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Inland barge services and container transport: the case of the ports of Le Havre and Marseille in the European context

Desserte fluviale des ports maritimes et transport des conteneurs : Quels enjeux pour les ports français du Havre et de Marseille dans le contexte européen ?
Antoine Frémont, Pierre Franc et Brian Slack


La compétitivité des ports dépend en grande partie des chaînes de transport terrestre et des économies d’échelle qu’elles permettent de réaliser. La rapide expansion du transport combiné fleuve-route depuis les ports français, Le Havre et Marseille, nous conduit à proposer une analyse théorique et empirique des causes et conditions de ce développement. La desserte fluviale de ces deux ports a été mise en perspective de celle des ports d’Anvers et Rotterdam pour mieux comprendre la dynamique à l’œuvre dans les ports français. Le modèle en quatre phases que nous proposons souligne l’interdépendance entre la mise en œuvre de services de transport combiné fleuve-route, la compétition entre les ports et celle entre compagnies maritimes.

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1Containerization permits major economies of scale and lower costs of freight (Brooks, 2000). On the sea, this is achieved by the use of vessels with increasingly large capacities (Cullinane et al., 2000). Hinterland transport is a vital factor in enabling seaports to assemble or distribute the large numbers of containers that the larger vessels take on or drop off. The ports which manage to combine concentrated maritime services with high-capacity inland services gain the position of principal load centre in their port range because they control a large hinterland (Hayuth, 1992; Heaver, 2002; Robinson, 2002; Notteboom, 2004).

2The rapid expansion of combined waterway-road services at French ports first linked Le Havre to the Paris region with its population of 10 million, then Marseille to Lyon with its population of 1.5 million. As highlighted by Ducruet et al (2007), the Western European system of “inland concentration and coastal gateways” means that it is economic activities more than the size of the port city that attracts volumes.

3This paper carries out a theoretical and empirical analysis of the causes and conditions that underlie the development of combined waterway-road transport from the two major French container ports, Le Havre and Marseille. In order to more clearly understand the dynamics of the French situation, attention must be broadened to include other competing European ports, notably Antwerp and Rotterdam which have more fully exploited the European waterway system, the Rhine in particular. Thus the development of waterways in France cannot be understood solely by referring to specifically French factors, it is also necessary to consider the competition between Europe’s two largest ports with a view to dominating the European hinterland.

4The first part of the paper sets out to describe the necessary conditions for the development of combined waterway-road transport from a seaport. The second section implements a four stage theoretical model. It highlights the interdependence between the setting up of combined waterway-road services, the competition between ports and the competition between shipping lines. The last part of the paper compares the model with an empirical analysis of waterway services operating from the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Marseille, paying particular attention to competition between ports and between carriers.

The necessary conditions for the development of inland waterway services

The factors which determine the competitiveness of inland waterway services

  • 1 Even if 30% of containers are transported by barge to and from Antwerp and Rotterdam and 30% by tra (...)

5For many technical, economic and social reasons, the road is today the dominant transport mode for inland services to and from European ports1. However, as a high-capacity mode, inland waterways also have considerable advantages over the road, and they frequently share these with rail (Van Slobbe, 2002):

  • in the case of high volume traffic flows, inland waterways provide a means of avoiding congestion in port conurbations, on the corridors that serve the hinterland and also in hinterland conurbations,

  • in the case of high volume traffic flows, inland waterways provide a means of avoiding congestion in port conurbations, on the corridors that serve the hinterland and also in hinterland conurbations,

  • inland waterway transport has high fixed costs and low variable costs so costs per kilometre and per TEU become lower the higher the transport capacity and the container capacity utilization ratio. Water transport is more energy efficient and has lower costs per tonne-kilometre than either road or rail. Up to 500 TEUs at a time can be transported by barge, compared with only 90 by train and only 2 by truck,

  • it facilitates the repositioning of large numbers of empty containers at low cost,

  • it provides an alternative mode to the road, whose negative externalities are becoming increasingly unacceptable, in response to environmental and societal pressures (ECMT, 2006a).

6However, barge transport is not the dominant mode of transport because it has a number of drawbacks (Blumenhagen, 1981). Unlike the road, which possesses a very large interconnected network, inland waterway services can only carry goods to a limited number of destinations which are entirely dependent on the infrastructure. To reach the end customer, it is necessary to organize pre- and end-haulage by road over a short distance whose per-kilometre price is higher than for long distance road transport (Niérat, 1992). The entire transport process is therefore longer and slower by inland waterway than by road. Put briefly, combined waterway-road transport is considerably less flexible than road transport.

7To gain market share, combined waterway-road transport must be more competitive than road transport, both with regard to the price of door-to-door services and the quality of the service provided (Vellenga et al., 1999). Five factors are essential for the competitiveness of inland waterway transport: the waterway infrastructure, the characteristics of the market, services and terminals, the road transport services on the end leg and the organization of the market. Table 1 shows the necessary conditions for the development of inland waterway transport on a factor by factor basis.


The existence of an inland waterway network which permits services to the hinterland, particularly the largest cities. The greater that network’s density and interconnectivity with other basins, the greater the possibilities of serving a large hinterland (Konings, 2002).

The characteristics of the market

The greater the volumes at the seaport or the final destination, the more advantageous it becomes to use inland waterway services (Notteboom, 2002). In addition, the more distant the markets from the port the greater the opportunities to exploit waterway transport.

The services and the terminals

It is necessary for inland waterway services to be reliable and frequent and offer a transit time which is acceptable in comparison with road and rail. There must be a network of inland waterway terminals or inland hubs, where traffic flows are concentrated and broken up in order to be routed to their final destinations (Konings, 2006). It is essential for these to be well located with respect to the market.

End-haul road transport

Terminal handling costs in the barge terminal should not be too great to threaten the competitiveness of the combined waterway-road services in compared to all-road transport.

The organization of the market

There is a need to provide the shipper with an integrated end-to-end service between the maritime terminal and the final destination (Panayides et al. 2002). This requires actors that are able to coordinate the inland chain (Van der Horst et De Langen, 2008). In particular, combined transport operators are needed to set up an end-to-end service with a different form of coordination (Langen et al., 2004).

Table 1: Necessary conditions for the development of inland waterway transport.

Source: the authors

The decisive role of operators as regards setting up combined transport

8Two of the five factors which determine the competitiveness of inland waterway transport are structural: the infrastructure and the characteristics of the market. The players which organize transport exercise little control over them. The infrastructure is either there or not. While it is true that the public authorities may decide to build or modernize a river canal, such decisions are rare, due to the considerable investments which are required. As far as the location of markets is concerned, this depends to a very high degree on the organization of the urban system.

9In contrast, inland waterway services, inland terminals and end-leg road services depend on the largely individual operations of the barge carriers, terminal operators and road hauliers. In most cases they act separately, and this separateness is the major obstacle to the development of competitive barge transport. Thus, an essential condition for the development of inland waterway services is the integration of combined transport operators (ECMT, 2006b) who manage waterway services, inland terminals and terminal haulage (Van der Horst and De Langen, 2008). Through long term contracts and minority or majority shares, combined transport operators have closer and closer links with freight forwarders. Thus on the river Rhine, 70% of the traffic is controlled by freight forwarders (Zurbach, 2005) or a shipping line (for instance CMA CGM’s subsidiary RSC). The nature of these actors’ involvement in combined transport operations depends not only on their interests but also on the characteristics of the port and hinterland served.

The interests of the various players in the transport chain

10The shipper’s goal is to obtain the lowest transport cost for the inland leg, additional logistical services (customs clearance, storage, etc.) and in some cases the use of an environmentally friendly transport mode. As barge services, which are slower than road and train services, have long suffered from an inability to offer competitive transit times, most shippers see waterway services as floating stocks. In addition, the fact that customs clearance is now authorized in inland terminals reduces transit times by shortening dwell times at maritime terminals. It may be in the shipper’s interests to use combined waterway-road transport, but not to organise the service since transport since this is not his main activity. The shipper will therefore not be interested in becoming an integrator, particularly if he is shipper with limited cargo volumes.

11Shipping lines and freight forwarders are both interested in organizing inland transport. The first use carrier haulage and the second use merchant haulage. There are many advantages for a shipping line to take on the role of integrator. It enables it to provide its customers with an end-to-end service. It can attempt to lower transport costs on the inland leg and thereby enable it to become more competitive than its direct competitors. In order to develop combined waterway-road transport, both freight forwarders and maritime shipping lines can purchase slots on a one-off basis from a barge carrier or charter a fixed number of slots, which carries both a commercial and an operating risk.

12It is very much in the interest of barge carriers and the operators of large inland terminals to become integrators in order to develop their activities. Providing inland waterway services allows the operators of seaport terminals to offer shipping lines the ability to return their containers back to the seaports and ensure smooth passage through the port. But unlike freight forwarders and shipping lines, the three last types of players are neither in direct contact with the shippers nor in control of container flows.

13Last, when the other players prove inadequate, the port authority can act as an integrator, at least during an initial phase, in order not to lose the benefits of inland waterway services, in particular in the context of a competition between ports in the same range in order to preserve its hinterland.

Port hinterlands and inland waterway networks: a theoretical approach

14France represents a very specific case in the broader context of Europe. Nevertheless, its position raises theoretical issues which have so far received little attention in the literature. The French example shows that combined waterway-road transport is possible over relatively short distances (less than 200 km between Le Havre and Gennevilliers (Paris) and 80% of the traffic on the Rhône-Saône artery is done along the 350km between Marseille and Lyon). A further theoretical examination of the impact of waterway-road combined transport on the port hierarchy and the organisation of the hinterlandwould therefore seem to be appropriate.

15The development of ports along a maritime range has generated a considerable number of models. Very few of these take account of the impact of inland waterway services on port development or competition between ports. While it is true that all ports are not connected to an inland waterway network, which makes it difficult to develop a general model, some of the world’s largest ports such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Rotterdam and Antwerp, inland waterways do play a role in the inland accessibility of the ports and give them a competitive advantage over their competitors with regard to hinterland services.

16In order to explain the changes in the port hierarchy, some models emphasize the impetus from the hinterland (Taaffe, Morrill et Gould, 1963). Others, on the other hand, emphasize the role of changes in maritime services but minimize the role of hinterland links (Hayuth, 1981). Today’s unprecedented level of port traffic depends on the existence of modes that concentrate the traffic to the hinterland with high-capacity routes and inland hubs (Slack, 1999; Notteboom, 2001). Notteboom thus proposed a model for the spatial development of rail networks (2001) and then applied the same approach, with Konings, to inland waterway networks (2004). These scholars have shown clearly that the operational and geographical conditions are not the same for rail and barges. Complementarities between inland waterway networks and rail networks exist in theory; however this has yet to be demonstrated in practice. The greater amount of handling increases the total costs of inland transport, thus decreasing the cost competitiveness of waterway-rail-road transport.

17The Notteboom and Konings model shows very clearly how the development of an effective barge transport system is based on the gradual creation of inland waterway terminals. To begin with, this network is undifferentiated. Then inland waterway hubs are set up, concentrating traffic to and from seaports. However, this model does not illustrate the repercussions that the development of a network of this type has on the organization of hinterlands and on inter-port competition within the port range.

18Our model describes four successive phases of the development of ports and hinterlands in a context of an increase in port throughput. This model aims to highlight, first, the behaviours of actors in the transport chain according to the economic and spatial characteristics of the hinterland, and, second, the impacts of organisational developments in the inland waterway chain on inter-port competition.

19Let us consider a region that is served by several competing ports that do not necessary belong to the same port range. As a result of the development of containerization, a few of these ports (the principal ports, represented by A) dominate this region. Such ports are usually ports which were already ahead of the peripheral ports, represented by B and B’, before containerization (Hayuth, 1981). The peripheral ports play a symmetrical role in the model, but they do not necessarily interact with port A in the same way, as we shall see from the concrete application.

20We shall consider that the port A’s hinterland not only generates more freight than the hinterlands of ports B and B’ but is also larger. A waterway (IA, IB and IB’) crosses each hinterland which means that consolidated services can be provided from the port in question.

Figure 1: a theoretical model describing the influence of the spatial composition of the hinterland on the organizational development of combined transport services and the port hierarchy

First phase: consolidated services are not feasible

21In the first stage, port A, which historically has had the richest hinterland, attracts greater volumes than ports B and B’, but not enough to set up a consolidated service on IA in the form of regular, frequent door-to-door services.

22Each port controls a captive close hinterland. The secondary hinterlands are shared between the ports and are where the greatest competition occurs for attracting freight. Because of its higher traffic volumes, the dominant port has the largest secondary hinterland.

Second phase: consolidation becomes possible from port A

23In the second phase, the volumes passing through ports A, B and B’ increase. Port A continues to generate much higher volumes than ports B and B’.

24More and more freight passes through port A and the hinterland around IA, which explains the development of combined transport. As traffic grows, new inland terminals are constructed to be as close as possible to the areas of consumption. The market is structured by a few operators that share the freight flows from the maritime companies and the freight handlers. They benefit from the capacity of the infrastructure to set up services with wide barge trains.

25At the same time, the volumes in the peripheral ports B and B’ are not large enough to justify combined waterway-road transport. Port A’s secondary hinterland snowballs as a result of the wide barge river services. The historical hinterlands of ports B and B’ are placed under increasing threat.

Third phase: a consolidated service becomes possible from the secondary ports

26The volumes passing through each port continue to increase. Consolidation of the services through port A continues. Habitual practices develop between the different players in the transport chain. Whatever the ultimate forms cooperation takes between the waterway operators, the increase in volumes means the principal inland waterways companies are able to use high capacity barge trains while reducing the number of calls for each service, which lowers costs and improves the reliability, frequency and transit time of services. Access to this well-structured market becomes difficult for new entrants. In a multi-polar market that is served by a large number of inland terminals, operators can only be genuinely competitive if they handle large volumes of freight.

27At the same time, the close hinterlands of ports B and B’ are threatened by rail services from port A which benefit from the effects of high volume. If the infrastructure allows it, the waterways can provided these services. The inland operators can also take advantage of the attractiveness of the principal port to develop rail shuttles to supply the historical hinterland of ports B and B’.

28To deal with this threat in their hinterland, the peripheral ports can set up more and more waterways services as the absolute value of the traffic increases. Such services consist of point-to-point services between the port and the largest urban area in the hinterland.

Fourth phase: the dominant players in the secondary ports arrive on the scene

29The generalized increase in traffic that characterizes containerization affects all the ports including the secondary ones. This leads some operators, particularly shipping lines, to give priority to calling at the secondary ports in order to dominate markets, which although smaller than those of port A are nevertheless not negligible. Their use of waterways services is explained by the desire to capture market shares in the close hinterland of ports B and B’ in order to fill their vessels, which leads to competition between the principal players at the secondary ports. In a hinterland where the number of inland terminals to be served is limited, which reduces the volume that is required in order to set up competitive services, and where the market has not already been sewn up by several existing players, the maritime companies can develop competitive river-road services without facing the same competition that exists on the market for river services from port A.

Towards a fifth phase?

30In a fifth phase which we have not shown on the diagram, as it appears still to be hypothetical, once the major maritime companies have taken over the inland services from ports B and B’, they could make use of the experience and know-how they have acquired when providing river services from the secondary ports to attempt to serve the terminals located along IA, for example with combined waterway-rail transport. This is not an unlikely hypothesis in view of the congestion that may build up in port A. This additional stage would, in a way, constitute the revenge of the peripheral ports on the major ports.

Waterways in France: four stages of development in the European context

31The development of the European inland barging network began with the creation of links between the two largest ports in the Northern range, Antwerp and Rotterdam, and the Rhine river basin. In relation to this large cluster with concentrated traffic flows, Le Havre and Marseille are peripheral ports and the latter does not even belong to the same maritime range. The necessary conditions for the development of combined inland waterway transport existed as early as the 1970s on the Rhine. The French market only changed very recently. Four stages can be identified.

Figure 2: Ports and Navigable waterways

1965-1975: the beginnings of container transport fluvial on the Rhine

32In the 1960s and the early 1970s, first Rotterdam then Antwerp established themselves as the principal European ports. They rapidly adopted containerization and made use of the Rhine to serve their hinterland.

33The start of container transport on the Rhine, which was used as a supplement for “conventional” and “heavy cargo” transport, was on a small scale and dates from 1965. Waterway transport companies such as Danser Container Line, the Société Suisse de Navigation, CFNR or Haeger and Schmitt were set up at this time. These companies were responsible for physical operations and the marketing of transport solely on the river link between Rotterdam, Basle and Strasbourg on the Upper Rhine, and. Mannheim and Karlsruhe on the Middle Rhine. These companies did not run regular services and combined conventional, bulk and container transport in the same barge train. Until 1975, annual containerized traffic on the Rhine did not exceed 10,000 TEUs, and there was none at all on either the Seine or the Rhône.

1975-1994: industrialisation of waterway transport on the Rhine

34Until 1994, inland waterway transport played no role in serving the hinterlands of the two largest French ports. This contrasts with the situation in Rotterdam and Antwerp where, at that date, barge transport carried a considerable proportion of hinterland traffic flows (Table 2).

35Antwerp and Rotterdam possessed the necessary conditions for the development of inland waterways:

  • a very large arterial river, the Rhine, with tributaries (the Moselle, Meuse and Danube) which serves the largest European markets and where, since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the principle of the free movement of freight vessels has applied,

  • huge urban and industrial areas o the River Rhine and in the Rhur valley close to the waterway infrastructure

  • port traffic was already large and posing the problem of a possible saturation of land corridors and urban conurbations.

36The growth in maritime flows that occurred in the 1970s prompted a few operators to set up waterway container transport on a more industrial basis. This led to the creation of the large waterway companies which stayed in control of transport on the Rhine for a long period: (Combine Container Services and Alcotrans Container Line in 1975, Rhinecontainer and Frankenbach in 1978).

37During this period the number of inland terminals on the Rhine increased. No less than 20 inland terminals were built between 1980 and 1987, on the initiative of the river carriers who saw this as a way of guaranteeing the success of their barge lines (Notteboom and Konings, 2004).

38The streamlining of the operation of the different segments of the Rhine (the Upper Rhine, Middle Rhine and Lower Rhine) then governed the development of “transport groupings” in which companies pooled their resources, mirroring the maritime consortiums. High capacity barge trains were brought into service, but without any increase in the number of inland terminals called at by the service.

39In order to strengthen their position on the routes they dominated, the waterway transport companies signed cooperation agreements with the freight handling companies in the inland terminals they served (Notteboom et al., 2006).

40After this 20 year process of consolidation of activity on the Rhine on the part of the river carriers, waterway transport had an important place in the hinterland traffic of Rotterdam and Antwerp while its position in the hinterlands of Le Havre and Marseille was negligible (Table 2).




Le Havre


Millions of TEUs





Road (%)





Rail-road (%)





Barge-road (%)





Table 2: The modal split for hinterland traffic flows in 1994

Source: Port authorities

1994-2001: the emergence of combined waterway-road transport in France

  • 2 A logistics services provider but also a Non Vessel Operating Common Carrier between Asia, Europe a (...)
  • 3 Figures dating from 2004 taken from the annual report of the Central Commission on Navigation on th (...)

41Although the emergence of the waterways companies on the Rhine came into being a relatively long time ago, the major freight handlers and logistics survice providers did not start to market services until much more recently: 1990 in the case of Wincanton, through its purchase of the freight handler Rhenania Intermodal GmbH which owned the Rhine Container Transport Company; 1998 in the case of Imperial Holding Logistics2 which entered the market by acquiring the river carrier Alcotrans Container Line. These three major freight handlers control 70% of the containerized volumes on the Rhine3. Through their provision of port-to-port and door-to-door services and through their ownership of river transport subsidiaries and as a result of cooperation agreements with the river freight handlers in most of the inland terminals along the Rhine, they gained control of a market that the river companies had previously helped to lock up in order to protect themselves from potential new entrants.

42Rail services, particularly towards the South of Europe and more particularly France (Lyon), were added to the supply of river transport at the Rhine ports (Van Klink et al., 1998). The creation of the European Rail Shuttle in 1994 is one of the most striking proofs of the possibility of extending hinterlands by means of consolidated flows. The two French ports of Le Havre and Marseille thus found themselves faced with direct competition in their hinterlands (CNT, 1999).

431994 marked the rebirth of container transport on French rivers. Even if potential exists, no regular service has yet been set up. Table 3 applies and adapts the typology used in Table 1 used in the French case.




The infrastructure

Wide rivers and canals

River network with few interconnections

The characteristics of the market

Greater Paris region and Rhône-Alpes region generate high freight volumes


Services and terminals



End-haul road transport



Organization of the market



Table 3: Advantages and difficulties for the development of waterways in France. Situation in 1994

44On the Seine, the combined waterway-road transport company LogiSeine was set up. This firm brought together a barge carrier, the Compagnie Fluvial de Transport (CFT), a terminal operator in Le Havre (Terminaux de Normandie), and the company that managed the Gennevilliers and Bonneuil terminals (Paris Terminal SA).

45The appearance of this combined transport operator is explained by a number of factors. The political context favoured the development of modes other than the road, in particular on environmental grounds. The public authorities were the first to take the problem of the environment into account, especially the European Union which is at the forefront in this area at international level. At national level, the European Union receives considerable government assistance, but this is also the case at highly local levels, as there is very strong social pressure to limit the adverse impacts of economic activities, in particular with regard to transport. There is therefore a great deal of political and social pressure to encourage the use of combined transport.

46The Le Havre port authority also wishes to catch up with the Rhine ports, whose consolidated inland services are threatening its hinterland. Since it was set up, LogiSeine has created services that include river transport on the Seine between Gennevilliers, Rouen and Le Havre, as well as the organization of pre- and end-haul by road between the inland terminal and its shipper clients. This company has gained in importance progressively and almost continuously, with annual growth of 30% since it was set up. On the Seine, the size of barge trains and the frequency of the shuttle services increased between 1994 and 2001, from one return journey a week in 1994 between Gennevilliers and Le Havre when LogiSeine was setting up the service to three in 2001.

  • 4 See the Paris Terminal website:

47At the same time, Paris Terminal developed additional services to meet the needs of its shipper clients: freight handling, storage, repairing and managing the container fleet, stuffing and stripping, and customs clearance services at good prices for shippers4. These changes are summarized in Table 4.




The infrastructure

No major changes

No major changes

The characteristics of the market

The Greater Paris region and the Rhône-Alpes region generate increasing volumes


Services and terminals

Improving services


End-haul road transport

A maturing market

Increasing congestion around Paris and Lyon

Organization of the market

Market entry of the leading operator of river-road transport on the Seine


Table 4: changes in conditions that were necessary for the development of waterway transport between 1994 and 2001

2001–2007: the development of combined waterway-road transport in France under the impetus of the shipping lines

48The second phase in the development of combined waterway-road transport services from French ports was directly driven by the shipping lines. River Shuttle Container (RSC), a subsidiary of the maritime shipping line CMA-CGM, had been operating a regular containerized service on the Rhône-Saône route from Marseille-Fos since 2001. More recently (2005), RSC started to develop the same type of dedicated service between Le Havre and the Paris Region via Gennevilliers, thereby following in the wake of MSC and Maersk. Rather than purchasing single slots from the combined transport operator LogiSeine, MSC and Maersk chartered a fixed number of slots per week on barges and took a commercial risk. The operation was worthwhile for the combined transport operator as it provided aminimum regular amount of freight from a large client, which happened to be a maritime company. By chartering a large number of slots on a regular basis, the maritime company obtained a lower slot price than if it had bought slots singly. However, in order to amortize the investment and make a profit, the maritime companies that take part in processes of this type are forced to resell a percentage of the slots they charter to their clients.

49There is no single factor that explains the high level of interest shown by maritime companies in running waterway-road transport services from French ports. One initial factor is the presence of a large number of shipping lines at Le Havre. As the largest ports such as Rotterdam are congested or even saturated, the world’s three largest shipping lines, Maersk, MSC and CMA-CGM, have established themselves at Le Havre, taking advantage of the space available at the existing terminals and those that have been added recently as part of the new Port 2000. Their strategy is not limited to the port segment. In order to amortize their large investments, these shipping lines are attempting to gain control of their hinterland by taking advantage of the relative weakness of the freight handlers, which is a consequence of their predominantly national character, and offering door-to-door transport. The Paris region is a key area in Le Havre’s hinterland. The Seine passes through this area, and it is the port of Le Havre’s main market. Their presence at the terminals of Le Havre enables Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM to control sufficiently large volumes to amortize their investment in consolidated services between the port of Le Havre and the Paris region. The physical characteristics of Le Havre’s hinterland, which is served by the Seine network, also encourage the maritime companies to enter the market that is concentrated around the Paris region, which was previously supplied uniquely by the port Gennevilliers, and the port of Rouen which was formerly directly served by maritime vessels. The limited number of inland terminals to be served meant that the volumes required to set up frequent, regular shuttle services from the port of Le Havre that were competitive with the existing operators were far smaller than those required on the Rhine. The entry of new players such as the maritime companies was also encouraged by the fact that the market had not been locked up by a few powerful freight handlers or operators.

50The involvement of the shipping lines has been responsible for a considerable increase in waterway-road combined transport from the port of Le Havre. River transport entered a new phase of growth in 2001, rising from 3% in 2001 to 8% in 2006 (Figure 3).

  • 5 Alcotrans, a subsiduary of the Imperial group that operates on the Rhine, has set up services betwe (...)

51In Marseille, similar strategies were implemented but on a smaller sale, as port and river flows were lower. CMA-CGM, the main shipping line in the port of Marseille is already operating dedicated shuttles using its subsidiary RSC. In addition, as on the Seine, the involvement of the maritime lines in river transport on the Rhône should increased. In 2008 when the two new Fos 2XL terminals are opened, operated respectively by the Portsynergie group (CMA-CGM, Egysport, CNC, IFB) and the shipping line MSC respectively. In addition, as in the case of the Seine market, most of the freight is either to or from the Lyon region via the inland port of Lyon, which is a market that no “conventional” operator has really managed to dominate.5.

Figure 3: Containerized traffic on the Seine and the Rhône, in billion TEUs

Source: Voie Navigable de France

52The model that took shape in France differed from that of the Rhine. The market for combined waterway-road transport on the Rhine has been dominated by a few large freight handlers since 1995. These firms have gradually taken control of the inland terminals and made subsidiaries of the waterway transport companies. In contrast to the situation in France, the maritime companies have not penetrated the Rhine market, but flows have nevertheless increased on the Rhine, not only, of course, in terms of volume, but also in terms of modal share, as can be seen from a comparison between Tables 2 and 5.




Inland transport


































Le Havre





















Table 5: The modal share for hinterland traffic flows in 2005

Source: Port authorities

53Table 6 summarizes the main factors that have permitted the increase in containerized volumes on French waterways.





No major changes

No major changes

The characteristics of the market

The Greater Paris region and the Rhône-Alpes region generate increasing volumes


Services and terminals

Increasingly frequent services


End-haul road transport

A maturing market

Increasing congestion around Paris and Lyon

Organization of the market

Entry into the market of the maritime companies which include water transport in the door-to-door transport


Table 6: The factors that favoured the development of waterways transport between 2001 and 2007

Since 2007: towards a fifth phase?

54In spite of environmental and social pressure, the changes that have affected waterways transport in France do not yet seem to support the model’s predictions. The future is much more difficult to foresee. A dual process could lead to contradictory effects, congestion at the principal ports and the linking up of river networks.

55In a situation where the principal ports are becoming increasingly saturated, Le Havre currently occupies a central position in the strategies of the world’s three largest maritime companies, MSC, Maersk and CMA CGM. Each of these companies has invested in dedicated port terminals and inland transport modes, in particular combined waterway-road transport.

56Of the three companies, it is CMA-CGM, which unlike MSC and Maersk has no dedicated terminals at Antwerp or Rotterdam, which has the greatest presence in the inland transport chain from Le Havre. In particular, it has a rail subsidiary (Rail Link) which allows it to serve the French hinterland from Le Havre but also target the hinterland of the Benelux ports. For example, it offers railway services from Le Havre to Mannheim. There is a genuine desire on the part of a number of shippers on the Rhine to use rail services to Le Havre. Can waterways transport follow the same trend and gradually become a means for the ports of Le Havre or Marseille to extend their hinterlands inland?

57The creation of new infrastructure determines the development of waterways networks, and consequently how the private sector takes advantage of the opportunities available. While the Rhine-Rhône canal, which would have made it possible for the port of Marseille to serve the inland ports on the Rhine, has not materialized mainly for political reasons, the Seine-Nord canal should make it possible to set up waterways services not only between Le Havre and the Benelux countries and even the Rhine Valley, but also between the northern ports and the Paris Region. Will the secondary port, in this case Le Havre, take advantage of this situation, to strengthen its hinterland in comparison with the principal port, in this case Antwerp. Nothing could be less certain. Antwerp, if it is able to keep its level of congestion to within a reasonable level, can hope to deepen its hinterland by reducing the cost of transport to and from the Paris Region.

58Predicting the characteristics of a fifth phase in the model requires us to consider changes in the area of investments. However, in contrast to port volumes, which are growing steadily as a result of fairly foreseeable and explicable economic development, transport infrastructure investment, particularly in the case of waterways, usually depends on political will. The Grenelle Environment summit, which was held in France at the end of 2007 and which concluded that it was necessary to increase investments in modes other than the road, illustrates this well.


59The recent rapid development of container barge services at French ports is explained by a few major factors: the increase in maritime traffic, the deficiencies of rail in France, the setting up of simple point to point waterway services, the appearance of combined transport operators, the strong impetus provided by the public authorities wishing to improve the competitiveness of French ports in their hinterlands and concerned by environmental issues, and last, most recently, the involvement of a few very large shipping lines with a strong presence in the two French ports.

60Based on lessons drawn from the French case, the theoretical model presented here extends those of Taaffe et al (1963), Hayuth (1981) and Notteboom and Konings (2004). It highlights the interdependence between the setting up of combined waterway-road services, and the competition between ports and the competition between shipping lines. Nevertheless, a new theoretical question is raised, again as a result of empirical observations. Point-to-point services between Le Havre and Gennevilliers and between Marseille and the port of Lyon reduce barge turnaround times and encourage dedicated services with a high container capacity utilization ratio operated by shipping lines. On the Rhine, the large number of inland ports served means that a number of freight forwarders are involved in running the system (Zurbach, 2005), working from inland terminals and loading their barges with containers from several shipping lines that they transport to or from the ports of Antwerp or Rotterdam. Could it be possible to increase the number of inland terminals on the Seine or the Rhône? Will the shipping lines involved in the development of waterways transport on the two French rivers benefit the development of other inland terminals? This question could be answered by further research that analyzes the organization of barge services on the Rhine and Seine.

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1 Even if 30% of containers are transported by barge to and from Antwerp and Rotterdam and 30% by train to and from Hamburg.

2 A logistics services provider but also a Non Vessel Operating Common Carrier between Asia, Europe and North America.

3 Figures dating from 2004 taken from the annual report of the Central Commission on Navigation on the Rhine

4 See the Paris Terminal website:

5 Alcotrans, a subsiduary of the Imperial group that operates on the Rhine, has set up services between Marseille and Lyon since 2004. However, its lengthy period of unprofitable operation has recently prompted the group to announce its intention to withdraw from the market. A new player, LogiRhône is expected to appear in the near future, with a structure similar to that of LogiSeine.

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Référence électronique

Antoine Frémont, Pierre Franc et Brian Slack, « Inland barge services and container transport: the case of the ports of Le Havre and Marseille in the European context », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 437, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2009, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Antoine Frémont

Research Director
Institut National de la Recherche sur les Transports et leur Sécurité (INRETS) Unité de recherche : Systèmes productifs, logistique et organisation des transports (SPLOT) 2 avenue du Général Malleret Joinville 94114 Arcueil, France

Pierre Franc

PhD studentInstitut National de la Recherche sur les Transports et leur Sécurité (INRETS) Unité de recherche : Systèmes productifs, logistique et organisation des transports (SPLOT) 2 avenue du Général Malleret Joinville 94114 Arcueil, France

Brian Slack

ProfessorConcordia University, Montréal, Canada

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