On the land-side, the key components to support coastal shipping will be adequate freight handling and covered storage for general cargo processing, and of course the all-important intermodal connectivity to the rail or local road network. This is needed to allow road and rail freight transport and coastal shipping to cooperate to provide a more efficient overall service, with ships operating the ‘long’ haul and road trucks operating the feeder service. This may be the biggest single hurdle to unlocking the greater potential of our coastal shipping, and is the subject of considerable policy and research and innovation interest. Software solutions are also now emerging that seek to enable shippers and logistics operators to simplify the short sea routes’ multi-modal supply chain, for example see https://www.mjc2.com/synchronet.htm .
In some space-constrained ports there may be an opportunity to add additional port areas by reclamation (expansion of land areas by building out into the water) – whilst this can be an expensive exercise, if done well it can create new habitats and recreational areas and therefore will not necessarily have a net negative environmental impact. An added benefit is that sand and gravel used in the reclamation areas can often be taken from navigation channels, thereby deepening them and enhancing vessel access, aiding the ports.
Coasters being smaller than their ocean-going counterparts with shorter intervals between ports may well be in the vanguard of the adoption of fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia, and electrification. A few vessel owners are also already exploring wind assisted propulsion. All of these bring their own specialist landside infrastructure requirements, and marine-side manoeuvring space for fuel delivery.
Autonomous coastal ships will likely have similar manoeuvring characteristics to conventional vessels and thus in large part the marine infrastructure requirements will also be similar. The main potential difference, depending on the level of automation, will be the landside requirement for control towers to have line of sight on autonomous coasters, although this may be some years away, with semi autonomy being more likely in the short to medium term.
Last but not least are the demands for skills and training. As ports develop the services they provide they will need to extend the skill base of their staff to address these new ship and product handling needs, including considering the need for pilot familiarisation.
None of the infrastructure requirements for coastal shipping seem insurmountable – a lot of it is already there and under used, and the political commitment is growing. The revival of coastal shipping therefore seems to rest on cooperation between all parts of the supply chain to deliver an attractive product for the freight customer.