Modal shift and Synchromodality

Port stakeholders and actors throughout the supply chains are challenged to achieve a greener modal split in hinterland transport, which assumes a more prominent role for rail transport and also inland navigation in case the port has access to a system of rivers and canals. In addition to the port operators’ efforts to reduce emissions from their operations, modal shift from trucks to barge and rail transport has become a commonly adopted objective, pursued by private port companies and terminals. Indeed, the transition towards more environment-friendly transport modes often implies changes in the relative share of trucks, trains and barges in incoming and outgoing hinterland flows of a terminal and even an entire port.

The concepts of synchromodality and co-modality, which have been strongly promoted in scientific and policy circles in the context of green hinterland transport, are becoming a reality for a number of terminals (van Riessen et al., 2015). The modal shift concept remains highly relevant at present, from a seaport perspective.


Port connectivity and Modal diversification

port connectivity

Modal shift is one of the main pillars of the Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, which is necessary to achieve a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transport to meet the EU’s climate targets.

In the port ecosystem, private port operators and terminals play a crucial role as platforms connecting different modes of transport of the Trans-European Transport network. Moreover, they are fundamental contributors to the shift of freight from roads to more environmentally friendly modes of transport, such as rail and waterborne transport, resulting in a net positive environmental impact on cargo distribution.


Investments in intermodal solutions

Private companies and terminals in ports are at the junction between maritime and hinterland transport. FEPORT members have significantly invested in intermodal solutions and reiterate their call to regulators to further develop combined transport, directly incentivizing the modal shift from road freight to lower emission transport modes such as inland waterways, maritime and rail.

Over the last ten years, the 1225 private companies in FEPORT membership have invested €56 billion in EU ports as they strongly believe in the added value of a multimodal connectivity of EU ports both for businesses and communities. Physical connectivity is as crucial as digital connectivity because in ports all kinds of actors are interdependent, and many operations converge.

FEPORT and its members see a great potential in intermodal transport and in its ability to optimize the performance of multimodal logistic chains by promoting the use of the most efficient transport mode. This great potential could be substantially unleashed thanks to more flexible and horizontally integrated freight transportation planning, i.e., synchromodality.


Synchromodality:  smarter, greener and more flexible

Terminal operators are key actors at the forefront of the modal shift towards synchromodality via the implementation of new innovations in ICT and data-systems integration.

Thanks to digitalization, a better synergy can be set up between the actors involved in the logistics chain and, as a result, synchromodality has the potential to outstrip other concepts as multimodality and intermodality, in order to have an optimal use of transport available capacity.

Synchromodality is an emerging and attractive concept in logistics, allowing to switch freely between transportation modes at particular times while a consignment is in transit. (For example, a container that was originally planned to be shipped via intermodal rail transportation might be switched to direct trucking at certain terminals, because of real-time constraints or a desire to improve utilization and/or cut costs. The necessary level of flexibility for switching between different transportation modes requires efficient and responsive coordination of the schedules of the available transport modes.)

The main purpose of synchromodality is to maintain the quality of supply chain services through smart utilization of available resources and synchronization of transport flows, while reducing delivery times, costs and emissions. From an environmental perspective, while most of the attention is directed to the decarbonization of the shipping industry, a systemic synergic approach in maritime logistics and hinterland transport can significantly promote the environmental performance of freight transport.

Implementation of the synchromodality concept and some research projects based on this practice have already shown how different kinds of logistics objectives can be achieved or significantly improved, including avoiding empty capacity, reacting to disruptions, and reducing transportation by trucks in favor of railroads, ships, and barges.


Port operators and terminals at the heart of the synchromodality revolution

Although its potential is still largely untapped, synchromodality is a promising and appealing concept in logistics. This model has already proven its potential and some FEPORT members have implemented it in their activities and services they provide.

For instance, the European Gateway Services (EGS) - part of Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam - is a pioneer in the creation of synchromodal solutions and has developed the Synchromodal Trip Optimizer (STO). With synchromodal transport the modes of transport and routes are consistently selected based on current circumstances and the customer’s required delivery time. This planning system comprises all the variables for hinterland transport: for each transport order, the STO calculates the optimal synchromodal solution and, if a disruption is encountered enroute, EGS can pro-actively anticipate this by means of the STO. At all times, the goal is to deliver each container at the specified location at the agreed-upon time, at competitive costs and with lower CO2 emissions.


Another example can be found in La Spezia, where Contship Italia Group offers its customers a network of intelligent intermodal connections between Italian ports and major European markets. Hannibal is Contship’s Multimodal Transport Operator, offering flexible intermodal solutions for national and international freight transport. Combining a fleet of 350 modern trucks with over 150 weekly trains from and towards the main Italian and European destinations, Hannibal provides customers with socially and environmentally sustainable transport solutions, designed to support maritime and continental freight transport businesses, bringing the shipment to the customers’ door.