The Future of Intermodal Freight Transport

Intermodal freight transport remains topical as an instrument to improve efficiencies and reduce costs in supply chains. This was discussed in the review of ‘Logistics Clusters’ by Yossi Sheffi in March 2013 and this month features another perspective on the theme.

‘The Future of Intermodal Freight Transport’ is part of the series on ‘Transport Economics, Management and Policy’ and consists of a collection of 15 papers from 23 contributors at different universities across the world. The book is intended for readers in the academic world, but it could appeal to policy makers as well as practitioners in the transport industry who are involved in the operations, design, modelling, implementation and policies for freight transport. The level of the discussions ranges from easy read to some advanced discussions in optimisation and modelling.

The book is edited by Konings and Priemus of the Delft University of Technology and Nijkamp from the Free University of Amsterdam. The Netherlands is taking the lead in many transport and logistics operations in Europe and intermodalism is no exception. The book is quite expensive and due for an update but I found the contents useful and relevant in our current debate around the proposed dig-out port and the development of intermodal facilities along the Durban - Free State - Gauteng freight logistics corridor.

The content starts with an overview on the future of intermodal transport by the editors, and then follows with the first part on intermodal transport operations, a second part on design and modelling, and the last part is on implementation and policy. Part 1 covers intermodal road-rail transport in the European Union, intermodal freight transport in the United States, intermodal freight transport in urban areas in Japan, bundling of freight flows in hinterland network developments, and container handling quality.

The size and character of freight flows in Europe determine that intermodal transport is generally competitive at distances greater than 500 km. This is similar to findings in South Africa with strong competition between road and rail on the Durban - Free State - Gauteng corridor, which represents about 570 km. The chapter on intermodal freight in Japan also quotes 500 km as the breakeven distance for intermodal freight systems to be competitive although the authors provide a case study where waste materials in Kawasaki City are moved over a distance of only 23 km by a rail shuttle service. The reasons for success in this exceptional case include an existing railway line, government subsidies paid for the initial investment because of reduced environmental impacts and the railway operator wanting to increase rail operations.

In one chapter, contributor Theo Notteboom discusses the bundling of freight flows and hinterland network developments and explains under which conditions an indirect service via an intermediate terminal could provide a shorter transit time than a direct service. The example illustrates that the competitiveness of direct shuttles with a low frequency largely depends on the ability of the operator to co-ordinate departure and arrival times with deep-sea operations and the working hours of the terminals. Badly synchronised services will prevent optimisation and the direct shuttle option will only be better if the container arrives in time for the scheduled inland transport services.

The last chapter in this part addresses container terminal handling quality and suggests that customer service elements, in order of importance, include average delivery time, delivery time availability, order status information, rush service, order methods, action on complaints, accuracy in filling orders, return policy and billing procedure.

Part 2 consists of papers on container handling in main ports, technical approach to the agile port system, impacts of innovative technical concepts for load unit exchange on the design of intermodal freight bundling networks, designing intermodal transport systems and intermodal freight network modelling.

The first two chapters in the section on design and modelling provides interesting reading on the future challenges of handling ultra-large container vessels that carry in excess of 18 000 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs). This has serious implications for container crane characteristics and specifications, as well as waterside and landside operations to be able to handle these high volumes of TEUs in reasonable time.

The next three chapters deal with modelling and simulation as well as system design techniques to ensure efficient network operations along the supply chain. This is advanced material that is not meant for general consumption but it provides good theoretical substance.

The final part of the book includes critical success factors for interconnectivity and interoperability, role of information technology in interorganisational co-ordination, development strategies for intermodal transport in Europe, and the role of government in fostering intermodal transport innovations.

The development strategies for intermodal transport in the European Union are useful and mostly applicable in the southern Africa context. Some of the crucial elements for intermodal growth include pricing, insurance and liability, labour hours and practices at intermodal terminals, operating costs, employment costs, national monopolies, terminal locations, transhipment systems, information systems, and EDI for information exchange.

The authors suggest some key priority actions:

  • Fair and efficient pricing
  • Establish a pan-European (pan-African in our case) regulator for intermodal transport
  • Establish intermodal standards
  • Promote interoperability of intermodal operations.

In conclusion, as stated I found the book useful and relevant for the current debate around the need for and location of intermodal terminals in South Africa, in particular along the Durban - Free State - Gauteng corridor. The editors and contributors are experts in their respective fields, and they provide much information and guidance for the South African reality.

Written by: Rob Konings, Hugo Priemus and Peter Nijkamp Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing ISBN: 978-1-184542-238-7 Pages: 343

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