Logistics à la mode

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Those figures come from the European Commission which is now looking for ways to improve the efficiency of Europe’s logistics systems. In particular, it is focusing on intermodalism with a consultation document: “Logistics for Promoting Freight Intermodality”.

It expects to produce a “communication” in June which, it says, will analyse and identify tools and areas that could be used to develop the integration of road, inland waterways, rail, short-sea shipping and deep-sea shipping for the transport of freight in Europe as well as improving competitiveness, sustainability, and safety, bypassing land bottlenecks, and “rebalancing the modal split to the 1998 level”.

And next year, it plans to present an action plan which, it says will set a landmark for advanced logistics developments in Europe. This could include identifying concrete obstacles hindering intermodal logistics, best practice, further benchmarking needs, environmental considerations, research and technological development, intermodal statistics and observation of the market and employment.

This exercise is part of a mid-term review of the commission’s white paper on European Transport Policy for 2010. The white paper described intermodality as being “of fundamental importance for developing competitive alternatives to road transport”. Ultimately, the commission says, the aim is to concentrate on improving the institutional preconditions that Europe can offer for logistics innovation and leave the internal running of company logistics to the companies themselves.

But is this really anything more than yet another bureaucratic attempt to push traffic off the roads and move it onto anything else available – regardless of whether or not it is appropriate?

While there are some obviously useful ideas, there is a real fear that what comes out could be more concerned in satisfying a political agenda rather than improving efficiency in the supply chain.

Andrew Traill of the Freight Transport Association is concerned by the desire to rebalance “the modal split to the 1998 level” pointing out that it makes no sense in terms of improving transport efficiency.

“We will object on that basis,” he says. “Transport policy is there to help transport help the customer. No customer ever talked about the 1998 level of modal split.”

A key proposal is for fuller utilisation of loading capacity, avoiding unnecessary empty runs, achieving partnerships or pooling resources across modes. Logistics terminals should become intermodal distribution centres and have access to a variety of infrastructures allowing intermodal transport to develop. It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment but there must be concern over how it would be implemented.

The commission goes on to raise again the idea of the European Intermodal Loading Unit (EILU) which would combine stackability with the cargo space of a swap body. Andrew Traill points out that the proposal was flawed when it was first made some years ago. Trade is an international business and it is a mistake to try and develop purely European standards, he says pointing to the way 45 foot containers have grown in importance in response to international demand.

The consultation paper points to a number of IT developments that could assist the growth of intermodality including the New Computerised Transit System, satellite navigation system “Galileo” and Long-range Identification and Tracking , common messaging standards, such as EDI/EDIFACT and XML. RFID could open up a range of possible applications to make business more efficient.

The commission has been promoting short-sea shipping under the banner of “Motorways of the Sea”. The idea is to develop concentrations of freight on certain routes so that the volumes will make regular and frequent short-sea services viable. Andrew Traill points out that it should be up to the market to decide on such things. “If the service and price are not right then it will flop.”

He argues that the role of the commission should be to help build awareness of the opportunities not to try and push companies in a particular direction.

However, Traill does see a little scope for the commission’s proposal on certifying quality which could enhance supply chain security. The idea is to create a voluntary framework for operators to become “secure operators”. These operators could then expect to benefit from fast track treatment, “security facilitations” and simplifications of customs controls as well as portraying themselves as operators with high security standards to the supply chains.

The consultation paper goes on to look at issues of liability in intermodal operations and spends a lot of time on promoting intermodality including intermodal promotion centres, arguing that such activities “share common goals, such as making Europe more competitive, and their co-operation and co-ordination might be deepened to create true intermodal promotion in Europe encompassing both modal, intermodal and logistics aspects and interests”.

“The European Commission is currently considering ways to realise European intermodal promotion. This promotion would have to be close to the customers at national level, be able to approach the decision-makers in companies, be practical, business-like, neutral and credible.”

While it can be argued that there are some useful ideas in the consultation paper, there is an awful lot that still has the whiff of bureaucratic interference – trying to direct operators in a direction that is not necessarily the best from a logistics perspective. The industry has been making representations to the commission on the proposals.What impact they have had should become clear at a workshop later this month.

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