Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
Transcontinental bridges are inland long distance rail corridors connecting gateways and hinterlands.
1. The Emergence of Landbridges
Landbridge movements, the usage of a land segment to ensure the continuity of a maritime segment, have taken place throughout history. They tended to involve short land segments since inland transportation was more costly than maritime transportation. The Silk Road can be considered as one of the first significant landbridge and the exception to the short land segment rule. Due to the long distances involved and the difficulties to provide maritime services, land only routes prevailed well into the 15th century. Even the existing maritime trading routes to Asia, from Antiquity and onward, required a short landbridge from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. This endured until the Suez Canal was completed in 1869. A similar situation applied to the Panama isthmus used as an overland route (as well as other Central American passages) between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. The development of rail networks permitted to change of the conventional short land segment dynamic of landbridges to long-distance inland services.
One of the first modern landbridges was implemented in the 1880s by Canadian Pacific Railway. Its goal was to improve the shipping time of high-value Asian commodities, notably silk and tea, from the Far East to Europe (and also the US eastern seaboard), using Canada’s transcontinental rail link. The so-called “silk trains” disappeared in the first two decades of the 20th century and with them significant landbridge activity. The transport benefits of both the Suez and Panama canals negated the advantages of most overland routes for at least half a century after their construction. It is not until the late 1960s that changes in trade flows, capacity issues, and geopolitics (particularly for the Suez Canal) would lead to renewed interests in overland routes.
The setting of modern landbridges is strongly associated with developments in intermodal transportation, which was considerably improved by double-stacking trains but also by more efficient port and rail terminals. In 1979, American Presidents Line (APL) ran the first dedicated express container TOFC (Trailers On Flat Cars) trains across the United States between Los Angeles and New York via Chicago. In 1985, a revolution was achieved by APL with the introduction of double-stack container rail services (COFC; Containers On Flat Cars) with capacities of up to 600 TEU (about 300 forty foot containers) in a unit train. Shipping companies were particularly eager to see the emergence of these types of services as using the Panama Canal incurred substantial delays, which could be by-passed by the landbridge. In 2004, the first doublestacking rail service in China began, linking Shanghai and Beijing. This underlines that efficient landbridge services can also emerge in other parts of the world.
2. Types of Landbridges
There are two major characteristics of a landbridge freight service:
- First, there is a single bill of lading issued by the freight forwarder that covers the entire intermodal journey.
- Second, the goods remain in the same container for the entire journey.
Four major types of landbridges can be identified:
- Landbridge. The rail system is used as a link between a foreign origin and destination. The continental mass is used as a link (bridge) between two maritime systems. The transport mode is almost exclusively rail because it offers faster long-distance service. An example would be to ship a container from Japan to Europe by using the North American Landbridge as a way to bypass the detour imposed by the Panama Canal.
- Minibridge. It involves a foreign origin, but the destination is a port reached from another port of the same continental mass. The TranSiberian was the first minibridge to be in operation in 1967, linking harbors of the pacific coast to harbors of Baltic and Atlantic coasts of Europe. However, problems of railway gauging between Russia and Western Europe impose some delays as rail cargo needs to be transloaded. Still, a Europe-Asia link (Eurasian Landbridge or New Silk Road) that covers Siberia and ends at the pacific coast of Russia or China is receiving serious consideration.
- Microbridge. It involves a link between a foreign origin and an inland destination via a port of entry. The minibridge and the microbridge took more time to become implemented in North America because of the regulation of the maritime and railway sectors that impeded collaboration (such as joint ventures) among companies of different transport sectors.
- Reverse microbridge. It is similar to a microbridge, but the port of entry is on another facade than the most direct maritime route. In North America, this implies for transpacific trade the usage of the Panama Canal through an all-water route to reach an inland destination through an East Coast port. For Europe, this would imply for cargo coming from Pacific Asia using a Northern European port such as Antwerp, Rotterdam, or Hamburg to reach an inland destination in Southern Europe.
Although each of these terms refers to a specific inland transport service configuration, the term landbridge has increasingly be used as the generic term to label any form of long-distance inland transportation or an inland service enabling to by-pass a maritime segment. Landbridges are also being challenged by economies of scale in maritime shipping, which can be perceived as somewhat paradoxical. The initial application of economies of scale in containerized shipping induced the setting of pendulum services that were complemented by landbridge services. In North America, this led to an acute differentiation of maritime services for the East and West coasts and the usage of the landbridge to service East Coast markets from West Coast ports. Yet, new generations of post-Panamax containerships, particularly above 8,000 TEU, and contemporary supply chain management strategies impose capacity and reliability constraints on long-distance rail that are challenging to be met. With the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016, the North American and the Eurasian landbridges face a new commercial environment and more competitiveness between the East and West coasts.