Ocean vs. Inland Transport: Building End-to-end Efficiency in Shipping

February 20, 2024

The concept of barge transportation has been integral to human civilization since 2500 BC, with its origins traced back to ancient Egypt. Today's barges are central to modern maritime logistics, moving vast quantities of diverse cargo across inland waterways. Understanding the synergies and the differences between ocean and inland transport is crucial for shippers in maritime logistics to get the best deal.

In this blog, focus on both the similarities and distinctive aspects of ocean and inland transport. 

Ocean Transport: A Vast and Varied Domain

Ocean transport offers a sustainable route for ships carrying heavy loads that is more cost-effective than both road and rail. This cost advantage is similar to inland maritime shipping, which has recently gained much popularity.

Modern ocean shipping leverages specialized vessels for specific needs, like containers or tankers. Specific routes are picked based on economic demands and on-ground conditions such as harbor locations, weather patterns, or ongoing geopolitical conditions.

The difference is that while inland is majorly used for shipping within the country, ocean shipping connects key global trade centers. Ocean transport is more popular today than inland and includes container shipping and ocean towing. 

Container Shipping

Container shipping is dominated by major companies like the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Maersk, COSCO, and others. Container shipping is the backbone of international trade as it moves 90% of global volumes, which is expected to triple by 2050. And while it contributes 90% of volumes, its contribution to global emissions was below 3%. This proves the cost and sustainability effectiveness of maritime transportation and its key advantages over other transport modes.

Standardized containers ensure global intermodal connectivity, efficiency, and streamlined handling. Cargo can then be transported via road, rail, or inland waterway. 

The ocean shipping industry extensively uses advanced technology, like real-time tracking, automated logistics, advanced navigation systems, and even big data and AI technologies. This element of maritime shipping is lagging in the inland transportation space– most notably in the US. This focal point is being addressed by a number of rising tech companies domestically including OpenTug.

Ocean Towing

Ocean towing is done by specialized vessels called Tugboats that cater to diverse requirements. These include the transport of barges, transferring materials and equipment, support for offshore anchoring, heavy lifting operations, and assistance in marine construction projects. Additionally, they play roles in other activities like fireworks displays, marine events, support for shipyards and ship repairs, towing inoperative ships, and marine salvage and wreckage clearing.

Ocean towing also transports large barges across open seas. But such operations require robust, larger barges to withstand oceanic conditions, including high waves and harsh weather. A typical ocean-going barge might measure around 300x100 feet, but this size necessitates higher fuel consumption, leading to higher operational costs than inland transport.

Inland Transport: Efficiency on Calmer Waters

Inland transport primarily involves moving goods via rivers and canals using barges. The U.S. has over 40,000 km of navigable waterways, with the Mississippi River being the most extensive, providing deep waterways stretching from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River is navigable up to Sioux City, Iowa.

Inland barges are often about 30 to 40 feet wide and 190 feet long and are smaller than their ocean-going counterparts. In the US, the most common size of a barge is 195 ft by 35 ft, whereas in Europe, it is 251 by 37 ft. 

Inland Towing

Inland barges are generally more cost-effective due to lower fuel consumption and the ability to move larger quantities of cargo in a single voyage. They also offer environmental benefits, including reduced carbon emissions per ton-mile compared to road and rail transport. Trucks emit 10x more than barges. The absence of oceanic waves allows inland barges to tow multiple units simultaneously, sometimes up to 40 barges, creating significant sustainable operations and economies of scale.

The Technological Divide and Convergence

Historically, the technology infrastructure in inland transport has lagged behind the ocean sector. Ocean shipping had sizeable investments as major global shipping companies were involved, and it made a lot of economic sense to track and optimize the movements of sea liners closely.

Ocean shipping benefits from a sophisticated tech ecosystem that enhances its operational visibility and efficiency. In contrast, inland shipping has been slower to adopt these advanced technologies, often relying on more traditional methods of operation and navigation. But with the changing landscapes of inland logistics, shipping via roads has become expensive by more than 25% in the last two years. Hence, there is a lot of focus and high investments in the technology side of the inland maritime. 

Table 1: Differences between Inland Maritime and Ocean Shipping

OpenTug's Role in Transforming Inland Shipping

OpenTug is pioneering change in inland transport through advanced technologies. OpenTug is the first digital shipping network to connect freight with barges and terminals nationwide. Opentug gives logistics a new direction with path-breaking tech for shippers, terminals, carriers, and ports.

  • OpenTug Marketplace connects shippers with barges, terminals, and storage facilities. OpenTug allows easy coordination and seamless workflow to handle bookings from request to delivery. 
  • QuoteAI provides accurate and automated quotes that are five times faster than traditional quoting methods. QuoteAI converts voyage data into quotes that can be shared directly with shippers. Factors like day rates, fuel burn, additional legs, and external fees are considered to calculate the voyage cost instantly. 

By adopting technologies that have so far been the hallmark of ocean shipping, OpenTug is enhancing the efficiency, transparency, and reliability of inland transport. With OpenTug, the gap between ocean and inland transport is narrowing, enabling integrated, efficient, and sustainable maritime logistics.

Are you ready to streamline your maritime shipping operations? Book a demo today and receive the best quote tailored to your needs.

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