Focus on container traffic, from seagoing vessel to HGV

Container port
© Flip Franssen/Hollandse Hoogte
Every year, some 4.5 million containers are being discharged in ports around the Netherlands. Most containers arrive on seagoing vessels in the Ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, from where they continue their journey on inland vessels, trains and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) towards their destination, either within the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. To date, there is no complete overview of all this container transport. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) is studying possible ways of mapping the container routes within the country from beginning to end in a pilot study commissioned by Rijkswaterstaat (Department of Waterways and Public Works in the Netherlands, tr.) Essential elements in the process are new data from transport companies and customs data.

Incomplete data

CBS keeps track of both goods flows and transport flows through the Netherlands. The statistics on freight transport are broken down by mode: maritime and inland navigation, railway and road transport. For certain types of goods such as bulk commodities – e.g. coal and ore – this yields a fairly accurate picture. Bulk commodities tend to be carried by one single mode of transport (unimodal). However, the breakdown is less suited for other types of cargo such as containers: ‘Containers are often transhipped, moving from one mode to another,’ explains Mathijs Jacobs, traffic and transport researcher at CBS. ‘When you look at container transport broken down by mode, the data on transhipment movements is limited and there is a risk of double counting goods in the overall picture. Source data for the freight transport statistics include registers and surveys based on sampling, but these are incomplete. We fill the information gaps with estimation models. These are based on assumptions and they don’t cover the entire chain of freight transport. Especially data on individual container loads and the routes they travel are lacking.’

Policy relevance

Rijkswaterstaat advises the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management on the use and maintenance of public roads and waterways. Willem Otto Hazelhorst, senior advisor on traffic and transport at Rijkswaterstaat explains: ‘We do so in close collaboration with railway authority ProRail, given our multimodal advisory task. It’s highly important for us to get a complete overview of the freight transport chain. There is popular demand for more road capacity, but sometimes better usage of the existing infrastructure can be just as effective and cheaper. We produce forecasts of transport movements; for this, we need detailed information about how the infrastructure is used, as well as forecasts on national and international economic developments. We combine traffic and transport data from Statistics Netherlands with economic forecasts by the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis. The relevant information we need to produce accurate forecasts includes the volumes, types and origins of incoming shipments and their points of arrival. For example, how many containers with electrical equipment from China or how many reefers with bananas from Brazil arrive in the Ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam? In combination with the economic forecasts, we’re then able to project the development of Dutch imports and what this means for our infrastructure. It’s also important to find out how and to where the goods are carried within the country. How many containers carrying what types of goods are being loaded onto HGVs and where are they taken? On which days of the week and at what sort of time? How many containers are put onto inland vessels and which ports are they going? Would you be able to bundle container flows that are carried by road to one particular industrial area and ship them by water instead? Can you influence times of departure and arrival? At the inland navigation and railway terminals, are containers merely transhipped or also put in storage? And are the customers and the carriers satisfied with the speed and the reliability? We’re working on a better infrastructure, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in the multimodal use of our land, water and railways.’

‘All the companies we approached for this pilot have said yes. They’ve already supplied us with crucial data’

From tarmac to water

Detailed information about how goods are being transported around the country also contributes to more efficient use of tarmac roads and waterways, according to Herman Wagter, innovation programme manager in the Logistics top sector. ‘Dutch roads are very busy with HGV traffic. There’s a major road maintenance scheme coming up for the A15 motorway over the next few years, which is used by lorries transporting containers from the Port of Rotterdam. Some of these containers might also be carried on inland vessels. One inland vessel already fits 40 to over 100 containers. In order to realise this so-called extra modal shift from road to water network, you could for example introduce inland shipping services for container transport, geared towards attracting the cargo that would normally go by road. To find out how to achieve the best propositions for inland navigation that will attract fresh cargo flows, you need to have a thorough understanding of the logistics system. This means you need data that goes beyond averages, with a great deal of specifics; preferably even down to the level of individual containers, with ports of origin and destination, days of the week and departure and arrival times. This is also relevant to the efficient use of locks. In addition, you might consider empty container transport: each full container going to the hinterland comes back to the port as an empty container, and vice versa. Once you understand the logistics in more detail, you could come up with solutions, for example combining full and empty container transport; by allowing for longer articulated lorries (Super-Ecocombis, SECs) for instance, and attaching the empty containers to loaded containers going in the same direction, or by carrying them via inland waterways. In that case, a hundred containers might be taken from the east (Hengelo) to the west (Rotterdam) within less than 20 hours. That’s not just more efficient, it’s also more sustainable.’

Pilot for container data

In a bid to get a more comprehensive overview of goods transportation within the Netherlands, Rijkswaterstaat has commissioned a pilot study to collect supplementary data. ‘All containers carry a unique number,’ explains Hazelhorst. ‘These numbers can be traced all throughout the freight transport chain. The Customs Department registers them as well and includes the country of origin, the volume, container weight and type of goods. By linking the data from the different carriers with those from Customs, you can form a complete overview of the transport chain for the goods in these containers as it moves through the country, all based on the container number and times of departure and arrival.’ Jacobs explains: ‘The necessary data are already available at the logistics companies, but up to recently, collecting them was the problem. Thanks to improvements in administration and automation, it’s become fairly simple for companies to deliver data digitally. This makes it a lot easier to gather the information we need and it helps reduce the administrative burden for companies. Even if, say, they are already delivering the data elsewhere, we’ll check whether we can use those instead. Companies also appreciate how they are gaining more insight into the logistics system. All the companies we’ve approached for this pilot have committed themselves – about ten large companies and carriers/terminals in goods transportation by water, rail and road. They’ve already submitted crucial data as well.’ The pilot runs until 1 September 2020. ‘in the pilot, we check what is needed to achieve complete coverage of the whole country’s logistics system using this data,’ adds Hazelhorst. ‘We’re also looking at the extent of our possibilities within the privacy boundaries. CBS is one of the largest sources of data for Rijkswaterstaat as well as for the private sector, partly because of their strict compliance with anonymity. Businesses therefore see CBS as a reliable data partner.’

‘Companies also appreciate how they are gaining more insight into the logistics system’


After 1 September, the results from this pilot will be analysed and assessed. Hazelhorst: ‘We’ve received virtually all day-to-day container movements over 2018 from the participating companies, sometimes including international data. We expect to be able to visualise the movements of individual containers from China, for example, to their end destination, via which route, and the container contents. We also anticipate being able to show how container shipments are distributed over the various transportation modes and, in doing so, identify modal shift opportunities from road to waterway and even railway. This also helps us find out where the infrastructure and the terminals might need to be reinforced. Thanks to more efficient data acquisition and processing, the data will also become available to the public and private sector more rapidly and at lower cost. ‘If we manage to map out container traffic in this way, this will be a fantastic achievement and unique in Europe,’ Wagter states. ‘If the pilot turns out to be a success, then this source of information will certainly be utilised in a structural manner as part of the planned Modal Shift programme which is being developed at the moment by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Logistics Top sector. We will then put this digital data collection into a structure and expand it. Moreover, we aim to look beyond our borders to Germany and Belgium, so that we’ll be able to include international chains of freight transport.’

The research results and an assessment report from the pilot study are expected by the end of 2020.