Dry ports and the maritime hinterland: gaining momentum


Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, New York, USA, & Dr. Theo Notteboom, President of ITMMA, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium



The setting of dry ports

The evolution of inland freight distribution can be seen as an ongoing development of containerization and intermodal transportation. Modal availability, capacity and reliability of regional inland access all have an important role to play in shaping this development. As maritime shipping networks and port terminal activities become better integrated, the focus shifted on inland transportation and the inland terminal as a fundamental component of this strategy. Thus, after a phase that relied on the development of port terminals and maritime shipping networks, the integration of maritime and inland freight distribution systems has favored the setting of what has often been labeled ‘dry ports’.

Using the term ‘dry port’ to define an inland terminal is open to debate since many inland terminals are in fact ‘wet’ given their direct access to inland waterway systems. Moreover, the inland location can effectively be a port if a barge service is concerned, but fundamentally cannot be considered a port if it involves a rail terminal. Thus, there seems to be no consensus on the terminology resulting in a wide range of terms including dry ports, inland terminals, inland ports, inland hubs, inland logistics centers, inland freight villages, etc. The reason for this lies in the multiple shapes, functions and network positions these nodes can have. Regardless of the terminology used, three fundamental characteristics are related to an inland node:

• An intermodal terminal, either rail or barge that has been built or expanded.

• A connection with a port terminal through rail, barge or truck services, often through a high capacity corridor.

• An array of logistical activities that support and organize the freight transited, often co-located with the intermodal terminal.

It can thus be seen that the functional specialization of dry ports has been linked with the clustering of logistical activities in the vicinity and have become excellent locations for consolidating a range of ancillary activities and logistics companies. In recent years, the dynamics in logistics networks have created the right conditions for a large-scale development of such logistics zones.

Driving forces: pushing economies of scale inland

Each dry port remains the outcome of considerations pertaining to modal availability and efficiency, market function and intensity as well as the regulatory framework and governance. Their emergence underlines some deficiency in conventional inland freight distribution that needed to be mitigated. On top of the list is real estate where many deep sea terminal facilities have limited land available for expansion. This favors the intensification of activities at the main terminal and the search of lower value locations supporting less intensive freight activities.

Capacity issues also appear to be one the main drivers of dry port development, since a system of inland terminals increases the intermodal capacity of inland freight distribution. While trucking tends to be sufficient in the initial phase of the development of inland freight distribution systems, at some level of activity, diminishing returns such as congestion, energy and empty movements become strong incentives to consider the setting of inland terminals as the next step in regional freight planning. Inland locations tend to be serviced less by intermodal transportation than coastal regions. Through long distance transport corridors, inland ports confer a higher level of accessibility because of lower distribution costs and improved capacity. These high-capacity inland transport corridors allow ports to penetrate the local hinterland of competing ports and thus to extend their cargo base.

In addition to standard capacity and accessibility issues, a dry port is a location actively integrated within supply chain management practices, particularly in view of containerization. This takes many forms such as the agglomeration of freight distribution centers, container depots, customs clearance and logistical capabilities. The dry port can also become a buffer in supply chains, acting as a temporary warehousing facility often closely connected to the warehouse planning systems of nearby distribution centers.

Modal availability and capacity of regional inland access have an important role to play in shaping the emergence and development of dry ports. Each inland market has its own potential requiring different transport services. Thus, there is no single strategy for a dry port in terms of modal preferences as the regional effect remains fundamental.

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