The long-distance transportation of containers relying on the usage of inland ports is facing an asymmetry between import-based and export-based logistics. This is particularly the case in Europe and North America where there is a significant difference between the nature of imports and exports, implying that inbound and outbound logistics are based on different commercial and operational premises:
- Import-based containerized cargo tends to dominantly concern retail goods, implying that the distribution pattern is a function of the population density. Since the majority of the population is urbanized, the distribution pattern is nodal but spread over the geography. This characteristic incites transloading at the gateways as massification advantages decline rapidly once an inland terminal has been reached; each individual container eventually finds its way to a local or regional distribution center and its broad customer base. Import-based logistics tend to have a high priority as it is the segment that generates the most income for shippers. Due to trade imbalances (high rate on inbound than outbound containers), the value of the cargo, and its timeliness, it tends to carry a higher premium than the backhaul cargo.
- Export-based containerized cargo tends to concern commodities where the origins are a function of resource density. They have a high level of concentration, but their locational characteristics are very different than import flows (e.g. rural areas for grain and even more remote areas for wood products). As per unit of mass or volume, the cargo has a much lower value than inbound cargo, implying that its capture has a lower priority for shippers managing containerized assets. This cargo has, however, the advantage of being less time-constrained, unless related to the cold chain. The opportunities of export-based containerized logistics are consequently much dependent on the availability of containers inland and their repositioning.
Conversely to the above pattern, China is a mirror image with the advantage that the export-based activities (mostly retail and manufactured goods) are along the coast and highly clustered, lessening repositioning issues substantially. Reconciling the availability of containers in a distribution system where imports and export logistics are very different is thus problematic, with an enduring problem to find available maritime containers inland. A hybrid solution involves using conventional bulk transport systems to bring commodities to the gateway where they can be transloaded into maritime containers.