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Intermodal Break-Even Distances: A Fetish of 300 Kilometres?

Sustainable Logistics

ISBN: 978-1-78441-062-9, eISBN: 978-1-78441-061-2

Publication date: 4 December 2014



In the last two decades, different policy initiatives have been set up to increase the share of intermodal freight transport through a modal shift. In the design of these policies, often critical break-even distances are set, showing the cost or price competitiveness of intermodal transport to delineate transport routes that qualify for such a modal shift. In this chapter, we discuss to which extent such break-even distances can be generalized on a larger scale and how they are calculated.


We use two price-based models to calculate break-even distances for an intermodal rail and an intermodal barge transport case. General break-even values do not show the price variation in the transport market and vagueness in the calculation of these values adds to this problem.


We find that for the inland waterway case, intermodal barge transport shows potential on shorter distances as well. In addition, different ways to lower the break-even distance are discussed and a framework for calculating break-even distances is suggested.

Research limitations

The research elaborates on break-even distances in a European context using price data which are fluctuating over time, location specific and often not publicly available.

Practical implications

Policy initiatives promoting intermodal transport should not focus solely on long distance transport. Moreover, evaluating the competitiveness of the intermodal sector solely on a price comparison dishonours its true potential.


This chapter challenges the current European policy on intermodal transport by showing the price competitiveness of intermodal transport in two cases.




This research was conducted in the framework of two projects. The research on the Euro Terminal Model was conducted in the framework of the Twin Hub network project, financially supported by the European Union funded INTERREG NWE programme. The further development of the LAMBIT model is conducted within the framework of the Policy Research Centre MOBILO, financially supported by the Flemish Government.


Meers, D., Vermeiren, T. and Macharis, C. (2014), "Intermodal Break-Even Distances: A Fetish of 300 Kilometres?", Sustainable Logistics (Transport and Sustainability, Vol. 6), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 217-243.



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