23 May 2019

Containers: driving growth and investment in inland shipping

Never before have so many containers been transported via inland shipping in Belgium. Road congestion and increasing environmental awareness are driving growth in the sector, triggering major investments in logistics around the respective terminals.

In a nutshell

  • The benefit of inland shipping for container transport has recently been discovered and is experiencing strong growth, both in Flanders and Wallonia.
  • Drivers of inland shipping are increased international trade, a congested road network and growing environmental awareness.
  • Owing to increased volumes, inland shipping is becoming an affordable and reliable alternative to road transport.
  • Multimodality is the first step towards synchromodality, in which the logistics partner chooses the best combination of modes of transport.

More than 1 million containers

With 1,500 kilometres of shipping lanes and waterways, Belgium has one of the best developed networks in the world. But it is only in recent years that the possibilities of container transport have been fully discovered. In 2018, Belgium's inland terminals broke the threshold of 1 million TEUs (twenty foot equivalent unit, which is equivalent to approx. 1 container) for the first time. The terminals on Flanders’ waterways discharged or loaded 853,250 TEUs (+3.6%), a new record. In Wallonia, container trans-shipment rose by as much as 19.9% to over 116,000 TEUs, while trans-shipment has more than tripled there in the space of 6 years. In Brussels, container freight rose by 19% to 37,000 TEUs.

“Increasing environmental awareness is driving growth in inland shipping. An inland vessel consumes three to five times less fuel than a lorry per tonne-kilometre (carrying 1 tonne over 1 kilometre). This delivers both economic and ecological benefits,” says Martine Vansweevelt, Relationship Manager with ING Belgium in Hasselt. “Carbon emissions are almost two thirds lower than for road transport. More and more companies are becoming aware of this.”

"Increasing environmental awareness is driving growth in inland shipping"

Congestion as a driving force

Most of this freight goes via a few larger corridors, such as the Albert Canal. Critical mass is crucial in making inland navigation a fully-fledged and economically viable alternative: the greater the volume, the greater the frequency and the more regular the supply. And volumes are increasing, thanks largely to congestion on the roads.

“Companies that import and export containers via the ports of Antwerp are fed up with the congestion because it makes their road transport more expensive and less predictable,” says Wesley Mazzei, general manager of Haven Genk NV. “More and more companies within a radius of thirty kilometres around Genk are switching to inland shipping and only use road for the “last mile”. Even more amazingly: an increasing number of containers destined for the Ruhr area are going directly to Genk by boat and only by road from there.” 

Haven Genk is a joint venture between the Machiels and Aperam group (a sister company of Arcelor Mittal). It operates a terminal in Genk with a capacity of 85,000 to 90,000 TEUs and organises transport by inland navigation. In addition, the company is active in the bulk sector and has its own rail terminal. “Roughly 4 years ago, we handled a mere 20,000 TEUs at our terminal. Last year, that volume increased to 60,000 TEUs. Now that work is under way on the Oosterweel link, we anticipate further acceleration. Our terminal will reach full capacity in another 2 years,” according to Mazzei. As a consequence, Haven Genk is already constructing a new terminal with capacity for 315,000 TEUs on the opposite bank of the Albert Canal at the former Ford site. This will be operational after the summer of 2021. 

“More and more companies are switching to inland shipping and only use road for the “last mile”

Strong growth in logistics in Limburg

Mazzei expects that the vast growth in logistics activities at the former Ford site will boost container freight. For example, Haven Genk, along with H. Essers, has acquired the concession for Zone C, a total of more than 50 hectares. The Genk Green Logistics syndicate is also expanding a logistics hub at Zone B. But even elsewhere in the province, logistics is growing at rapid pace. “The Federal Planning Bureau expects to see an increase in transport of cargo volume of around 40% by 2030. Congestion won't disappear on its own and road transport does not offer a sustainable solution. Inland shipping is therefore crucial to accommodate this growth,” concludes Mazzei.

Liège is also booming

“In Wallonia, we have been seeing double-digit growth in container traffic for many years now,” says Sophie Bouillenne, Relationship Manager at ING Belgium in Liège. This comes mainly from Liège Container Terminal (LCT) which is part of the Tercofin group. Last year their terminal in Renory on the Meuse accounted for 70,000 of the 85,000 TEUs trans-shipped in the Liège region.

The growth in seaborne international trade is driving large increases in freight movements between the seaports and their hinterland. This growth will also ensure major investments in Liège. Philippe Portier, CEO of Tercofin: “We have released a budget to expand the hard surfaces of our sites from 2.5 to 5.4 hectares, further reducing disruption to the local area. We also entered into a joint venture with DP World for operating the Trilogiport terminal along the Albert Canal. In the future, LCT will mainly focus on destinations upstream on the Meuse, and Trilogiport more so on the Netherlands and Germany.”

Within the Tercofin group, TFC (Transport Fluvial de Containers) has a regular service between Antwerp and Liège. En route to Renory, their barges can also call in at the Liège terminals, Trilogiport along the Albert Canal and Euroports on Monsin Island. “We also expect logistics activities at Trilogiport to grow, ensuring a constant flow of traffic and more frequent sailings. This makes inland shipping increasingly more appealing from an economic point of view,” according to Philippe Portier. “Make no mistake: in addition to a drastically lower CO2 footprint, shippers expect that transport will also be cheaper and more reliable via the waterways.”

"In addition to a drastically lower CO2 footprint, shippers expect that transport will also be cheaper and more reliable via the waterways"

Synchromodal transport

Inland shipping is also growing in importance at H.Essers, the country’s largest transport and logistics group. CEO Gert Bervoets: “This is already the case today for our construction segment and now also for chemicals logistics. Containers now go from Antwerp to the BCTN terminal in Meerhout, from where they are sent by road to Genk. This way we avoid traffic jams. Once the terminal at the Ford site is operational (see above), the containers will even be able to go directly by ship to Genk.”

When developing new sites, the company opts as much as possible for multimodal locations. Multimodal means the combination of two or more modes of transport: road, rail and inland shipping. “This fits with the synchromodal model we have developed,” says Bervoets. That model consists of the efficient and dynamic combination of transport modes, in which the shipper (the customer) does not decide on the transport mode but the logistics company itself, in this case H. Essers. “The choice is determined using three main parameters: cost, speed and CO2 emissions. The customer determines which parameters are important and depending on this, we choose the most suitable mode of transport or combination. Efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand in our model and inland shipping has a key role role to play,” concludes Bervoets.

In the synchromodal model, the shipper (the customer) does not decide on the transport mode but the logistics company itself

Want to know more about the transport and logistics sector?

> Read our study Digital logistics in Belgium or contact your ING banker.