The fast-growing short sea shipping industry in Europe is part of the global pattern where countries and entire regions are pushing towards more efficient and economical transport systems. An extended short sea shipping network will bring land transportation to the sea and relieve the rail and road network for a faster, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier shipping of goods.

Short Sea Shipping – History and definition

There exist no standard definitions for short sea shipping (SSS). However, it is generally described as a commercial waterborne transport that does not transit oceans or deep waters. Short sea shipping routes use coastal and inland waterways to transport goods to ports of a nation or adjacent countries.

Due to international trade and the import and export of goods, the SSS is growing worldwide. That said, short sea shipping is not a new concept. It has remained a traditional sea transport practice, used to move people or goods from one port to the other. These early merchant vessels had, compared to today, a minimal cargo capacity and depended mostly on the wind and tides. Mostly sailing on the coastline, they had very unstable and unpredictable schedules and, therefore, very low reliability.

Due to ships’ nature and the changing climate, it was a common problem that vessels with goods and crew got lost on the sea.

In the last 200 years, coast shipping evolved significantly. Larger and rugged vessels were not only crucial for modern transportation, but to increase cargo volume. Nowadays, a more significant variety of cargo can be moved on more fixed schedules within the SSS network. Merchant vessels have become crucial for the regional economy as an attractive complement of road and rail cargo transport that improved significantly since the 50s. The daily improving technology increased the safety and liability of SSS transportation and became a nexus of the seamless international transportation system.

Benefits of Short Sea Shipping

There are many good reasons for expanding the SSS routes, such as environmental and financial benefits.

Most developed nations rely on the national highway to carry cargo from one point to the other. Problems rise overall because of the increasing annual freight movement brought about by growing global trade. To handle this demand, additional trucks will be needed to cover the transport of the upcoming cargo, increasing highway congestion, travel times, and freight inefficiencies. Furthermore, the environmental impact caused by accelerating traffic should not be underestimated.

Short sea shipping serves as an alternative. An essential part of the SSS policy is the “Marco Polo Concept” that aims to reduce congestion on the road and increase sustainability. Some of the benefits of SSS include fuel efficiency increase and an overall reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air contaminant (CAC) emissions, traffic congestion, and transport-related noise.

Besides the environment, the regional and national economy gain via the SSS. Apart from being a cheaper way to transport a large number of goods, it also increases the business revenue for local vessel and cargo firms and the profit of regional producers. Another critical point is the source of tax revenue for a country to be able to, e.g., expand the SSS network.

Short Sea Shipping in Europe and the world

In European history, maritime transport has been a significant catalyst for economic development. Almost 75% of the European external freight trade volume is seaborne. Already, SSS transports 33% of inter European ton-kilometers, and the tendency to ship via SSS is rising.

Due to increasing need and the demand for alternatives to road and rail transport within Europe, incumbent shipping line major MSC has jumped on the SSS bandwagon, extending its fleet for the inter European transportation network. For MSC, combining shipping services with inland operations has helped it provide a seamless door-to-door delivery solution for businesses of all sizes. The MSC network alone stretches all over the Mediterranean Sea and the northern part of Europe.

The network between Europe and Asia is also under continuous expansion. Eight countries in the Arabian Gulf have been linked over the last decade. Southeast Asia is following this trend by connecting different ports, e.g., in Thailand. Short sea shipping as a transport niche has grown in relevance, and it is about time it gains more mainstream adoption – considering its promise in reducing global trade’s overall carbon footprint.