If the 1990s were the decade of port expansion in the Mediterranean, the next decade will be one of intermodal development in the region.
Cargo-handling efficiency, spurred by privatization and investments in new terminals and dockside equipment, has contributed to a surge in container traffic through Mediterranean ports during the last several years. The increased cargo volume has been accompanied by increased congestion.
"We are working in a congested environment, so it is no longer possible to rely only on trucks for distribution," said Mauro Pessano, managing director of Maritime Container Services SpA, a European intermodal operator that is trying to develop intermodal links between Italian ports and European cities.
"If you look at the transport projects of the European Union and the Italian government, everyone wants to push intermodal services because the environmental problems caused by congestion are no longer acceptable," he said. "Now the key issue is intermodalism. It's going to be crucial to the future development of Mediterranean ports."
Environmental concerns are encouraging a shift of container traffic from highways to rail throughout Europe, although highway transportation still dominates and, in fact, through much of the 1990s gained market share at the expense of rail. Environmental concerns are particularly acute in the Alps, which separates Italy from the major markets of western and central Europe.
In Switzerland, the heaviest trucks crossing the country are assessed road user fees of nearly $300 per trip, and the amount will rise to more than $400 by 2008. In addition, Switzerland prohibits truck operations at night and on Sunday. The Swiss government is using truck taxes to help finance two new rail freight corridors and long tunnels to France and Germany. The ambitious goal is to shift half of the 1.2 million truckloads of freight that cross the country each year from road to rail by 2008.
"With the new intermodal connections that are being offered and planned in the future, it's useless to utilize a truck to cross the Alps," said Carlo Cavaciocchi, marketing manager at Voltri Terminal Europa in Genoa. "With volumes rising, our future growth and survival depends on moving more containers by rail. We are investing a lot of money in our rail terminal and in the future we hope 40 percent of our container traffic moves by rail."
Maritime Container Services, or MarCo for short, is a pioneer in developing intermodal connections between Mediterranean ports and Europe's northern industrial heartland. The company is an intermodal joint venture between Europe's third-largest terminal operator, Eurogate/Contship Italia, and the German railway, DB Cargo. While Contship Italia has for decades offered extensive domestic intermodal services in Italy through its subsidiary Sogemar, MarCo represents its first international service.
MarCo now uses Sogemar's intermodal terminal near Milan to consolidate shipments from container terminals at Gioia Tauro and La Spezia, both operated by Contship Italia. Sogemar runs six shuttles a week from Gioia Tauro and 11 from La Spezia to Milan. From Milan, MarCo is initially offering three shuttle trains a week to Basel, Switzerland, and Mannheim, Germany. MarCo will begin offering a direct rail service between Gioia Tauro and Germany in April and plans to offer daily service on all its routes by 2004.
Pessano said the intermodal service offers Mediterranean ports an opportunity to compete with northern Europe ports. "The Mediterranean ports give us the possibility to save a significant amount of time, which can be important for certain cargoes," he said. "And we can save money if you look at all the logistics costs involved."
Last October, Swiss intermodal operator Hupac International announced a similar international service from the Voltri terminal in Genoa, which is operated by Singapore's PSA Corp. The service, the MedGate Shuttle, offers four trains a week from the Genoa terminal to Hupac's Busto Arsizio intermodal hub near Milan. From there, Hupac operates 34 trains a day to and from central and northern Europe, including German cities such as Cologne, Ludwigshafen and Duisburg, and farther north to Taulov, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden.
"Our aim is to create a European network of intermodal services for inland maritime traffic via the hubs of northern Italy, said Alessandro Valenti, Hupac's business manager for maritime inland services.
Hupac, part-owned by Swiss Railways, also organizes shuttle trains from the ports of La Spezia and Rotterdam. In 2002, it handled the equivalent of 322,541 truckloads of containerized freight, including 282,638 trans-Alpine consignments, and had revenue of $380 million. In 2001, Hupac announced it would invest more than $337 million to double its capacity through the Alps by 2004.
PSA's Voltri Terminal Europa handled nearly 900,000 TEUs last year, about three-fifths of the 1.5 million TEUs that moved through the port during 2002. "For Asian, Middle East and Med traffic we are better positioned than the northern European ports. It's an extra five to six days to reach those ports and inland transit times to central Europe are about the same," Cavaciocchi said. "We have been able to organize a very good rail service here, which avoids the regular shunting yards, and comes straight into the terminal. And once a container reaches Busto Arsizio it is connected to Hupac's European rail network." Voltri and Hupac plan to launch a direct shuttle service between Genoa and Basel this year.
A recent report by the University of Pisa said privatization, improved container-handling efficiency and the success of Gioia Tauro as a Mediterranean transshipment hub have allowed Italian ports to
recapture Italian freight that previously moved through the northern European ports. "It is therefore realistic to predict a further decline in the quantity of containers handled at northern range ports, and consequently a decline in their market share as compared to Mediterranean ports," the report said.
For the new Italian-based intermodal operators, recapturing the immediate hinterland was an important first step. But their ultimate goal is much more ambitious. "With better intermodal links, Mediterranean ports will continue to take international freight from the northern range," Pessano said. "Before MarCo, La Spezia and Gioia Tauro had no international connections to the European hinterland. We have opened a new world for the Mediterranean ports."