Size, specialization and flexibility: the role of ports in a sustainable transport system

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Marta Gonzales-Aregall
Anastasia Christodoulou
Kevin Cullinane

In moving towards a sustainable transport system, the Swedish government has stated that policy actions related to electrification and increasing the share of renewable fuels must be complemented with a modal shift of freight transport from road to rail and sea. The question addressed in this report is whether policies aimed specifically at improving the attractiveness of small ports in Sweden can contribute to an increased use of maritime transport by enabling more competitive services. Small ports are typically considered to be at a disadvantage due to not being able to achieve economies of scale and their lack of connectivity to large trade routes. There are significant economies of scale in port operations but increasing the competitiveness of small and peripheral ports may be key to achieving a modal shift. This study sets out to investigate broadly what would be required for maritime transport services utilizing small ports to be competitive vis-à-vis competing land-based services.

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.

In order to investigate the potential for small ports to contribute to a modal shift, we simulate the effect of four policy scenarios aimed to improve the competitiveness of maritime freight transport as a modal alternative or to improve the competitiveness of small ports specifically. These scenarios are 1) reducing maritime transport costs, 2) increasing road transport costs, 3) reducing the costs of cargo handling at small Swedish ports and 4) reducing cargo handling times at small Swedish ports.

The results show that all simulated scenarios would lead to an increase in the modal share of maritime freight transport. However, the effect of the policies that either reduce maritime transport costs overall or increase road transport costs have a greater effect on the modal split than the policies aimed specifically at small ports. The interesting finding is made that most of the increased maritime tonnage that would follow as a result of more competitive maritime freight services would be absorbed by small ports in the system. The study shows that in order to enact a successful modal shift strategy, small and peripheral ports need be considered as part of the solution. If extending the sea legs of intermodal freight trips is an objective, it is crucial to maintain a geographically diverse and highly functioning port system in order to serve the needs of shippers and cargo owners. We highlight the need for future research to more comprehensively assess how underutilized potential in the entire port system can be used to promote competitive short-sea services as a modal alternative to road.

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