Mapping More Sustainable Cargo Transport Routes

Supporting positive environmental and sustainable developments within the maritime sector

WSP’s London-based Maritime Advisory Group has recently completed a project that could play an important role in helping an existing port client grow its container volumes, while also supporting positive environmental developments within the area of maritime sustainability.

It is generally accepted that cargo shipments by sea or waterway offer the most environmentally friendly transport alternative. For example, cargo moving by water typically generates only 15 grams of carbon dioxide per km, compared with 18 grams by train, 112 grams by truck, and 500 grams by plane. So, in simple terms, the more traffic moving by water over the alternative options, the more positive an impact being made environmentally.

The US Midwest is a large and highly significant consumption and production region that all major container ports in North America look to serve. It stretches from Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus/Ohio Valley to St Louis and as far south as Memphis and Atlanta.

Access to these largescale hinterlands is made from ports via road or rail and as far afield as Los Angeles/Long Beach, Vancouver, Savannah, and New York/New Jersey, amongst many others.

The North Europe to upper US Midwest market currently totals over 900,000 TEU per annum, which is all currently moving through existing North Atlantic ports. 

However, thanks to work undertaken by WSP, a new routing is economically available for reaching some of this in-demand hinterland in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Based on the under-utilized mode of hub and spoke transshipment in the US/Canada and the use of a feeder ship from Montreal to the Port of Cleveland, using the St Lawrence Seaway, it is possible to deliver more containers to important centers of activity in Columbus (OH), Akron (OH), Toledo (OH) and Detroit (MI), than using gateway ports of New York/New Jersey, Baltimore and Virginia more cheaply and with a lower carbon footprint.

For example, a 40ft container to Columbus (OH) using this routing is US$74 cheaper per FEU (forty-foot equivalent unit) compared to the next lowest-cost gateway port option, while Detroit also represents a saving of US$25 per FEU over the next lowest port and logistics transport routing option.

Yet a more economically viable transport routing, while important, must also be able to offer improvements from a sustainable and environmental perspective.

While the current container route from North Atlantic ports to upper US Midwest is predominantly using intermodal rail, with some smaller share of road, the carbon footprint can still be improved if more cargo moves via water – which is one aspect of the project that WSP and the Port of Cleveland assessed in great detail. There is also the benefit for the shipper of avoiding the near monopoly offered by intermodal rail services and giving them more economically viable (and environmentally friendly) alternatives to consider.  

The waterway route to Cleveland and the upper Midwest region from Montreal produces five-times less CO2 than containers moving via intermodal rail from New York/New Jersey to the same inland area – and over six-times less CO2 than the Baltimore routing. 

While the Cleveland feeder option is not necessarily a “game-changer” for the ability to serve the upper US Midwest, because it is only responsible for a small proportion of container volumes that will be moving on this one trade lane, it remains a very good example of how the industry is constantly looking to make a positive environmental impact – with the full support of WSP. 


More on this subject