Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Ro-Ro sinks and swims in the Mediterranean

Written by Mathieu Bouchard on Friday, May 23rd 2014 à 16:40 | Read 1865 times



A contrasting picture for trans-Mediterranean Ro-Ro. East-west routes are developing positively but traffic between Europe and North Africa is decreasing.

Ro-Ro is developing in the first instance along an east-west axis (photo UN RO-RO)
Ro-Ro is developing in the first instance along an east-west axis (photo UN RO-RO)
MEDITERRANEAN. 330,198 trailers in 2011 and 304,402 in 2013. In other words, close to 10% decline in two years. Do the Ro-Ro statistics of the port of Barcelona reflect the state of Ro-Ro in the Mediterranean in general? “We must be wary of generalisations”, warns Anne Gallais Bouchet, Research Manager at the Applied Research Centre in Maritime Economics (ISEMAR) based in the conurbation of Nantes-Saint-Nazaire.  

Shipping lines are closing routes that combine passenger traffic with trailer traffic because of the decline in the transport of passengers, and this has an impact on freight figures. However, should we conclude that Ro-Ro is in decline given that additional routes, dedicated solely to the transport of goods, are being launched?” questions Anne Gallais Bouchet.  

If we look at the Mediterranean as a whole, Ro-Ro is in reasonably good shape in terms of activity” states Jean-Marie Millour, Managing Director of the French Short Sea Promotion Centre. “Even if sometimes it takes a long time to change habits, road hauliers are increasingly less hesitant to couple road with ship.”   This is a combination that makes it possible to optimise transport time by giving drivers the opportunity to take their rest periods at sea or by circumventing the bans on driving on Sundays or public holidays. Particularly as real-time information makes it possible to adjust the route on a case-by-case basis.

An increasingly flexible sea

Grimaldi Lines is putting a lot into Ro-Ro (photo F.Dubessy)
Grimaldi Lines is putting a lot into Ro-Ro (photo F.Dubessy)
Furthermore, in Bouchet’s opinion, the progress made by some shipping lines has made “the sea almost as flexible as the road”, with more frequent departures. Between Pendik, near Istanbul, and Trieste, in Italy, the Turkish company UN RO-RO operates at least one service per day. This offering makes it possible to avoid waiting times at the port. 

Since mid-February 2014, the Grimaldi Group has been operating in the same manner between Valencia in Spain and the Italian cities of Savona and Livorno. This higher frequency of service has translated into success for these two routes and in 2014 the Neapolitan company is forecasting a 10% increase in traffic.The poor performance of other routes however presents a contrasting picture. Victims of the economic crisis and of a zero or close to zero growth, if not a recession, services to Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands have all been negatively affected. The figures make harsh reading. Between Marseille and Corsica, the number of trailers fell 7.3% in 2013. Over the same period, traffic between Barcelona and Palma – which represents 67% of the Catalan port’s activity – fell 2.6%. This is in contrast to the routes between Barcelona and Italy where traffic was up 8.8% (98,000 trailers in 2013).Also suffering are the routes between southern Europe and the Maghreb that are either stagnating or declining. “The level of Ro-Ro departing Marseille has barely grown while other means of transport, such as container, have progressed”, confirms Grégory Fourcin, Deputy Vice President, North Africa Lines for the CMA CGM Group.

North-south routes are suffering

Port of La Goulette in Tunisia  (photo F.Dubessy)
Port of La Goulette in Tunisia (photo F.Dubessy)
Competing against ‘road only’ transport to the south of Spain, these routes are faced with a difficult dilemma. “To be competitive, you have to be both quick and cheap”, explains Anne Gallais Bouchet. “However, moving quickly means consuming more fuel which, in turn, means greater cost. Shipping lines could equip themselves with more modern and more economic vessels however the banking sector remains overcautious.

The north-south routes also suffer from the poor reputation of some ports. “Even if it is increasingly unjustified, French ports are generally poorly perceived in the transport community, even though Ro-Ro requires only a small number of handling operations”, attests Jean-Marie Millour. In the South, the legal and logistical constraints of Algerian ports either scare the operators away or prompt the reconfiguration of some routes.

Increasingly, the trailers serving the Algerian market must first disembark in Tunisia before making their way to Algeria by road - a discouraging development for carriers.

A change of axis

The good news is therefore rather to be found around the east-west routes which are benefitting from the rapid development of Turkey, the new production powerhouse of Europe. Launched in 2011, the Pendik-Toulon route, which connects western Europe with the Middle East while avoiding the Balkans and its poor quality road network, is always busy with traffic on the increase (38,000 trailers in 2012). 

This is also the case of the routes between Greece and Italy as well as between Italy and Spain and also the south-south routes, between Egypt and the Maghreb and between Turkey and Egypt. “These routes demonstrate a rather unique willingness to cooperate”, remarks Jean-Marie Millour, “but are highly sensitive to geopolitical fluctuations. In 2012, the route between Turkey and Syria had to cease operating because of the events in Syria.” 

The ongoing changes bring about their cohorts of winners and losers. “The most resilient shipping lines”, explains Anne Gallais Bouchet, “are those that have managed to diversify their markets. Like Grimaldi, present in both the eastern and western Mediterranean, or UN RO-RO, owned by the American group KKR, which has invested in the management of port terminals as well as in end-to-end services. The shipping lines most in difficulty are those that rely on a single market.” If the future appears to belong to the east-west routes, the north-south traffic has not yet said its last word.

The introduction of a European eco-tax could make road haulage more expensive and subsequently make Ro-Ro more attractive. On condition, however, that the possible extension to the western Mediterranean of the Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECA), as found in the Channel and the North Sea, does not lead to an increase in the cost of maritime transport at the same time.

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