Navigating intermodal transport. A case study in France

A recent incident in France has brought attention to a case of irregular cabotage, highlighting the complexities of intermodal transport and following regulations.

Upon arrival at the port of Marseille, a semi-trailer coupled with a truck for the inland journey of more than 500 km. This connection at the port of Marseille was seen as the beginning of the cabotage operation even if the CMR paper was mentioning incoming international transport, falling under French laws.

In this particular case, the goods unloaded in France, originated in Tunisia. The semi-trailer, transported to the ship in Tunisia by a first truck, makes the crossing alone. Upon arrival in Marseille, it is hitched to another truck and towed to its unloading point in France. The place of coupling is to be considered as the starting point of the operation (to be assimilated to a loading place), i.e. in France.

Explanation from driver and company: The driver indicated that, at the wheel of the controlled articulated unit, he had loaded the three international transports departing from Belgium and the Netherlands and bound for the port of Marseilles where the semi-trailer was unhitched, i.e. a cabotage operation.

Explanation from the French authority: The controlled truck was not authorized to load this cabotage operation before the complete and fully unloading of the goods involved in the so-called preliminary international transport. In this context, transport of loaded goods between France and Tunisia does not correspond to international transport but to a cabotage operation.

In this situation, the hitching point as considered as the starting point of the cabotage operations, but without respecting the rules for cabotage.

As a reminder, this operation was considered as a cabotage, but without respecting rules for cabotage as are follows:

  • this activity is subject to the prior completion of an international haulage operation on the part of the tractor unit.
  • once the goods carried during international transport to the host member state have been delivered.
  • cabotage must be carried out using the same truck or tractor as that used for international transport.

How this intermodal transport operation should be organized in the correct way?

A recent case in Marseille highlights the significance of procedural clarity in determining the nature of transport activities.

Conventionally, the unloading of goods in Marseille from a truck arriving from Tunisia would mark the initiation of international transport. However, the hitching of a tractor upon arrival in Marseille, despite goods remaining untouched from previous stops in Belgium and the Netherlands, led to a reinterpretation of the operation as cabotage rather than international transport.

To be authorized to carry out this cabotage operation:

  • a motor vehicle must first perform and complete an international transport;
  • the goods transported during this international transport to a receiving Member State must be delivered.

Why wasn't it considered as combined transport?

Some transporters are mixing up this operation with combined transport, which in some EU countries is exempt from cabotage rules. However, it’s especially important to note that combined transport means transporting goods between Member States where the lorry, trailer, semi-trailer, with or without tractor unit, swap body, or container of 20 feet or more uses the road on the initial or final leg of the journey and, on the other leg, rail or inland waterway or maritime services where this section exceeds 100 km as the crow flies and serves as the initial or final road transport leg of the journey:

  • between the point where the goods are loaded and the nearest suitable rail loading station for the initial leg, and between the nearest suitable rail unloading station and the point where the goods are unloaded for the final leg, or;
  • within a radius not exceeding 150 km as the crow flies from the inland waterway port or seaport of loading or unloading.

Which was not the case in this operation as the road leg took a part of more than 500 km.


Rethinking transport logistics

Transport company coming to Marseille should have firstly unloaded fully international transport goods from the truck, and then this would have be considered as a complete international transport. Because they didn’t fully unload goods from Belgium and Netherlands, but instead they hitched another semi-trailer in Marseille to perform inland transport, the company was fined for an irregular cabotage operation.

This case underscores the challenges in navigating international transport regulations, emphasizing the need for clarity and compliance across transport modes. In the ever-evolving landscape of transport and regulation, each decision echoes the delicate balance between operational efficiency and regulatory compliance.

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