Last mile Deliveries by tram – a viable solution for sustainable urban logistics?

Whether parcels, supermarket deliveries or old furniture, more and more goods are being transported by rail along the last mile. Now, Hermes is conducting its own test – transporting parcels by tram, in Frankfurt. Experts think there could be something in this.

View of a public tramway in Frankfurt, Germany. (Photo: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com)

Lack of space is a growing issue in inner cities. And with delivery traffic continuing to grow, not only for parcel shipments from online shopping, cities and logistics companies are looking at what might appear, at first glance, to be unusual ways in the search for innovative last mile solutions. Consequently, there are currently a number of projects, trialling delivery by tram, or streetcar.

The question is clear-cut: Why not use existing traffic routes and vehicles for delivery and exploit their capacity? In doing so, there are still some challenges that need to be overcome before the solution can be applied on a larger scale in Germany.

Tram as part of the solution

Tram deliveries alone will not be able to relieve the last mile – but, according to experts, this is not the objective. Prof Ralf Bogdanski from the Logistics Competence Centre at the Nuremberg Technical University thinks that the tram can make an important contribution. “Every practicable solution helps – I often talk about the logistics mix in sustainable urban logistics,” he says.

The thought itself is not new: “The basic idea of delivering by tram is as old as the trams themselves,” says Kai-Oliver Schocke, Professor of Production Management and Logistics at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. “Prior to World War I, trams were used as a matter of course to transport goods,” he says. In Berlin, the postal service used trams to transport parcels up until 1935 and in cities such as Hanover, Stuttgart and Wuppertal countless tons of coal, food or other goods were moved by tram right up to the 1960s. In Dresden, the ‘CarGoTram’ is operating once again. Financed by Volkswagen, this supplies the ‘Gläserne Manufaktur’ – the Transparent Factory – production plant with components for assembling the e-Golf.

Projects in France and Switzerland

For some years now, there have also been attempts abroad to reintegrate trams into the logistics processes of worst-affected cities, for instance in the French city of Saint-Étienne with the ‘TramFret’ project. In 2017 there were test runs using decommissioned trams that delivered goods ordered by private customers or companies to the city. One of the beneficiaries of the service was the Casino supermarket chain whose downtown locations were supplied by tram.

In Zurich, the tram is also used for waste disposal logistics. Since 2003, transport operators and municipal waste disposal authorities have been providing a ‘cargo tram’ that pulls freight wagons, allowing people to dispose of bulky domestic waste locally. Glass, metal items, furniture, stoneware or electrical appliances can be disposed of at certain stops. The service is free for people who can bring their items there on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. Drop offs using cars or delivery vans is however not permitted.

Moscow even uses it metro network to ship smaller quantities of parcels from one end of the city to the other.

Hermes sees potential in the logistics tram

The Frankfurt transport authority – Verkehrsgesellschaft Frankfurt (VGF) – has set up a pilot project with the logistics tram, partnered by Hermes. In the morning, a test operation transports two boxes full of parcels by tram from a hub outside the city to the Europaviertel, a housing and business district in the heart of Frankfurt. “Two different types of e-bikes then pick up the boxes and transport them to their destinations,” explains Marco Seibert, Depot Manager Frankfurt and head of the Hermes project. According to Prof Schocke, who is providing the research groundwork for the project, the idea came from Riemann Produktdesign, who have developed a special load wheel system for the experiment, and from a colleague from the university itself. “I see great potential here. It may not be able to cover the entire downtown area, but in hard-to-reach places such as pedestrian zones or the area around the station, delivery could have a huge impact,” says Seibert.

Productivity to be evaluated and compared

The main purpose of test operations is to show whether the combination of tram/e-bike can be used for productive tours, whether the tram is a reliable means of delivery and which of the two tested e-bike models is more efficient. “We are looking at how shipping volumes per hour pan out and will evaluate whether the tram solution or e-cars are more productive,” says Seibert.

Prof Schocke from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences is also looking forward to the results: “If there were more political pressure to reduce traffic and such solutions were actually funded, this type of delivery could be implemented on a larger scale,” he says. In the longer term, parcels will probably not be transported in passenger wagons, but will have their own logistics trams – these and other legal issues have not yet been clarified. Logistics specialist Prof Bogdanski thinks that many factors have to come together: “We need destination stops in areas with an infrastructure suitable for freight bikes, and source stops near depots with the transport capability to transfer from delivery vans to trams.”

It remains to be seen whether trials in Frankfurt will prove to be practical and viable. However, Hermes depot manager Seibert is convinced the experiment is at least worthwhile: “Every service provider need to rethink. And it’s only when you start taking small steps in the right direction can you hope to get something big out of it.”

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