Dealing in intermodal truths

COMMENT: The Inland Terminal conference in Basel in November brought together an interesting mix of stakeholders in intermodal logistics. I shared with delegates some of the findings of research on intermodal connections, based on a database developed by Intermodal Links, writes Peter de Langen.

The commonly-held belief is that the minimum distances at which intermodal services become economically viable is substantial. Both 200 km and even 500 km are used as rule of thumb minimum distances.


However, empirical data from the research threw up a substantial number of shorter intermodal services: more than 25% of all barge services are less than 100 km and more than 50% are less than 200 km. The shortest barge service is between the two ports of Vlissingen and Terneuzen, on opposite banks of the Scheldt estuary.


For rail, about 2% of rail services are less than 100 km, while about 10% are less than 200 km. As with barge, the shortest rail service connects two ports: Wilhelmshafen and Bremerhafen. Also, it was found that the frequency of short distance intermodal services is high, as this is needed for efficient equipment deployment.


An additional issue that was discussed concerned the last mile in ports. Here, rail liberalisation has led to the entry of new operators which has had positive effects for shippers, but led to fragmentation. In most ports, the share of the two largest operators is below 50%.


For barge, that concentration is even lower. Just as there are many operators, there are many terminals in a port. Rotterdam for instance, has 12 rail terminals and an even higher number of barge terminals.


The combination of large numbers of operators and large numbers of terminals is challenging: operators often have cargoes for many terminals but often not sufficient scale to serve all these terminals efficiently. Consequently, there is a case for a third party last mile distribution service within the port.


Such a service would face many organisational complexities, such as can/should operators be obliged to use such a service; would it be run for profit or not; and what information system are needed to secure low transaction costs?


There is currently no widely recognised best practice in this respect – let set ourselves the challenge of creating it. 


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