Oxford Street's deliveries to go underground

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The Independent Online
A tunnel to supply West End shops, businesses and hotels with goods is being planned to go underneath the centre of London

The pounds 70m project has been devised by a consortium of businesses, including retailers, Royal Mail and contractors, who believe they have found a way of speeding up deliveries and cutting traffic congestion.

It had a boost just before the Parliamentary recess when the House of Commons agreed a minor amendment to the Transport and Works Act to enable a tunnel to be used underneath London to transport goods.

Metrofreight, the consortium behind the scheme, is planning to make use of a Royal Mail underground railway which is used to move post to sorting offices around the capital.

Royal Mail's railway tracks would be ripped up and replaced with rails for automatic battery-operated trucks to ensure that goods in pallets are delivered via the tunnels into West End stores.

Their journey would begin via a new five-mile, 9ft wide tunnel which would connect the existing mail terminus at Paddington to a distribution centre in Willesden, north London.

The move to use an underground delivery system comes at a time of increasing concern about traffic pollution. Last week evidence emerged of the connection between vehicle pollution and heart attack rates.

Medical researchers from St George's Hospital Medical School found that air pollution, caused mainly by road traffic, is triggering 6,000 heart attacks in Britain each year. A team led by Dr Jan Poloniecki at St George's Hospital Medical School in London concluded that one in 50 heart attack victims arriving at London hospitals was there as a result of poor air quality.

The impact of such a tunnel on traffic congestion and pollution would be considerable. Van, lorry and despatch movements in and out of the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis alone amount to 20,000 a year. The tunnel could cut these by a third.

The new Willesden distribution centre will provide space for lorries to be unloaded and their goods transferred to the trucks. From there the new lines will be run to Royal Mail's Paddington terminus and on to Oxford Street and the City. Instead of lorries being snarled up in traffic jams, goods would be whisked within minutes from the outskirts to the centre of London.

Shafts would then be built linking the stock rooms of street-level shops and businesses to the tunnel.

The Oxford Street Association which represents major retailers, including John Lewis and Selfridges, is backing the plan.

Dr Derek Wright, the chairman of Metrofrieght and a traffic expert based at Cranfield University, said: "This is a way of being environmentally responsible. The driving force behind this project is to do something about traffic congestion in London. We need to find innovative ways of dealing with it."

Metrofreight expects the tunnel to be transporting goods to Oxford Street within three years.

Yesterday a spokesman for John Lewis said: "Any sensible measures to move goods in and out of Central London without using the roads makes good environmental and business sense."