Platform for the implementation of a future inland navigation action programme

Integration of IWT in synchromodal logistics chains

Executive summary

Greater use of multimodal transportation can substantially improve the environmental performance of freight transportation. Despite big efforts taken by policy-makers to alter the freight modal split, most companies still rely heavily on road transportation, while modal shifts to rail and inland waterways are still modest.

The European transport and logistics sector is one of the key business sectors in Europe, performing billions of operations by millions of companies and people every day. Assuring the integration of these operations across national borders is a cornerstone of EU policy and a basis for the competitiveness of the economy. The insufficiency and partial absence of common processes, a common language and common standards for interoperability are key obstacles to achieving integration. Moreover, any supporting technology to be applied should be highly reliable, accessible, affordable and as generic as possible. Interactions between stakeholders must be easily established at a cost affordable to all. Supply chains need to be more efficient by providing state-of-the-art visibility and collaboration capabilities. Above and beyond the proper design of infrastructures and services, the operational control of the execution of transport processes should be optimised through, for example, improved synchronisation.[1]

Synchromodality is defined as an “evolution of inter- and co-modal transport concepts, where stakeholders of the transport chain actively interact within a cooperative network to flexibly plan transport processes and to be able to switch in real-time between transport modes tailored to available resources. The shipper determines in advance only basic requirements of the transport such as costs, duration and sustainability aspects. Thus, transport processes can be optimized and available resources sustainably and fully utilized[2].

According to PIANC, Guidelines and recommendations for river information services (2022), synchromodality provides the most efficient and appropriate transport solution in terms of sustainability, transport costs, duration, and their reliability, in which the configuration of the transport chain is not static during transport, but is flexible. It is thus able to adapt the mode of adequate transport according to the conditions in real time of infrastructure and capacity, through collaboration and the exchange of information in real time of all modes of transport, the terminal facilities and the actors involved in the transport logistics chain

Synchromodality developed and established in the Benelux region in the last decade provides a framework within which shippers can manage their multimodal supply chains more flexibly to further increase the potential for modal shift. Despite its importance, synchromodality is at an early stage both from research and practice perspectives. The existing contributions are sparse and treat only one or a few aspects of the matter.

The transport sector is fundamental to our economies and societies, but it is also responsible for a multitude of negative side effects including air emissions, noise and congestion. This calls for a modal shift toward a more efficient and effective reorganization of the whole transport system. To this end, synchromodality is a logistics concept which strives to increase the share of rail and inland waterway transport. Switching smoothly between these two modes and road transport takes place in near real-time, which is made possible since shippers book their transport service “mode-free”, i.e., without any need of specifying their transport mode in advance. The transport company is thus able to bundle the flows of goods from different customers and optimizes the cargo. Synchromodality requires close cooperation between all stakeholders along the transport chain and allows moving goods in a flexible and resource-efficient way.[3]

The concept of synchromodality is being presented in the present report from a supply chain[4] perspective. When supply chain impacts are considered, there is a high possibility to significantly increase the share of multimodal transportation, without increasing total logistics costs or reducing the service levels. For these purposes, synchromodality can contribute to significantly reduce the environmental impact of freight, allowing costs savings since the best and most efficient transport mode is selected.

Therefore, in a nutshell, synchromodality is the coordination between and within chains at the level of infrastructure, services and transport, such that, given the aggregated demand for transport, the right mode is used at any given time[5]. This coordination aims to provide efficient, reliable, flexible, and sustainable services. It is done  through the coordination and cooperation of stakeholders and the synchronization of operations driven by information and communication technologies (ICT) and intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies.

The main purpose of synchromodality is reducing costs, emissions, and delivery times while maintaining the quality of supply chain service through the smart utilization of available resources and synchronization of transport flows. 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 as well as reducing transportation by trucks in favour of trains, ships and barges.[6] Thus, synchromodality including the further greening of the IWT sector together with climate-resilient vessels and digitalised vessels, can be a tool to further support modal shift. However, the current deliverable does not focus on the greening initiatives, and it has to be noted that the road and rail transport sector are also engaged to a high extent in greening and digitalisation. Therefore, IWT must also make progress and increase connectivity and transparency to keep pace with the other modes.

The main element of synchromodality is to plan transport processes based on current capacities of the different transport modes in real-time. The shipper gives the logistics service provider the possibility to choose the appropriate combination between available modes of transport. Other parameters such as costs, pollution and time might also be considered when planning on the complete supply chain level.

Thus, a real time switch is possible and sustainable transport processes can be efficiently integrated in the transport chain. A core criterion for a working synchromodal chain is to generate a cooperation network between all stakeholders. To foster the successful implementation of synchromodal transport chains the status quo of synchromodal transport as well as potential key enablers such as the standardised exchange of data and the efficient use of ITS must be defined.

Based on a literature review[7] and various discussions in the research community, several categories of potential key enablers have been determined, such as:

  • network/cooperation/trust – A new way of thinking is required to generate a synchromodal network which is concentrated on trust and the advantages of cooperation instead of competition.
  • sophisticated planning/simulation – Sophisticated dynamic planning and simulation of transport routes and transport patterns are essential to create a functioning synchromodal transport network. Customer preferences, busy routes and available resources of hubs and transport modes have to be evaluated and examined. Forecasts and simulations are essential to learn about repeated connections and to be able to optimize transport performances. Thus, a core freight network has to be identified using demand mapping and forecasting tools. A comprehensive supply framework to efficiently utilize available container capacity in intermodal transport services is needed for well-organized synchromodal processes. Following the Physical Internet paradigm and being induced by potential cost savings, transport operators and infrastructure managers will be motivated to collaborate and consequently more data will become available for analysis. As capacity data of transport operators is becoming increasingly available, it is getting easier to efficiently fill up of free capacity. Additionally, a better collaboration of fragmented transport flows, required to make them economically viable, can facilitate new transport solutions.
  • information/data -Providing high quality and standardized data as well as sharing and mutually exchanging information (open data) are key to creating new and innovative services.
  • ICT/ITS – It is essential to implement ITS and ICT systems in order to dynamically provide data and to be able to optimize transport planning. Long-term and automated planning need to consider the crucial role which data and information play in a synchromodal supply chain. Additionally, issues dealing with data security /data protection and relevant cybersecurity aspects must be solved. Cybersecurity aspects are described in Deliverable 4.3 of the PLATINA3 project.
  • physical infrastructure – Different aspects of terminal and port infrastructure were mentioned quite often within the reviewed literature. The basic prerequisite is that smart hubs must exist, and they must be connected by smart corridors. The location of the ports and production sites influences the infrastructure network configuration and its efficiency. The terminal design is relevant as well. The overall aim is to obtain an attractive utilization of this infrastructure which is realized by bundling transport flows to synchromodal transport streams.
  • legal/policy issues – Harmonized transport regulations applicable for all transport modes and geographical areas are indispensable for a functioning synchromodal network. Another important legal question is the one of liability for the transport, especially for any delay, loss or damage, which might not always be clear when the mode is switched spontaneously. Concluding unambiguous service level agreements topped up with proper insurance agreements is therefore highly recommended. Boundary conditions for data sharing are also vital with regard to the necessary collaboration between the stakeholders. Basically, legal security must be ensured for all involved parties.
  • awareness/mental shift – It is important to raise awareness on the advantages of synchromodal transport and to generate a mental shift among customers. If customers insist on booking specific modes on specific transport routes, the logistics service provider lacks the necessary freedom to optimize his transport flows in a synchromodal way. The mental shift also includes that all players must be aware that not the preparation of the transport itself is the primary feature of the service performance, but rather the capability to respond to certain incidents and choose the right alternative in this case.
  • cost/service/quality – Pricing, cost and service are important aspects within a synchromodal transport network. Synchromodal transports should be provided with at least the same level of benefits (price, carbon footprint) compared to traditional or unimodal transports. Quality and the offered service (such as on-time delivery, reliability and flexibility) must also fit customer’s needs, otherwise synchromodality is no suitable and competitive logistics concept. Unplanned waiting times for example must be penalized. Moreover, the pricing of synchromodal services is quite complex. Since the transport mode and the specific route are not determined in advance (rather on the spot), it is difficult to determine the actual occurring cost-price and to translate this into a market price. This conflicts with the need that customers require certainty to know the price well in advance. Similar complexities arise in terms of insuring the transport. Finally, prerequisites for high-quality services are reliable infrastructure and the availability of some first movers to invest in innovation and new technologies, which means taking risks as supplier of synchromodal transport services.

There are drivers which can accelerate the door-to-door supply chain towards connective networks within a synchromodal framework:

  • Technological advancements such as network computing, Big Data, artificial intelligence
  • The high and unstable price of fuel that triggers the necessity for cost-saving transport solutions,
  • The enormous rise in congestion road infrastructure and limited options to expand road capacity
  • The increased environment-consciousness and public awareness about road traffic side-effects on local communities,
  • The strict environmental regulations at EU and international level to reduce emissions by 2030/2040/2050
  • Similarly to the situation with passenger transport, regulatory advancements allowing for multi-modal ticketing of freight where minimum conditions are guaranteed irrespective of the mode.

However, there are still important challenges for applying the synchromodal transport framework. Firstly, itis a networking and collaboration with the core of trust and customer relationship concept. The establishment of such a network is based on mutual respect and trust, as the most important prerequisite for synchromodal processes. Due to the fact that many entities may not be willing to cooperate with competitors and/or do not yet see the benefits, a new way of thinking is required to generate a synchromodal network which is concentrated on trust and the advantages of cooperation and benefit sharing instead of competition. This requires a mind shift which poses a barrier.

The second limitation is complexity in planning. Planning and also the simulation of transport routes are vital to create an effective synchromodal transport network. Items such as new customer preferences, route traffics, and accessible resources of logistics nods should be assessed and examined prior to planning. Monitoring and forecasting are crucial factors for optimising transport performances. Accordingly, a freight transport network is to be set up based on the demand mapping and forecasting tools.

The third restriction is the connectivity of the existing different IT systems and data-sharing platforms. A high-quality data-sharing platform is a key to have a mutual exchange of data from different stakeholders such as shipping company, freight forwarders, and port terminal. GDPR and data-sharing is a key issue, indeed. Economic operators, customers and logistic companies, they all are very reluctant to share their data. It seems that there could be a way if the data-sharing platform could be able to share only very limited information to each actor, depending on the role with maximum respect to data protection and privacy For example, the transporter does not need to know what the content of the goods is (just a category, maybe) nor who is the (first) sender and the (ultimate) receiver. The transporter only needs to know that a certain amount of goods (volume, weight, packaging) needs to be taken from A to B.

The interview results (as described in chapter 8) suggest that the contacted experts representing the private sector agreed on the basic conditions which shall ensure the success of synchromodal transport chains. All statements that were received have been clustered and assigned to three categories (transport related, infrastructure related and framework related criteria) that have been developed based on the literature review.

Cooperation, efficiency, flexibility, service levels and sufficient volumes are five identified characteristics deemed by all involved experts as necessary for each functional transport system. Indeed, the shipped freight volumes must be high enough to ensure that real time switching and bundling of goods work within the synchromodal network.

Half of the respondents doubted that companies are willing to cooperate in such an intensive way that they are able to synchronize their transport flows as part of the network. Pricing strategies, legal and political framework as well as the mental shift are other important factors mentioned during the discussions. Accurate planning as well as ICT/ITS and other information systems have been rated as relevant, the experts partly mentioned that some of these systems already exist and are ready for being used to coordinate synchromodal transports on particular logistics legs.

In conclusion, existing shortcomings on the freight transport markets, e.g. the lack of reliability and punctuality of inland waterway transport services is a source of dissatisfaction among customers representing all market segments causing potential customers to consider IWT as incapable of meeting their logistical needs in a synchromodal environment.

Therefore, the IWT sector must prepare for a rapid and substantial evolution. It will have to think differently about its value propositions, continuously developing and improving products and services that evoke extreme responses, uncover missed customer segments, look, check and adopt services developed in other sectors that can be a source of inspiration of good practices.

This will require all stakeholders to question long established principles and practices and to develop more sustainable and promising market opportunities by thinking faster, by thinking differently, by thinking partnerships and open collaboration. The cooperation with actors from other modes will be key in order to apply innovations form other sectors and to develop high quality and seamless mobility solutions. This requires liaising with relevant stakeholders, most definitely including the logistics industry.

To this end, a Europe-wide Synchromodal Platform or a federation of platforms capable to interact with (a) local/national/regional logistics platforms to provide pan-European real-time solutions/offers and (b) individual carriers seeking alternative solutions/offers will be able to overcome the existing barriers by connecting the existing data sources and platforms. This platform should serve as the collection point of data from the providers and function as a decision-support tool. Such a European wide platform will be highly dependent on technological developments in automated data collection and exchange. EU projects FENIX 1.0 (further detailed later in this deliverable) and the ensuing FENIX 2.0 (still in its infancy) may contribute directly to that.

As a first step, a one-stop shop solution building upon the corridor approach and the concept of physical internet will be able to aggregate data across several platforms for capacity and transport demand and offer both protection of critical data and the possibility to connect to operative elements used in production to carry out transport tasks.

[1] Corridors, Hubs and Synchromodality, Research & Innovation Roadmap, ALICE,, p.16

[2] Historical Evolution of Synchromodality: A First Step Towards the Vision of Physical
Internet. Proceedings of the Second Physical Internet Conference, Haller, A., Pfoser, S., Putz, L.-M., Schauer, O. 2015, 6- 8 July, Paris, France.

[3] Critical success factors of synchromodality: results from a case study and literature review, Sarah Pfoser, Horst Treiblmaier, Oliver Schauer, University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, 2016

[4] A supply chain concerns the entire production and distribution chain from raw materials to final customer and finally “reverse logistics”.

[5] Final report Implementation Roadmap Synchromodal Transport Systeem, TNO, 2011

[6] Synchromodal logistics: An overview of critical success factors, enabling technologies, and open research issues, Riccardo Giustia , Daniele Manerbaa,b , Giorgio Brunoa , Roberto Tade, 2019

[7] Critical success factors of synchromodality: results from a case study and literature review, Sarah Pfoser, Horst Treiblmaier, Oliver Schauer, University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, 2016

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