BVG flirting with cargo trams

Putting cargo on streetcar tracks isn't new, but could help alleviate the new headache of increasing delivery traffic.

Does the cargo have to wear a mask too? 
Does the cargo have to wear a mask too? dpa/Paul Zinken

Berlin-Cargo, the old German ad claims, belongs on the rails. And now maybe in Berlin too: Public transport agency BVG is testing streetcars as possible cargo trains to potentially eliminate conflicts between Berlin traffic and delivery vehicles.

Project partners recently met for an initial test at the streetcar depot in Siegfriedstraße in Lichtenberg before planning a more comprehensive field test. In the recent trial, a white cargo bike from Onomotion brought a delivery container. The container, 2 metres by 1.7 metres, was then easily rolled across a simulated tram platform and into the train using a ramp.

"The container was securely fastened with straps in the multi-purpose area, where strollers or wheelchairs usually stand," BVG streetcar boss Rico Gast said. "Then the train made a few rounds in the depot."

Gast was impressed, as was his partner in the test, Beres Seelbach, founder and head of Onomotion, a Treptow-based maker of electric cargo bikes and delivery containers. Onomotion has already sold about 50 of the three-wheeled cargo bikes, which are assembled at an automotive supplier in Garching, Bavaria.

Mixed-use or all-cargo?

Logistics service provider Hermes, part of the Otto Group, is the Berlin start-up's biggest customer.

But Berlin isn't alone in eyeing its trams as possible delivery vehicles. Frankfurt am Main has also tested putting cargo on a streetcar that runs from the outskirts of the city to the centre. Partners include the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences and Porsche Consulting. But Frankfurt didn't just load a delivery container into a train, they are looking at converting a Siemens/Duewag Type R streetcar into an exclusively cargo tram.

"Up to 23 containers could fit in it," says Seelbach.

Although the all-cargo tram is preferred by experts, it's not even on the table in Germany's capital, with BVG preferring mixed-use trains. Containers would just be wheeled onto trains as part of their normal routes. 

The highly scientific test.
The highly scientific test.Onomotion

"This would only happen during off-peak hours when there is little traffic - for example, in the early morning," Gast said. "Passengers shouldn't be restrictred. Their transportation comes first."

The Berlin pilot project currently could see containers loaded onto trams at the Lichtenberg or Marzahn depot, both located outside the city centre and easily accessible by truck. The containers would be somehow locked into place to prevent interference by passengers.

Once in the city centre, the bins would be unloaded, albeit only at stops with platforms.

"We would ensure the loading process is very short," Gast said. But the current timetables would not be altered to accomodate the extra passengers. During the trials, the containers would then be loaded onto Onomotion cargo bikes for delivery.

Not a new idea, or use

More partners are needed for the planned field trial. But BVG and Onomotion are confident. Large parcel services, which have to keep an eye on costs and profitability, have been using cargo bikes for some time. The German transport ministry is seen as a potential sponsor since it's also looking for environmentally and city-friendly transport options.

However, trams must first be altered to better accomodate the containers. Pads where passengers lean are currently in the way.

Trams as cargo trains isn't as new as it sounds. Packages were transported by streetcar in Berlin until 1935. And in East Germany, waste paper was carted on streetcar tracks from Mahlsdorf to the Dahme river where it was loaded onto ships. Freight streetcars also transported VW parts to a plant in Dresden up until last December.

Berlin's transportation department looked at the concept in 2017 too. At the time, transport was also to start at the depots in Lichtenberg or Marzahn but the containers would have been transported to the city center at night in freight cars. At turning loops, for example in Kniprodestraße and at Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark in Prenzlauer Berg, the packages were to be transferred to electric cargo bikes.

But the idea never seems to have made it out of the drawing room amid fears lawsuits from local residents fearing nocturnal hubub would delay the plan.

But growing frustration with the increasing number of delivery vans has revived interest in the idea.

"We will now look more deeply into the topic," Gast said. 

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