An Efficient “Last Mile”

Spring 2016
Outspoken Deliveries uses cargo bikes like these to make “last mile” deliveries in the U.K. cities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Norwich.

Passenger trains, electric vans, cargo bicycles and lockers all can help reduce the noise, traffic congestion and pollution created by urban deliveries.

THE AIM OF THE Freight in the City Expo, held at the iconic Alexandra Palace in London in October 2015, was to showcase the latest vehicles, technology and equipment that enable urban deliveries to be made quietly, cleanly and safely.

The final stage of delivery to city center residents and businesses can often be the most expensive. It can also be thwart with challenges such as traffic congestion, roadworks and loading restrictions. Speakers at a seminar titled “The Last Mile” explored some practical solutions for these urban deliveries. In particular, the use of railway stations for low-emission urban deliveries proved a hit.

In a presentation titled “The Right Track,” Jeff Screeton, managing director of 5PL (UK) Ltd., outlined how railway stations can serve as urban distribution hubs for freight brought into the heart of the city by train. The freight can then be distributed to end users by a network of cargo bicycles and electric vans. The company, in association with WEGO Carbon Neutral Couriers, has proven the effectiveness of this approach, especially with regard to time-sensitive commodities like lab specimens.  

Screeton described two strategies, one involving making use of available marginal space on passenger trains and the other based on high-speed, shared-user freight trains, to get goods into the city efficiently. “Combining these two methods seamlessly enables rail to serve a diverse market, from bulk deliveries to city center stores, to small e-commerce packages delivered same-day and at various times of the day. This is something road transport increasingly struggles to do cost-effectively,” he said.

Couriers convey goods to the station, where they are loaded into a secure compartment on the train. At their destination hub, they are unloaded onto a cargo bicycle or electric van, which ferries each package across the last mile or two of its journey. The use of electric vehicles and cycles for the first and last mile of deliveries can help reduce the environmental impact of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). 

The service commenced in 2011. Since then, it has carried a wide range of consignments, from legal documents to beer, spare parts and even ultra-time critical samples for clinical trials.

Screeton added that GPS tracking enables 5PL to position vehicles precisely to either load or off-load goods at stations when a train pulls in — a necessity, because stops last only 90 seconds at many stations. So far, he noted, there has been zero impact on train performance.

Ian Caminsky, CEO of the click-and-collect delivery service Inpost UK, presented another solution to the challenge of urban deliveries. That solution involves providing lockers at public venues. Couriers can drop off goods at these lockers without wasting precious time — and fuel — trying to locate the address of each small business and residence. Recipients then simply collect their deliveries from the lockers, a secure process that takes around 10 seconds. The system, Caminsky reported, has resulted in huge savings in terms of time and fuel costs for couriers. It also offers an opportunity for commercial property owners to rent out unused space to host these lockers, which can increase foot traffic at underperforming properties.

Logistics companies, e-commerce firms and other retailers, consumers and governments all are looking for better ways to deliver goods to urban businesses and residents. Combining all of their priorities is a tall order, but some logistics solutions providers are gearing up to the challenge.