Doing more with less: that’s the mantra of transportation agencies everywhere these days.
We need to achieve greater mobility on our roadways, but we can’t afford to build our way out of congestion. We need to clean the air around urban areas to improve public health, but policies enforcing clean air are difficult to pass and enforce. In short, we need to do better with the system we have.
While we can’t afford to reinvent the wheel, we can make it turn more efficiently with innovative thinking. How we move freight — from ports of entry to, ultimately, the market shelves in our biggest cities — is one part of our transportation system that hasn’t changed much in the past century. Ships offload international cargo, which is moved via freight train and 18-wheeler trucks to the marketplace. Today, almost all commercial cargo moving less than 500 miles is moved by truck, which causes significant congestion on our roadways and contributes considerably to, among other things:
- bottlenecks at border crossings, seaport regions and major intermodal cargo hubs;
- air pollution from engine exhaust;
- crashes; and
- road wear and the public costs associated with repairing it.
And as economies expand (a good thing), the problem is only getting worse. We need to move cargo smartly, cleanly and safely. Enter the Freight Shuttle System (FSS), recently noted as a “fascinating technology” that “could be a real key to [the] overall discussion [of relieving congestion]” by Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley at the Feb. 25 Texas Department of Transportation Commission Meeting.
The FSS redefines how we move freight by its pioneering, patented application of proven technologies. Designed by Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) Assistant Agency Director Steve Roop, the FSS is a low-emissions alternative to moving cargo and relieving congestion created by trucks in heavy freight corridors.
“Not only will we help mitigate roadway congestion, we’ll benefit the environment and public health while doing it,” says Roop.
The FSS can move truck trailers and domestic intermodal containers up to 53 feet in length — as well as all sizes of ocean shipping containers — via emissions-free, electric-powered transporters. The transporters ride on elevated guideways in the medians of existing highways or other rights of way over distances of up to 500 miles. Running above existing roadways, the FSS transporters reduce the number of trucks that would otherwise be hauling freight over the highway.
Scientists have recently established a link between pollution and airborne illnesses, particularly in highly populated urban areas. While many other benefits accrue from this freight-movement model, it’s the environmental (and associated health) benefits that potentially hold the greatest long-term contribution the FSS can make.
“Because we use electric rather than diesel power, our carbon footprint is minimal,” explains Roop. “For example, diesel trucks generate 43 times the nitrous oxide per vehicle mile compared to the Freight Shuttle System.”
Powered by linear induction motors — with steel-wheel technology that reduces friction and results in the exceptionally efficient use of electric power — the system can draw from any available source of energy, including solar and wind power, to operate transporters along a low-friction guideway. That conserves energy, minimally impacts the environment, and provides reliable, continuous movement of freight from point to point.
Many of our highways are near capacity, meaning a single crash can back up traffic for miles. The FSS is designed to operate on an automated, dedicated, closed-loop system with custom-designed terminals and reliable scheduling that produces congestion-free operation. GPS and wireless communications, in conjunction with a fiber-optic backbone, will provide a constant flow of information on status, position and operating conditions to help ensure maximum safety and efficiency. A single system could operate up to 8,640 transporter trips daily in each direction, with 10-second intervals between transporters.
The FSS is energy efficient as well, using one-third the energy diesel trucks use at cruise speeds per vehicle mile traveled. Once implemented, the FSS could reduce fuel consumption by millions of gallons per year.
“If we’re able to introduce a more efficient alternative to trucking in certain areas, we’ll see a corresponding reduction in air pollution,” Roop says.
The FSS is currently in pilot testing at the 34-acre Test and Evaluation Center in Bryan, Texas, as a joint project among Freight Shuttle International, LLC; TTI; Curtis-Wright Corporation; ZAMTEK, LLC; Figg Bridge Engineers; Wells Engineering; Kapsch TrafficCom Group; and Jones|Carter, Inc.