City of Paris annually thanks to the use of the commuter line. Moreover, environmental gains are remarkable. It is estimated that the emission of 280 tons of CO2 and 19 tons of Nitrogen Oxide were prevented thanks to the use of natural gas trucks together with the commuter train. However, this project was suspended in 2017 with the goal to have further improvement in air pollution. Indeed since the commuter train rolling between downtown Paris and Combs-la-Ville, the suburban area, was powered with diesel motors equipped with particulate filters, it was decided to replace the train with natural gas trucks to have further reduction in gas emission. 

Further FOT implementations 

Other than employing separate vehicles for goods transport on public transit infrastructure, another existing strategy is the use of the same vehicles as passengers take. In this type of FOT, rolling containers are attached to trains or busses. Alternatively, freight can be loaded to the same vehicle with passengers but in a separate cargo area. The vehicle travels along its route to transport passengers and stops at dedicated stations to pick up and deliver goods at these stations. While not for all types of goods, this kind of transportation is mostly adaptable for small parcels and courier services. In Canada and USA, Greyhound has a courier and package service that transfers items in passenger busses traveling from one city to another. This kind of FOT is also operational in Finland, Germany and Turkey. In Mumbai, India, a system called Dabbawala was developed over 100 years ago and uses bicycles and suburban rail to deliver lunchboxes from homes and restaurants to people at work. 

FOT as a controversial subject among decision makers

More than the difficulty of its physical applicability, another challenge before a successful FOT application is probably related to convincing stakeholders to overcome traditional organizational barriers. This may be due to the physical infeasibility of FOT or its economical uncertainty. In addition, sometimes security issues result in the cancellation of FOT projects as in the case of garbage collection by train in Toronto. The Toronto garbage train could have been salvageable after the fire in 2000 but the Toronto Transit Commission board members decided to suspend the project. Only a single member of the board, Sherene Shaw, Toronto counsellor at that time, supported the continuity of the service. 

Sometimes it is secure but costly. In spite of its physical success, the TramFret, which was exposed at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference and experimented with success in June and July 2017 in the City of Saint-Etienne (France), is another FOT project that was abandoned. In partnership with Saint-Etienne Métropole and the French retail chain Casino, the experimentation of TramFret project was conducted for around two weeks. Rolling between passenger trains twice a day and at off-peak hours, a tram delivered items to two different stores. While the experimentation was considered as “conclusive” by the project coordinator, Joël Danard, other partners of TramFret did not find the economic model sustainable enough. Nevertheless, another city from France, Montpellier, is interested in implementing TramFret. 

Economic sustainability of FOT projects

Then, why are some FOT project profitable than the others? The key point that leads to the economic sustainability of FOT is the frequency of operations. In a rail FOT scheme for instance, the implementation requires first an investment in vehicles dedicated to freight. Sometimes these vehicles can be salvageable, e.g., passenger tramcars not used any more for passenger transport. Even then, converting these cars for freight transport and putting them back on rail generate an expense. Other costs related to staff, material, IT system, etc. are inevitable too. Thus, economies of scale depend largely on the income generated by the amount of distribution. Another important aspect is the distance ran by the FOT vehicle. In the case of few distributions per day, the distance between the loading and unloading stations must be far enough from each other so that the cost related to the rupture of continuity by employing FOT becomes absorbable. In addition, we should not forget the fact that public transit is primarily for passengers. If an FOT attempt delays passenger vehicles, then the reliability of the transit system becomes questionable and this may have a negative impact on the number of people using the public transit. Thus, determining feasible FOT schedules without disturbing passenger train timetables is also crucial to maintain the quality of the transit system. 

Is FOT possible in Canada?

This is a complex question to answer. Prior to taking a positive decision and investing in FOT, preliminary studies must be done to determine its feasibility. An advantage we have in cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver is that urban transit lines cover long distances. An additional advantage in Montreal is the location of some subway stations which are right under downtown stores. This could render the last mile distribution possible through subway lines. However, these cities are also dense in population and public transit systems might not have additional capacity. Thus, the actual charges of the existing transit systems must be determined, and the possibility of integrating additional FOT vehicles must be investigated. Other than that, the entities to benefit from an FOT distribution scheme must be determined. To do so, the current freight delivery schemes of potential clients can be studied to see in what ways FOT will be beneficial for both service providers and clients. Finally yet importantly, robust IT systems must be established to support FOT operations in order to determine optimal distribution timetables without delaying vehicles dedicated to passenger transport.

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