It has the promise of revolutionizing the way freight is transported within ports, across borders and along highway corridors around the world. It could also drastically reduce emissions and delivery delays, while significantly increasing efficiency and security. In short, the Universal Freight Shuttle (UFS) could change the essence of the way humans do business.
“The Universal Freight Shuttle was conceived eight years ago when my team and I were investigating an underground transportation method,” says Assistant Agency Director Steve Roop, the head of the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) Multimodal Freight Transportation Division and the UFS developer. “We soon realized the underground project was not feasible, but we used some of those same ideas to develop the shuttle’s concept.”
The futuristic-looking UFS consists of electrically powered vehicles propelled by linear induction motors that travel on a specialized, derailment-proof guideway similar to the “people movers” operating at some major airports and cities. However, these shuttles are large enough to move any standard freight container or trailer. Researchers say the major benefits include the low operational costs and the promise of congestion relief.
Use of the UFS at ports will include Homeland Security scanning stations, which will allow every container to be inspected (compared to the estimated five percent that are inspected today) without delays. Along highways, the UFS will operate on existing rights-of-way. It will be built on an elevated guideway, allowing for travel beneath it. Landowners would also be able to move cattle and farm equipment underneath the guideways.
“Many have commented that all of this sounds too good to be true,” Roop says. “But, there is huge interest in the Universal Freight Shuttle. The biggest next step right now is to get a prototype built so it can be tested and proven.”
Building a prototype is where the Port of Corpus Christi comes in. Negotiations are under way with the port to build a full-scale prototype on its property at Ingleside. “The Port Commission was very intrigued with the UFS,” says Corpus Christi Port Commissioner Judy Hawley. “We directed the staff to proceed with the negotiations with TTI because we could see the shuttle’s tremendous potential for moving freight efficiently, securely and on time between the LaQuinta container terminal and commercial centers in Mexico, via the inland Port of Laredo.”
In addition to the negotiations with the Port of Corpus Christi, the UFS has received a high-profile endorsement with the same company that has been named master developer for the Trans-Texas Corridor 35. Zachry American Infrastructure intends to use the UFS for the project’s freight transportation component.
“When I first saw the design of the shuttle, it became very clear that it met every criterion we laid out in advance for a successful freight transport system,” says Gary Kuhn, senior project manager for Zachry American Infrastructure. “From the projected long-term costs and maintenance requirements to the environmental benefits, the Universal Freight Shuttle was the hands-down choice.”
“I think the Universal Freight Shuttle meets all of TxDOT’s goals,” Roop says. “That’s why there is so much enthusiasm to move forward. If all goes as planned, I think the term ‘Universal Freight Shuttle’ will become synonymous with freight transport, only it will take less time and money to operate, and be safer for people and the environment—not to mention its positive impact on congestion.”