Capsule Pipelines – Cynic

This section is dedicated to whose with their feet firmly on planet earth, who are rightly cynical of novel or innovative modes of transport. Unlike the rest of the site, which tries to be fairly non-judgemental, this section is unashamedly based on the opinion of the author. This opinion is based on much of the information available on other parts of this site.

I consider two frequently heard arguments: capsule pipelines are a silly idea (one that nobody can take seriously), and capsule pipelines are another pipe dream (one that can not be achieved).

Finally, a new design mantra is proposed, which addresses the way scheme designers need to think if capsule pipelines are to become a serious contender for mainstream transport.

Silly Idea

Capsule pipelines are a silly idea.

Transport is silly. Nobody actually wants to do it, or wants to be burdened with the cost of doing it; in an economist’s view, at any rate. But take transport out of any human civilisation and you return it to the dawn of humanity.

So what are we trying to do?

We are actually trying to make the transport we need to survive as efficient as possible. By efficiency we mean reducing the transport proportion of the total economic cost of performing a given economic activity. So that is the yardstick against which we need to measure any transport system, not on a somewhat xenophobic notion of it being in some way different to that which we are used to. Excuse me for being rational.

Throughout an increasingly large proportion of the world transport efficiency is achieved by placing a monetary cost on transport. Theory being that the most efficient mode of transport for a given journey will be the cheapest for the end user. It does not always correlate quite so well.

Economic Efficiency

Certain economic costs are commonly not accounted for within monetary cost. For example, pollution from road based transport (atmospheric, visual, noise, etc) is rarely fully paid for by the road user. Many governments are inching toward greater accountability of these ‘external’ costs. This process might reasonably be expected to make many of the modes of transport we currently use more expensive, and perhaps relatively more expensive than modes which are currently regarded as innovative.

Capsule pipelines have a number of credentials that make them potentially attractive to an economy which accurately accounts for its external costs. Noise pollution is minimal. Air pollution exists only at locations where power is generated. Visual intrusion and vibration can be cut to nothing by constructing pipeline underground, which is easier to achieve with pipelines than with other modes of transport.

But this is not to suggest that capsule pipelines are such poor performers in the existing economic market. There have historically been many successes, specifically in niche markets, such as telegraph conveying. A number of economic feasibility studies in the 1970s suggested a strong case for application to mineral and general cargo movements (such as [1] and [2]). So why have capsule pipelines not been more widely implemented? Could there be another factor in play here?

Another Pipe Dream

Capsule pipelines are another pipe dream: If to be implemented on a grand scale, yes.

Successes are in Niche Markets

Capsule pipelines have been successfully applied to a number of niche markets. These markets have either developed from nothing (such as telegraph conveying), with the resulting pipeline network growing with the market; or do not rely on the existence of an extensive network to be successful (such as cash transfer systems within supermarkets and banks). Some of the current proposals for capsule pipelines implicitly acknowledge this, by targeting very specific markets. Unfortunately, however successful they are in their chosen market, they can never have a significant impact on transport in general.

The Network Irony

Like many innovative transport technologies, capsule pipelines could potentially be applied to a much broader range of movements, in competition with modes such as road and rail. These require extensive networks to be put in place to cater for existing diverse movement patterns. In a number of current proposals the requirement for such networks has been minimised by allowing for easy interchange between modes. This dilutes the concept, and almost certainly the impact, but is an obvious concession to reality.

For most modes and localities, construction of effective transport networks requires a vast amount of resources. Historically these networks seem to have been developed in one of two ways – the implication being that these are the only two ways. Some were delivered on a piecemeal basis over a prolonged period, as the markets they served developed. Historically, roads and shipping are examples of this; space transport may be so in the future. Others have resulted from a quirk in the way capital is raised in modern economies. They result from a period of irrational mass investment, based on growing stock market valuation, creating a far greater level of capital than might ordinarily exist. Invariably the long term in-sustainability of this contributes to a crash in the stock market, but not before sufficient infrastructure has been put in place to have allowed the network to operate effectively. Railways are probably the best example of this. Telecommunications/the ‘internet revolution’ may be an important emerging example.

The irony of the current situation may be that however incredibly efficient a new transport mode might be, in all probability there is no way the economy can resource its full implementation, failing to develop the level of network required for it to be efficient.

New Design Mantra

Traditionally innovative transport modes were often seen as engineering lead projects – the challenge was to make something that worked, not necessarily something with any use. Lately there has been a greater appreciation of the need to relate an engineering solution directly to an existing transport movement.

This eschews the nature of transport. Transport itself is a means to an end. We therefore need to address this end. We need to look at the whole system, not just one specific component within that system.


We will use an example from previous work by this author to demonstrate this case [2]. Take the distribution and sale of household groceries. In most cases the existing system is based on the movement of products from producer / manufacturer to a series of centralised warehouses. Products are placed in trolleys or on pallets, which are transported en mass by road lorry to a plethora of large supermarkets. At regular intervals (typically weekly), customers transport themselves from home to supermarket, purchase a variety of individual items, transport them home, and then store them until such time as they actually consume the item. A strong commercial impetus has tended to result in a relatively efficient distribution channel, but do not be fooled into thinking it is absolutely efficient.

The traditional engineering-lead approach might have designed a new transport technology, then attempted to see if it could be applied to an existing transport activity. The current approach will tend to identify an existing transport movement (for example, lorry-load movement between warehouse and supermarket), and design a system which suits it.

Think Rationally

But take a step back and examine the whole process and a radically different solution emerges, with much more extensive benefits.

Both the existing transport movements and associated inventory holding are inefficient. In an efficient system individual products would be manufactured or produced, then immediately transported directly to the purchaser, who would them immediately consume the product. Inventory is held for an absolute minimum of time. In the current model the consumer adds to the inefficiency of the transport component within the distribution process. Consumers move themselves to and from the supermarket, which adds no value to the overall movement of their groceries, the sole objective of their personal movement. In an efficient system the product is transported to where the consumer wishes to consume it – in this case their home. Only for a few types of product is it probably more efficient to transport the consumer than the product (for example, tourism, medical surgery).

Such a system is probably unachievable, however there is potential to move much closer to it than is currently the case. Had we only addressed the ‘obvious’ transport component between the warehouse and the supermarket, the potential impact of our system will probably have been considerably lower than had we addressed the whole process.


The ridiculous nature of the current approach adopted to many innovative transport systems (and indeed many current transport systems) is demonstrated by examining a ‘what if’ scenario for water supply to individual residents in a hypothetical town.

Assume water is drawn from a river that runs through the centre of the town. Every time a resident requires water they pick up a bucket, walk to the river, fill up the bucket, and walk home. Over time the town grows in size, and residents waste more and more time walking to the river and back. To cut down the walking time, a dozen local reservoirs are dug, which act as local distribution centres for water. An aerial rope-way system is constructed to move water from the river to the local reservoirs (a Heath Robinson style contraption with buckets attached to the rope-way [3]). Residents walk to their local reservoir with a bucket each time they want water.

A new ‘innovative’ pipeline is proposed, through which water can be automatically pumped as required. Using the current model for innovative transport solutions the pipe would be installed between the river and the reservoir. By looking at the whole process, it can easily be seen that a pipe network should be installed between the river and each of the houses, reflecting the demands of the consumers, not the demands of the existing distribution system. It seems all too easy to loss sight of the real objective.

I await with interest, the day when the strange quirk of retail distribution that is the high street shop, is replaced by something slightly more direct. Maybe concepts such as home shopping will provide a wake-up call for proper consideration of transport in the whole distribution channel.


  1. Lynam, D., (1978), The Development of a Cost Model for Pneumatic Capsule Pipeline Systems, Pneumotransport 4, BHRA.
  2. Zandi, I., (1978), A comparative study of pneumo-capsule pipeline, truck and rail for the transport of manufactured cargo, Pneumotransport 4, BHRA.
  3. Howgego, T., Roe, M., (1998), The use of pipelines for the urban distribution of goods, Transport Policy no.5 pp61-72.
  4. William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was an English cartoonist, whose comic inventions featured ridiculous simple mechanical devices designed to perform various pointless tasks. Most were held together with pieces of very thin string. One of his perhaps more inspired works was a ‘one at a time lock’ for traffic on the Brompton Road (London), which would have done modern day ‘traffic calmers’ proud.

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