History of Multimodal

Transportation across various world destinations has undergone several developments and revolutions. Notably, the transportation of goods overseas has been characterized by developments that culminated in multimodal transport in the 1970s. Multimodal transport, sometimes referred to as combined transport, is a transport system usually operated by one carrier with more than one mode of transport under the control or ownership of a single operator. The different modes of transport used are sea, rail, air, and road, which are not always used at the same time, but as the need calls for their use. In the multimodal transport system, cargo is carried as one unit without having to be broken or taken out of its container at various terminals (Beuthe, 2004).

In this type of transport, the responsibility for all transport activities is put under one operator or carrier who manages and coordinates the total task from the shipper’s door to the consignee’s door, ensuring continuous movement of the goods. The operator/carrier ensures that the goods move along the best route, incur the most cost-effective means of transport, and meet the shipper’s requirements for delivery. This door-to-door movement of goods linked to container technology and multimodal transport has been helpful in facilitating growing international trade, as trade and transport industries are inextricably linked. According to Beuthe (2004), the carrier in question does not have to be in possession of all the means of transport but make use of different sub-carriers who are the actual carriers.


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Multimodal transport has several advantages for users, the chief being that it ensures the safe and efficient movement of goods brought about by a good communication system, proper documentation, and continuous transit of goods from one destination to another. It reduces the burden of documentation because once cargo is documented for at the initial point of transport, the cargo will not be offloaded from containers at any other terminal until it reaches the consignee. Multimodal transport has also proved to be cost-effective for both the sender and the receiver of goods, as well as minimizing time loss, risk loss, and damage of cargo. The fact that only one carrier and his agency deal with the transit of a particular cargo means that in case that cargo is lost or delayed, it will be easier to work with the single agency for its follow-up (Hariharan, 1997).

For the success of multimodal transport, certain important factors should be considered. First the commercial practices in a place or country are important in determining the obligations of buyers and sellers, senders and receivers. Secondly, administration requirements such as documentation procedures and customs duties should be considered before transits are conducted. Thirdly, the transport infrastructure of a place is an important determinant of the ability to transport huge cargo as entailed in container handling and transporting (Stone & Carr, 2005).

The challenges posed to the multimodal transport system are that some countries, especially developing nations, face challenges in terms of logistics and infrastructure for effective transportation, as well as in the required legal systems to harmonize the transport system in view of emerging forms of international transport systems.

The utilization of multiple forms of transport dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when containerization came into place. This followed a prior unimodal mode of transport where goods took a long time to reach their destination, with frequent loss of goods along the way. The first invention of containerization was the freight container, which dates back to Roman times. However, the transportation of containers on rail was introduced by the Liverpool and Manchester railway (Stone & Carr, 2005). These containers could be rolled on and rolled off the rail for the purpose of hauling coal in the 1830s. The next development was introduced by the Birmingham and Derby Railway, where the transfer of containers took place between rail wagons and horse carriages in 1839, introducing an element of multimodal transport. On March 19, 1921, the New York Central Railway introduced container services from Cleveland to Chicago. From this time on, container services expanded as a means of door-to-door transport, giving way to the piggyback system where trailers were carried aboard specialized “flat cars” (Beuthe, 2004).

The entire container revolution was initiated in the late 1950s by Mr. Makom Maclean. Due to his experience in trucking operations, where he had been a former executive of a trucking company, and the knowledge he had gained about road and trail transport, he introduced sea transport. He facilitated the input of devices on containers that would make it easy to switch them between different modes of transport. He also facilitated that ships be equipped with certain rail structures known as cell-guides, which would facilitate the vertical sliding of containers into the ships for transport (Beuthe, 2004).

The massive growth in container use since then has shifted the cargo delivery system from the historical ‘port-to-port’ to ‘door-to-door.’ But multimodal transportation is not a recent invention, as any consignment coming from overseas and destined inland has always required different modes of transport, including airplanes, ships, rail cars, and trucks. What is different from the historical approach of multimodal transportation is that bulk goods can now be transported in containers without having to be taken out of the containers (Stone & Carr, 2005). The transit of goods after being loaded at the place of origin takes place without interruption and under one transport document. Consequently, this has not only shortened the time for delivery but has also ensured that cargo reaches its destination safely.

As mentioned earlier, multimodal transporting has undergone development in shifting from ‘port-to-port’ services to ‘door-to-door’ services. This has led to the expansion of trade interactions between different countries and the opening up of new trade territories. Of importance was the governmental deregulation of the use of different modes of transport in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This enabled the different forms of transport means to work together and coordinate their operations in meaningful and innovative ways. The removal of transport restrictions and the privatization of state-owned transport enterprises in various parts of the world in the late 1980s enabled transport industries to come up with their own flexible regulations for efficient transportation (Hoeks, 2010).

The innovation of containerization is arguably the most significant development in the history of multimodal transport. Due to its ability to transport huge cargo, the use of containers has become the largest form of unitization. Only ‘out-of-gauge’ cargo cannot be transported using containers. Recent developments in the use of containers have seen more focus being laid on organizing the transport industry by synchronizing all the different forms of transport in a multimodal system into one integrated system that is intensive and well-coordinated. Containerization has greatly revolutionized the manner in which transportation overseas was conducted. Through the innovation of containerization, the transportation of cargo overseas has been greatly improved (Beuthe, 2004).

Multimodal transport, through the fact that it is coordinated through a single operator, has been responsible for minimizing the delays and losses in the haulage of cargo. The fact that the single multimodal transport operator handles the cargo’s transport solely through stabilizing and maintaining communication systems plays into ensuring efficiency in transportation. Establishment of communication links ensures that cargo is secure especially at transit points (Stone & Carr, 2005).

Multimodal transport has been a great relief to international traders who would have their cargo delivered faster to any part of the world. This is achieved by the fact that the interconnectedness in multimodal transport ensures a smooth flow of cargo across diverse locations (Hoeks, 2010). Another feature of multimodal transportation is the reduction in the burden of formalities and documentation. When goods are handled by minimal transport agencies, the consignor will have fewer documentation requirements to meet. Multimodal transportation has been characterized by dealing with a single agency. This is good news for the consignor who would have an easier way out, especially when dealing with matters like settling claims on loss or damage of cargo.

The developments of multimodal transportation have been initiated by the knowledge of organizing the transportation of cargo by multimodal transport operators. These operators are also conversant with information on current affairs in the area of infrastructural development, technology, and the political climates of various countries (Wit, 1995). Through this information, multimodal transport operators are able to make effective arrangements with road truckers, railways, shipping lines, and airlines. This goes a long way in facilitating faster transportation of goods from the origin to their destinations.

The multimodal transport system has shifted its interest from being primarily a transport provider to encompassing ways of profit-making. The different transporting companies involved have polished up their services to appeal to users in quality management of cargo, time efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. This is done to achieve the competitive or comprehensive advantage over other transporting companies (Wit, 1995).

In the past, multimodal transporting has been cluttered by so many rules and regulations that necessitated the signing of many transport documents. These regulations stem from international trade requirements. However, from 1980, the United Nations Trade Facilitation Programme has been standardizing and simplifying documentation and trade procedures through regional and network facilitation organization (Hoeks, 2010). This has seen transport rules and regulation being minimized by the simplification of procedures and the reduction in the number of documents to be signed. Documents are also expected to be identical in all parts of a country and must be aligned with similar procedures and documents in other countries. Harmony of transport statistics is achieved through the use of computers to sort out electronic data (Hensher, Button & Brewer, 2001).

Since the trade and transport industries are intertwined, the impact of the customs department on multimodal transporting has brought a lot of inconveniences to the multimodal transport system. Previously, customs were complex and exacted high duty rates before the entry of goods. Personnel of the customs department were poorly trained and low-skilled, resulting in high costs on government taxes and poor facilitation. Since the different conventions on customs regarding containerization of 1972, simplification and harmonization of customs procedures of 1973, multimodal transport convention of 1980, and the container pool convention of 1994, customs duties were lowered, and procedures were shortened. This has had a positive impact on the efficiency of the multi-modal transport system (Wit, 1995).

In order to be effective and competitive in providing multimodal transport services, multimodal transport operators/carriers have found themselves being more interested in the logistics and supply chain management system. For other transport companies, they have had to employ outsider logistics services providers as in when liner companies become port operators and providers of “door to door” services. The development of logistical supply management has not only improved “door to door” service provision, but also increased the share of air transportation as in the United Arab Emirates, Port of Dubai, and the Malaysian Port of Tanjungpelepas (Hensher, Button & Brewer, 2001).

Multimodal transportation marks one of the greatest developments in transportation. Multimodal transport has undergone a lot of developments since its historical conception. Starting from a simple rail and road transporting system, it has now expanded to shipping and aero plane services and interacted closely with the trade and commerce industries. Containerization, an element in multimodal transporting, has become the largest form of initialization, carrying huge cargo, with the exception of only those that are out of gauge. Despite infrastructural challenges and a lack of legal provisions to govern the transport industry in some countries, multimodal transport has continued to be effective in the quality management and safe transportation of cargo.

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