Multimodal transport at lower costs. Are you ready?

Posted by Dr. Ir. Steven De Schrijver on 31/05/2016

Do you know the difference between multimodal, intermodal, co-modal and synchromodal transport? What they have in common is that they all combine different modes of transport and offer a sustainable alternative to road transport. But there are differences between them too. Multimodal freight transport describes a transport chain which integrates various different modes of transport. The largest part of the journey is completed by rail, air, sea or inland waterway, with only the first and last stages of transport being by road. In the case of multimodal transport the cargo is re-packed or re-loaded whenever it is transferred to a different mode of transport. Intermodal transport differs in this respect, since the cargo then only changes mode of transport and not ‘packaging’ too – it remains in the same container, swap body or trailer.

Chain-oriented mindset

The term ‘co-modal transport was introduced by the European Commission in 2006 to achieve a broader mindset; rather than thinking only in terms of a shift from road to rail or inland waterways, companies should approach transport from a supply chain management perspective – more in terms of the end user’s interests, in other words. So co-modal transport represents the ‘smart’ use of unimodal transport and multi/intermodal transport in parallel by a single company for multiple supply chains.

Multimodal transport optimization

Synchromodal transport goes even further than that, placing the emphasis on the logistics network rather than individual chains. Synchromodal transport enables you to choose between various modes of transport at any time, based on your current situation. The central question is: as a shipper or logistics service provider, how can I organize my activities to consolidate as many flows of goods as possible in practice? The theme of chain management is extra underlined to stimulate companies to develop planning and networking tools, and to ensure that the transport planner 2.0 has the relevant skills to switch rapidly between the various modes of transport – aided by specific software tools. A word of caution: synchromodal transport is more difficult to implement for freight that is shipped over short distances and/or is time-critical.

The benefits of multi/intermodal transport are widely known: an efficient combination of modes of transport, optimal lead times, reduced inventory management costs and reduced freight costs. It also boosts the sustainability of transport, reduces road congestion and generates a smaller carbon footprint.

A matter of vision

So it would seem that there are nothing but benefits. In practice, however, the transition to multi/intermodal transport is not without its problems. By 2030 the European Commission wants at least 30% of all cargo transported over distances of 300km or more to go by train or boat. The European statistics currently stand at 4% for inland waterways and 11% for rail. Although there is some growth, so far it is not enough to make a real difference to the number of trucks on the road. To accelerate that growth, the following things are necessary: investment in infrastructure, a psychological shift among companies – especially to finally convince enough shippers to consolidate their volumes – and ideally a neutral platform that coordinates supply chains and ensures better capacity utilization.

Governments can also make an important contribution, such as by taking a holistic approach to the mobility of people and goods. At European level it is high time to focus on developing a co-modal transport policy. Allowing each EU member state to introduce its own kilometre-based road-charging system for trucks makes the whole system unnecessarily complex and costly. Furthermore, a growing number of investors in the logistics industry regard our country’s congestion problem as a fundamental disadvantage. So it’s time to play our trump cards – think of the strength of our ports, for example – and to focus on turning ourselves into a mobility success story.


Topics: Transport

Dr. Ir. Steven De Schrijver

Written by Dr. Ir. Steven De Schrijver

Dr. Ir. Steven De Schrijver is co-founder and CEO of Conundra. He has more than 17 years of practical experience in supply chain optimization and is an experienced board advisor at EU level. Steven also delivers academic publications, has a PhD and is a lecturer in operations research.