Inland Ports / Dry Ports

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom

1. A New Role for Inland Terminals

In many places around the world bimodal and trimodal inland terminals have become an intrinsic part of the transport system, particularly in gateway regions having a high reliance on trade. Transport development is gradually shifting inland after a phase that focused on the development of port terminals and maritime shipping networks. The complexity of modern freight distribution, the increased focus on intermodal and co-modal transport solutions and capacity issues appear to be the main drivers behind a renewed focus on hinterland logistics. While trucking tends to be sufficient in the initial phase of the development of inland freight distribution systems, at some level of activity, diminishing returns such as congestion, energy consumption and empty movements become strong incentives to consider the setting of inland terminals as the next step in regional freight planning. Also the massification of flows in networks, through a concentration of cargo on a limited set of ports of call and associated corridors to the hinterland, have created the right conditions for nodes to appear along and at the end of these trunk lines.

The evolution of inland freight distribution can be seen as a cycle in the ongoing developments of containerization and intermodal transportation. The geographical characteristics linked with modal availability, capacity and reliability of regional inland access have an important role to play in shaping this development. As maritime shipping networks and port terminals become better integrated the focus shifted on inland transportation and the inland terminal as a fundamental component of this strategy. Thus, after a phase that relied on the development of port terminals and maritime shipping networks, the integration of maritime and inland freight distribution systems has favored the setting of inland ports.

Inland port. A rail or a barge terminal that is linked to a maritime terminal with regular inland transport services. An inland port has a level of integration with the maritime terminal and supports a more efficient access to the inland market both for inbound and outbound traffic. This implies an array of related logistical activities linked with the terminal, such as distribution centers, depots for containers and chassis, warehouses and logistical service providers.

Since the inland terminal is an extension of some port activities inland, the term “dry port” has gained acceptance. However, using this term to define an inland terminal is subject to debate since many inland terminals are in fact ‘wet’ given their direct access to inland waterway systems. Moreover, the inland location can effectively be a port if a barge service is concerned, but fundamentally cannot be considered a port if it involves a rail terminal or more simply truck depots. Thus, there seems to be no consensus on the terminology resulting in a wide range of terms including dry ports, inland terminals, inland ports, inland hubs, inland logistics centers, inland freight villages, etc. The reason for this lies in the multiple shapes, functions and network positions these nodes can have. A similar issue applies with the inclusion of airport terminals, mainly the freight component, as an element of an inland port. A whole array of transport terminal infrastructures is often presented as a dry port. Therefore, the concept of inland port is polymorphic, implying that it can have different meaning depending on its location, connectivity, role, function or even the marketing objectives of its promoters. Regardless of the terminology used, three fundamental characteristics are related to an inland node:

  • An intermodal terminal, either rail or barge that has been built or expanded.
  • A connection with a port terminal through rail, barge or truck services, often through a high capacity corridor.
  • An array of logistical activities that support and organize the freight transited, often co-located with the intermodal terminal.

The functional specialization of inland terminals has been linked with cluster formation of logistical activities. Inland terminals in many cases have witnessed a clustering of logistics sites in the vicinity, leading to a process of logistics polarization and the creation of logistic zones. They have become excellent locations for consolidating a range of ancillary activities and logistics companies. In recent years, the dynamics in logistics networks have created the right conditions for a large-scale development of such logistics zones.

2. Driving Forces

Each inland port remains the outcome of the considerations of a transport geography pertaining to modal availability and efficiency, market function and intensity as well as the regulatory framework and governance. Their emergence underlines some deficiency in conventional inland freight distribution that needed to be mitigated. This mitigation includes:

  • Input costs. Land and labor costs are among the most significant logistics costs. Many deep sea terminal facilities have limited land available for expansion, implying higher land costs, while inland locations tend to have land available. Many port areas are also facing higher labor costs since they are located within large metropolitan areas. High input costs favor the intensification of activities at the main terminal and the search of lower value locations supporting less intensive freight activities.
  • Capacity and congestion. Capacity issues appear to be the main driver of inland port development since a system of inland terminals increases the intermodal capacity of inland freight distribution. While trucking tends to be sufficient in the initial phase of the development of inland freight distribution systems, at some level of activity, diminishing returns such as congestion, energy and empty movements become strong incentives to consider the setting of inland terminals as the next step in regional freight planning.
  • Hinterland market. Through long distance transport corridors, inland ports confer a higher level of accessibility because of lower distribution costs and improved capacity. These high-capacity inland transport corridors allow ports to penetrate the local hinterland of competing ports and thus to extend their cargo base. In such a setting, the inland port becomes a commercial and trade development tools that jointly increase imports, exports and intermodal terminal use. It is thus better placed to support regional and international trade patterns.
  • Supply chain management. An inland port is a location actively integrated within supply chain management practices, particularly in view of containerization. It is reflective of the level of vertical integration between the port and hinterland actors such as transport companies and supply chain managers. This takes many forms such as the agglomeration of freight distribution centers, custom clearance, container depots and logistical capabilities. The inland terminal can also become a buffer in supply chains, acting as a temporary warehousing facility.
  • Policy and regulations. Economic development strategies, land use policy, and financial incentives by port authorities and economic development agencies can lead to the development of inland ports. This can be supported by policies related to foreign trade zones and customs procedures, enabling a transfer of functions that were previously taking place at the port (customs port of entry) to an inland location. This is commonly as significant hurdle since many national trade regulations only enables containers to be cleared for imports or exports at a port. A similar trend applies to cargo safety and security procedures where the inland port becomes a component of a chain of cargo integrity.

The geographical characteristics linked with modal availability and the capacity of regional inland access have an important role to play in shaping the emergence and development of inland ports. Each inland market has its own potential requiring different transport services. Thus, there is no single strategy for an inland port in terms of modal preferences as the regional effect remains fundamental. In developed countries, namely North America and Europe, which tended to be at the receiving end of many containerized supply chains, a number of inland ports have been developed with a focus on inbound logistics.

The setting of global supply chains and the strategy of Pacific Asian countries around the export-oriented paradigm have been powerful forces shaping contemporary freight distribution. Indirectly, this has forced players in the freight transport industry to examine supply chains as a whole and to identify legs where capacity and reliability were an issue. Once maritime shipping networks and port terminal activities have been better integrated, particularly through the symbiotic relationship between maritime shipping and port operations, inland transportation became the obvious focus and the inland terminal a fundamental component of this strategy. This initially took place in developed countries, namely North America and Europe, which tended to be at the receiving end of many containerized supply chains. The focus has also shifted to considering inland terminals for the early stages of global supply chains (outbound logistics), namely in countries having a marked export-oriented function.

Inland terminals have evolved from simple intermodal locations to their incorporation within logistic zones. Rail terminals in particular have historically been locations from which specific market coverage was achieved. Containerization has impacted this coverage through the selection of terminals that were servicing a wider market area. This spatial change also came with a functional change as intermodal terminals began to experience a specialization of roles based on their geographical location but also based on their function within supply chains.

3. Functions within Transport Chains

A functional and added value hierarchy has emerged for inland terminals as they try to replicate inland several services performed at a port terminal, namely customs clearance, container storage, cargo consolidation and deconsolidation. In many instances, freight transport terminals fit within a hierarchy with a functionally integrated inland transport system of gateways and their corridors, where they service three major functions:

  • Satellite terminals. They tend to be close to a port facility, but mainly at the periphery of its metropolitan area (often less than 100 km), since they mainly assume a service function to the seaport facilities. They accommodate additional traffic and serves functions that either have become too expensive at the port such as warehousing and empty container depots or are less bound to a location near a deep sea quay. A number of satellite terminals only have a transport function transshipping cargo from rail/barge  to trucks and vice versa, as is the case for the ‘container transferium’ concept of the port of Rotterdam or the Gateway Access Point (GAP) concept in Belgium. Satellite terminals can also serve as load centers for local or regional markets, particularly if economic density is high, in which case they form a multi-terminal cluster with the main port they are connected to through regular rail or barge shuttle services. For gateways having a strong import component, a satellite terminal can also serve a significant transloading function where the contents of maritime containers are transloaded into domestic containers or truckloads.
  • Freight distribution clusters (load centers). A major intermodal facility – load center – granting access to well defined regional markets that include production and consumption functions. It commonly corresponds to a metropolitan area where a variety of terminals serve concomitantly intermodal, warehousing, distribution and logistics functions. These tend to take place in logistics parks and free trade zones (or foreign trade zones). The inland terminal is thus the point of collection or distribution of a regional market. The more extensive and diversified the market, the more important is the load center. If the load center has a good intermediary location, such as being along a major rail corridor, then freight distribution activities servicing an extended market will be present.
  • Transshipment facilities. Link large systems of freight circulation either through the same mode (e.g. rail-to-rail) or through intermodalism (rail-to-truck, or even rail-to-barge). In the later case, the inland terminal assumes the role of a load center. The origin or the destination of the freight handled is outside the terminal’s market area, a function similar to that of transshipment hubs in maritime shipping networks. Such transshipment terminals are often found near country borders in view of combining administrative processes linked to cross border traffic to value-added logistics activities. Although this function remains marginal in most parts of the world, ongoing developments in inland freight distribution, where the scale and scope of intermodal services are increasing, are indicative that transshipment services are bound to become more prominent.

These functions are not exclusive, implying that inland terminals can service several functions at once. Therefore, there is no single model for an inland port. For inbound or outbound freight flows, the inland terminal is the first tier of a functional hierarchy that defines its fundamental (activities it directly services) and extended (activities it indirectly services) hinterlands. Considering the potential mix of the functions of inland ports, five major criteria insure that they fulfill efficiently their role as an interface between global and regional freight distribution systems:

  • Site and situation. Like any transport facility of significance, an inland port requires an appropriate site with good access to the rail or the barge terminal as well as available land for development. Access to an area of significant economic density, such as large population base, is of importance since it will be linked to the level of import and export activities handled by the inland port. Transportation remains the most significant logistics cost, underlining the importance of an accessible location. Several inland ports also have an airport in proximity which can help support a variety of freight activities.
  • Massification. The hinterland massification opportunities offered by inland ports are associated with lower transport costs and a better accessibility. It takes place over two interdependent dimensions. The first concern the massification of flows between the port terminal and the inland port through a high capacity corridor. Intermodal rail and barge services represent the dominant means over which this process is achieved. The second relates to the consolidation and deconsolidation of cargo flows depending if it concerns inbound or outbound logistics.
  • Reconciling cargo flows. Since most long distance trade (and some domestic) is supported by containerization, there are numerous instances where a regional market imports more than it exports (or vice-versa). Under such circumstances, an inland port must provide the physical and logistical capabilities to insure that empty containers are repositioned efficiently to other markets if local cargo cannot be found. This can take the form of empty container depots and arrangements with freight forwarders to have slots available for repositioning. Whether there are imbalances in container flows or not, an inland port must insure that the inbound and outbound flows are reconciled as quickly as possible. A common way involves a cargo rotation from imports activities where containers are emptied to exports activities where containers are filled with goods. For container owners, let them be maritime shipping or leasing companies, a rapid turnover of their assets is fundamental and will secure a continuous usage of the inland port. Effective repositioning and cargo rotations strategies insure higher revenue for both the container owners and the inland port operators.
  • Trade and transactional facilitation. An inland port can also be a fundamental structure promoting both the import and export sectors of a region, particularly for smaller businesses unable to achieve economies of scale on their own. Through these, new market opportunities become possible as both imports and exports are cheaper. The setting of a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) is also an option to be considered as a trade facilitation strategy. The functional pairing of inland ports is a transactional strategy where an inland port is activity seeking agreements with other inland ports so that reciprocal supply chains are established or reinforced.
  • Governance. The way an inland port is owned and operated is indicative of its potential to identify new market opportunities and invest accordingly. In many cases, the commitment of a large private investor such as a terminal operator or a real estate developer can be perceived as a risk mitigation strategy in addition to provide expertise in the development of facilities and related activities. Sections of an inland port can be shared facilities (e.g. distribution centers) so that smaller players can get involved by renting space and equipment. This also applies to the appropriate strategies related to each stage in the life cycle of an inland terminal from its construction to its maturity where its potential has essentially been taped off.

4. The Regional Impacts of Inland Ports

Regional issues, namely how inland ports interact with their regional markets, remain fundamental as it defines their modal characteristics, their regulatory framework and their commercial opportunities. Depending on the geographical setting and the structure, governance and ownership of inland transport systems, inland terminals have different levels of development and integration with port terminals. They are part of a port regionalization strategy supporting a more extensive hinterland.


It is in Western Europe that the setting of inland terminals is the most advanced with a close integration of port terminals with rail shuttles and barge services. Rail-based dry ports are found throughout Europe, often linked to the development of logistics zones. Depending on the European country considered, these logistics zones are known under different names: ‘platformes logistiques’ in France, the Güterverkehrszentren (GVZ) in Germany, Interporti in Italy, Freight Villages in the UK, Transport Centres in Denmark, and Zonas de Actividades Logisticas (ZAL) in Spain. The rail liberalization process in Europe is supporting the development of real pan-European rail services on a one-stop shop basis. All over Europe, new entrants are emerging while some large former national railway companies have joined forces. Rail terminals in Europe are mostly built and operated by large railway ventures. The largest rail facilities have bundles of up to 10 rail tracks with lengths of maximum 800m per track. Rail hubs are typically equipped to allow simultaneous batch exchanges (direct transshipment) through the use of rail-mounted gantry cranes that stretch over the rail bundles.

In northwest Europe, barge transport is taking up a more prominent role in dealing with gateway traffic. Barge container transport has its origins in transport between Antwerp, Rotterdam and the Rhine basin, and in the last decade it has also developed greatly along the north-south axis between the Benelux and northern France. Antwerp and Rotterdam together handled nearly 5 million TEU of inland barge traffic in 2010 or about 95% of total European container transport by barge. Promising barging developments are also found on the Seine between Le Havre and the Paris region, in the Rhône/Seine basin between Marseille, Lyon and Dijon, on the Elbe and the Weser in Northern Germany and on the Danube River out of the port of Constantza. Barge services have also been initiated on the Po River connecting the Port of Venice with Mantua and Cremona near Milan.

European integration processes have permitted the setting of more natural (commercially based) hinterlands that did not exist before. Since a good share of the European market is inland, a growth in international trade required the setting of intermediary locations inland to help accommodate larger flows between ports and their hinterland. A large concentration of inland terminals can be found around the Rhine/Scheldt delta, which is Europe’s most important gateway region with a total container throughput of 22.2 million TEU in 2010, and where the function of satellite terminals is prominent. Almost every European port has an inland terminal strategy as a way to secure hinterland traffic.

North America

There have been large inland terminals in North America since the development of the continental railway system in the late 19th century. Their setting was a natural process where inland terminals corresponded to large inland market areas, commonly around metropolitan areas commanding a regional manufacturing base and distribution system. Although exports were significant, particularly for agricultural goods, this system of inland terminals was mostly for domestic freight distribution. With globalization and intermodalism two main categories of inland terminals have emerged in North America.

The first is related to ocean trade where inland terminals are an extension of a maritime terminal located in one of the three major ranges (Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific) either as satellite terminals and more commonly as inland load centers (e.g. Chicago or Mexico). The second category concerns inland terminals mainly connected to NAFTA trade that can act as custom pre-clearance centers. Kansas City can be considered the most advanced inland port initiative in North America as it combines intermodal rail facilities from four different rail operators, foreign trade zones and logistics parks at various locations through the metropolitan area. There is even the world’s largest underground warehousing facility, Subtropolis, where temperature stable space can be leased. Like Chicago, the city can essentially be perceived as a terminal.

Several recent logistic zones projects in North America are capitalizing on the planning and setting of a new intermodal rail terminal done concomitantly with a logistics zone project. This co-location partnership fundamentally acts as a filter for the commercial potential of the project as both actors must make the decision to go ahead with their respective capital investment in terminal facilities and commercial real estate. Compared to Europe, North American dry ports tend to be larger, but covering a much more substantial market area.

East and Southeast Asia

For Asia, inland terminals are almost unknown, so they can be considered to be in their infancy. Geographical characteristics, namely coastal population concentrations, and export oriented development strategies have not been prone to the setting of inland terminals. Several container depots have appeared inland as a way to improve the availability of export containers within manufacturing clusters (e.g. South Korea, Thailand, India), but containers are mainly carried by truck. It is in the case of China that resides the largest potential for the emergence of a network of inland terminals, with three main types emerging:

  • The first are satellite facilities in the vicinity of port terminals. They assume the conventional role of accommodating activities decongesting port operations, such as container deports, as well as performing customs clearance.
  • The second type concerns inland facilities located at major metropolitan areas to provide better connectivity to port terminals along the coast as well as to support the logistics of a growing internal consumption market. Significant dry port development is taking place on the Yangtze river all the way up to the upper stretches near Chongqing, some 2,400 km upstream from Shanghai. Intermodal rail development faces the challenge of the strong focus of the existing rail network on passengers and dry bulk commodities. As the Chinese economy moves towards a more extensive internal market intermodal rail and barge traffic will increase, and so the usage of inland ports.
  • The third type are border facilities that play the function of custom clearance, consolidation and deconsolidation of cargo as well as emerging trans-modal functions of linking different systems or circulation. The setting of Asia-Europe rail connections along the Eurasian landbridge may promote this function.

Another system of inland terminals is likely to emerge in Southeast Asia, particularly along the Mekong. In light of the North American and European experiences, the question remains about how Pacific Asia can develop its own inland port strategy and regionalism. The unique geographical characteristics of the region are likely to rely much on the satellite terminal concept and inland load centers in relative proximity. For this context, the European example is more suitable. However, the setting of long distance intermodal rail corridors within China and through Central Asia is prone to the development of the inland load center system common in North America.

5. Future Prospects

The setting of dry ports (inland ports) have been a dominant paradigm in the development of hinterland transportation as the growth of maritime transportation and its economies of scale have placed pressures on the inland segment of freight distribution. The prospects for inland ports remain positive with large continental markets like North America and Europe relying on a network of satellite terminals and load centers as a fundamental structure to support hinterland freight movements, particularly their massification. This entailed the emergence of extended gates and with them extended forms of supply chain management in which inland terminals play an active role. As congestion increases, inland terminals will be even more important in maintaining efficient commodity chains. It can also be expected that resources will play a greater role within containerized trade with inland terminals, again underlining unique regional characteristics. This implies a set of repositioning strategies where inland terminals play a fundamental role either to improve the efficiency of this repositioning, by providing better cargo rotation opportunities, or by acting as an agent that can help promote containerized exports. Inland ports will take part of the ongoing intermodal integration between ports and their hinterland through long distance rail and barge corridors. They are likely to be more important elements within supply chains, particularly through their role of buffer where containerized consignments can be cheaply stored, waiting to be forwarded to their final destinations.

Like several stages in intermodal transport development, such as in port infrastructure, there is a potential of overinvestment, duplication and redundancy as many inland locations would like to claim a stake in global value chains. This appears to be the case in Western Europe where an abundance of inland terminals, particularly within the Rhine / Scheldt delta, is indicative of an over competitive environment and the waste of resources it implies. In North America, because of a different ownership and governance structure, the setting of an inland port, at least the intermodal terminal component, is mostly in the hands of rail operators. Each decision thus takes place with much more consideration being placed on market potential as well as the overall impact on their network structure. The decision of a rail company to build a new terminal or to expand existing facilities commonly marks the moment where regional stakeholders, from real estate developers to logistics service providers, readjust their strategies. In some instances, local governments will come with inland port strategies adjusting to existing commercial decisions in the hope to create multiplying effects.

The development of dry ports around the world has clearly underlined an emerging functional relation of port terminals and their hinterland. In the case of China, such initiatives can be far reaching since the goal if to promote trade and economic integration across central Asia, all the way to Europe. Based upon their regional setting, dry ports assume a variety of functions with co-location with logistical zones a dominant development paradigm. While the interest in dry ports has increased we have to be aware that no two dry ports are the same. Each dry port is confronted with a local/regional economic, geographical and regulatory setting which not only define the functions taken up by the dry port, but its relations vis-à-vis seaports. Best practices can only be applied successfully if one takes into account the relative uniqueness of each dry port setting.

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