Evolution of European Short Sea Shipping – a brief overview

2001 marked an important year in European transport. It was the year when the European Commission officially recognized the importance of Short Sea Shipping (SSS) in the White Paper on European transport policy. The policy document mentioned the benefits that can be reaped for the industry and the environment from this transport mode, and published its recommendations in the “Council Conclusions on Short Sea Shipping”, in which the high hopes for the future of this sector were expressed. It was, and still is, regarded as an idea perfectly suited for the vision of an integrated European transport network. The main criteria used then were the extremely low external costs brought on by SSS and its potential efficiency.

Looking at the statistics of the market and of the EU transport sector over the recent years, an overview of how the Transport and Logistics situation has progressed and, subsequently, whether SSS has evolved in Europe.

(Source: Eurostat)

The development of the cargo volume moved through SSS in relation to total transport volume is the most direct indicator of success or failure. Eurostat statistics show that, although its share in total maritime cargo volume has consitently remained at above 50%, following the decline in 2008 it never reached pre-crisis levels. Furthermore its growth has stagnated and its share in the total maritime transport has actually started to slowly decline – an indicator that the idea of a Short Sea Shipping network, integrated into European transport network, has not yet been fully realized. A limiting factor in the equation is the European geography. While it allows for superb routes in some areas (e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain), there are other countries without usable coastlines or river connections. In these countries, road transport is usually the only feasible option. Other areas such as hinterland areas and routes requiring intranational transport, rely largely on road transport solutions.

However, in regions with favourable conditions, SSS is being utilized to a great extent. Ferry operators such as P&O (North Sea), Grimaldi (Med.) and Finnlines (Baltic) have done a great job at establishing and maintaining routes for their ro-ro ferries. The famous Calais-Dover connection is just one of hundreds of ferry services provided by different operators.


(Source: Eurostat)

In terms of general Shortsea transport activity, the Mediterranean has remained at the top for nearly a decade now, with some growth potential remaining. Two areas are currently not being used to full extent: North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. The problem lies less with the transport demand, and more sowith the political tensions that have plagued these areas for years now. Eastern Mediterranean with its rich oil reserves can provide for a whole fleet of tankers while ferry connections between e.g. Morocco and Spain give hope towards the expansion of ro-ro container trade. The stability in the Black Sea region arises most likely from industrial supply contracts guaranteeing certain volumes of cargo.

When all major European sea regions were declared Emission Control Areas (ECAs) in January 2015, SSS was significantly affected. Since then, all ships operating in these areas are required to bunker the less polluting but more expensive MDO, which drastically increases the operating expenses. Nevertheless, due to relatively low bunker prices throughout 2015, the sector managed to maintain its transport volumes. This could change quickly once the bunker prices start rising again.

This most recent development really does not do the industry justice. In a way, it counteracts the EU goal of shifting cargo from the road towards Sea and Rail (multimodality). ShortSea operators have taken the risk, pioneered in many aspects of transport and continue to offer reliable, cost-efficient transport solutions for human and commercial cargo. Their importance to the integrity of European transport must not be underestimated, and with the EU continuing to set ambitious goals in environmental protection and transport policies, we can count on SSS to continue to thrive and exist as a sustainable and viable solution for all.


 Written by: Benjamin Lubben, 2E3S