Small ports are expected to receive most of the traffic

Trends point to an increased use of large ports. But a modal shift of freight transport from road to shipping will lead traffic mainly through small ports. This according to a new pre-study.


“If we get a transfer to shipping, a large part of the traffic ends up in the small ports. The reason is simply that the transfer comes about because of the extended sea legs. Many smaller ports are closer to the origin or end point of the freight trip and therefore it is possible to extend the routes to sea and reduce land transport”, Axel Merkel at VTI says.

He is one of the researchers behind a new pre-study that investigates the potential and role of small ports if a modal shift of freight transport from road to rail and shipping was achieved. The study, which was conducted within the framework of the Swedish Transport Administration's industry program Sustainable Shipping which Lighthouse operates, sets against current trends.

“Dominant logistics trends speak of size advantages, accumulation of lots of goods to a few major trade lanes and the use of larger vessels that could never go on small ports. But we see that there is a relevant question to ask here. If we are now going to use the sea more - How important is it then to maintain such a diversified and wide port range as we have today?”

According to the four scenarios modeled by the research group, the role of small ports in a future sustainable transport system cannot be neglected. In particular, two of the scenarios, one that assumes the cost of maritime transport decreases and one that assumes that the cost of road transport increases, shows that the increased transport volumes of a modal shift are mainly captured by smaller ports.

However, there are obstacles along the way. Swedish small ports are at a structural disadvantage in several respects. For several small ports, users face higher costs of pilotage due to long and time-consuming navigational approaches. The current structure of fairway dues is not set up to incentivize maritime services consolidating/de-consolidating cargo at several small ports. The sum of port-related costs is high in general, which incentivizes a reduction in the number of port calls and favours a rationalization of avoidable visits at small ports.

“The cost of pilotage is the highest cost. We see that you can get it down, for example, by means of automation or piloting remotely. With the help of automation you can also reduce the cost of unloading and loading. If on-board staff were allowed to load and unload, which is prohibited today, it would also be both cheaper and more flexible”, Axel Merkel's colleague at VTI, Inge Vierth, says.

The result from the pre-study has already aroused great interest, for instance at the Swedish Transport Administration who has given research group the green light to submit a detailed proposal for a main study.

“If it goes through, we will make a in depth study of the high call costs. What is behind them and how can we reduce them? Here, of course, the high pilotage and loading costs will also come in”, Inge Vierth says.

The authors of the pre-study are: Axel Merkel (VTI), Inge Vierth (VTI), Magnus Johansson (VTI), Marta Gonzales-Aregall (University of Gothenburg), Anastasia Christodoulou (University of Gothenburg), Kevin Cullinane (University of Gothenburg)).