Intermodal transport and repositioning of empty containers in Central and Eastern Europe hinterland

Intermodal transport and repositioning of empty containers in Central and Eastern Europe hinterland

Journal of Transport Geography 69 (2018) 73–82 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Journal of Transport Geography journal homepage: www.elsevi...

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Journal of Transport Geography 69 (2018) 73–82

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Journal of Transport Geography journal homepage:

Intermodal transport and repositioning of empty containers in Central and Eastern Europe Hinterland


Petr Kolara, , Hans-Joachim Schrammb, Günter Procklc a

Department of Logistics, Faculty of Business Administration, University of Economics, W. Churchill Sq. 4, Prague 13067, Czech Republic Department of Global Business and Trade, Institute for Transport and Logistics Management, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien, Wien 1090, Austria c Department of Operations Management, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg 2000, Denmark b



Keywords: Empty container repositioning Intermodal transport Landlocked hinterland

The objective of this article is to provide a review of literature dealing with empty container repositioning. This review is interlinked with a qualitative data analysis based on semi-structured interviews with representatives of ocean carriers, which are key actors determining empty container repositioning. Empirical evidence obtained from fieldwork in the Czech Republic, albeit limited, is used to illustrate empty repositioning management by ocean carriers in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) landlocked hinterlands, which have been neglected in research with a specific geographic scope. By addressing the research questions and conducting the analysis, the authors determine whether empty container repositioning is a problem only concerning equipment allocation by an ocean carrier or requires a collaborative resolution involving various parties engaged in container movements in landlocked hinterlands. This article confirms that most existing literature dealing with empty container repositioning ignores the actual dynamics of landlocked hinterlands as well as business practitioners' perspective. The authors' analysis of the empirical research complements and challenges the reviewed research studies. Based on the analysis, ocean carriers seem to be unwilling to revise their actual container management strategies focused on maritime repositioning, disregarding the potential and importance of intermodal repositioning approaches based on market collaboration. Regarding further research directions, the authors suggest the research replicability and its extension.

1. Introduction After the development and expansion of container shipping since the 1960s, maritime transportation experienced technological and organisational changes, leading to unprecedented progress until today. Once containers became standardized, global liner shipping networks consisting of specialised container terminals at ports and fully cellular container ships were established. However, since its early development, the process of containerisation has been associated with international trade imbalances (Rodrigue, 2013). Therefore, most global maritime shipping trade lanes lead to a surplus of either exported or imported full containers (UNCTAD, 2015). On average, shipments of empty containers amounted to 24.7% of all container shipments port-to-port in 2016 (Drewry, 2017). The difference in containerised exports and imports leads to an accumulation or shortage of empty containers at certain seaports or terminals and depots in the hinterlands near the seaports. Not only is empty container repositioning an economic problem in the shipping industry but also an imbalance presents environmental and sustainability problems (Braekers et al., 2011). Handling of ⁎

empty containers not only burdens operations at seaport terminals but also uses equipment designed for movement of containerised cargo. At the same time, it causes an increase in the volume of traffic within seaports and neighbouring transport infrastructure (Boile, 2006). Due to the overall long-term increase in total operational costs in maritime shipping, there has been continuous emphasis by shipping industry on improving container movement efficiency (Alvarez, 2009). Efficient empty container repositioning management between and within the import and export hinterland areas is one of the key challenges faced by owners and lessors of containers, as they must deal with cost reductions generated through trade imbalances (Van Der Horst and De Langen, 2008). For instance, the cost of maritime empty container repositioning accounted for 20 billion USD in 2009 and the inland repositioning of empty containers reached 30.1 billion USD (UNCTAD, 2011). There are different perspectives framing empty container repositioning as a research problem. Firstly, one can consider the causes of the problem, including the natural dynamic operation characteristics of supply chains, limited predictability and uncertainty in the container

Corresponding author. E-mail address: [email protected] (P. Kolar). Received 29 December 2016; Received in revised form 11 April 2018; Accepted 12 April 2018 0966-6923/ © 2018 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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also of the geographical frame in which the authors stress the empty repositioning as research problem. Geography-wise, reviewed authors used a perspective of maritime repositioning (Alvarez, 2009; Bell et al., 2011; Brouer et al., 2011; Chao and Yu, 2012; Dong et al., 2013; Notteboom and Rodrigue, 2008; Song and Dong, 2011). Regarding inland repositioning, researchers performed typically quantitative network analysis while focused on specific maritime container types or inland modes of transport. Research approaches applied for maritime, inland or door-to-door (i.e. global intermodal) transportation of containers mainly depend on mathematical optimisation models centred on empty container repositioning as a resource allocation problem at a global, regional or local level (Feng and Chang, 2008; Köchel et al., 2003; Lam et al., 2007; Li et al., 2007); related vehicle routing problems (Cordeau et al., 2007; Parragh et al., 2008; Song and Earl, 2008; Toth and Vigo, 2002), merging of vehicle routing and resource allocation problems (Huth and Mattfeld, 2009) and similar operations research problems (Braekers et al., 2013a, b; Crainic, 1993; Macharis and Bontekoning, 2004; Olivo et al., 2005; Vojdani, 2010). The approaches implement diverse techniques, such as linear, stochastic, multi-scenario, mixed-integer or inventory control-based simulation model programming (Song and Dong, 2015). Furthermore, the authors distinguish between intra-organisational perspective of a single company (Chang et al., 2015; Chao and Yu, 2012; Dang et al., 2013) and inter-organisational one. In addition, the later perspective studies horizontal and vertical collaboration among companies in a supply chain that deals with a certain port region or special type of container (Brouer et al., 2011; Imai and Rivera, 2001; Konings, 2005; Shintani et al., 2010; Wu and Lin, 2015; Zhang et al., 2017). This research study addresses the vertical and horizontal cooperation limits between ocean carriers, their customers and service providers deploying the empirical results analysis. Another stream in the empty container repositioning literature addresses a variety of problems, like empty equipment storage, stacking cost reductions or the technological innovation of foldable containers (Bandara et al., 2015; Konings, 2005; Konings and Thijs, 2001; Moon and Hong, 2016; Shintani et al., 2010; Zheng et al., 2015). In this study, the authors challenge the actual applicability to business wherein technological and process innovations are introduced. Other authors deal with container fleet management (Imai and Rivera, 2001; Wu and Lin, 2015), equipment pooling or similar strategies (Sterzik et al., 2012; Vojdani et al., 2013) backed by the development of complex information and communication technologies (ICT) for container tracking and tracing (Kolarovszki and Dubravka, 2013). Other research publications (Karmelic et al., 2012; Rodrigue and Notteboom, 2015; Song and Panayides, 2012) see the possible interchangeability of container equipment for cargo with different commodity characteristics as the key to alleviation of the empty container repositioning problem. It opens the possibility of collaboration between cargo beneficiaries and ocean carriers. The problem can be resolved rather easily by substitution of container types, such as dry cargo containers for bulk liquids and reefer containers for general cargo (Arduino et al., 2015; Chang et al., 2008). The authors suggest problem resolution through equipment substitution, yet they do not provide any empirical support to its practicability. It is necessary to note that most researchers view empty container repositioning management as a process carried out by ocean carriers with minor input from other equipment owners such as leasing companies (Di Francesco et al., 2009; Lam et al., 2007; Moon et al., 2010). The authors do adopt such a proven view in the current research. With the emergence of globalisation and its support by ICT innovations, the ability of ocean carriers to offer not only port-to-port service but also door-to-door service called carrier haulage to customers located in the hinterland is necessary for ocean carriers' long-term competitiveness (Vojdani et al., 2013). However, empty container repositioning management efficiency has no direct monetary impact on cargo

shipping industry, lack of visibility regarding collaboration in the shipping industry and differences in ocean carriers' strategies and operational practices (Ng, 2012; Song and Dong, 2015). Secondly, one can consider solutions, including related organisational approaches such as container fleet sizing, leasing strategies and full container routing optimisation, horizontal and vertical supply chain collaboration, and technological development solutions (Ng, 2012; Song and Dong, 2015). Thirdly, one can take geographical perspective, viewing the empty repositioning problem in three categories: empty container repositioning between seaports' terminals (maritime repositioning), inland empty container repositioning and a combination of the two (intermodal repositioning). The geographical perspective can be applied at the global, regional or local level (Feng and Chang, 2008; Lopez, 2003; Zheng et al., 2015). The fourth perspective addresses the issue as a sub-problem related to other decision-making problems in the industry (Tioga Group, 2002). Diverse modelling techniques serve as basis for the sought solutions without limited application or data analysis from the shipping market (Song and Dong, 2015). Through literature review and a conducted research analysis, all four perspectives are integrated in this article. Issues relative to repositioning act as the research problem for resolution. The research questions are directed to ocean carriers that are the key shipping parties responsible for the possible implementation of the recommendations (Song and Dong, 2015). The perspectives associated with the geographical and other industry problems are framed using the analysis of the responses. From a management and planning viewpoint, the empty repositioning problem is outlined by means of strategic, tactical, and operational decision-making, mostly focused on the optimisation of regional or local movements (Braekers et al., 2011). As the management of repositioning of empty maritime containers is the activity supported and determined by the globally operative ocean carriers, any empirical research in the field must imprint and reflect the decision-making, organisational structure, business culture and autonomy levels of the different ocean carries in various regions and markets (Bell and Chen, 2017; Epstein et al., 2012; Gray and Davies, 1981). Yet, the research in these fields is not the authors' primary concern. On the other hand, they are not ignored once any empirical research is conducted in the domain of management science (Cordeau et al., 2007). The remainder of this paper is organised as follows. Section 2 provides a structured review of literature concerning management of empty container repositioning. Section 3 focuses on the intermodal transport market of the Czech Republic and its specifics as a typical example of a landlocked hinterland. Section 4 elaborates the research methodology while stressing a qualitative viewpoint, which was selected for this research topic. Section 5 summarises empirical research findings and links them to complement, support or challenge reviewed literature. Section 6 concludes the article by summarising remarks and potential directions for future research. 2. Literature review Table 1 indicates that there exists extensive literature that deals with the repositioning of empty containers. The literature review is valuable as it illustrates the well-cited and published articles that address the problem in the dimensions of geographical scope (maritime, inland and intermodal) as well as a cooperation-based approach. It also demonstrates, within the reviewed literature, preconditions that are difficult to meet in the actual shipping industry. Therefore, the literature review and accompanying research question the applicability of many previous studies. The current study centres on the repositioning of the standardized maritime, intermodal container that is measured using Twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) (Eurostat, 2013). Furthermore, the literature review groups articles found within a maritime, inland, and door-to-door perspective based on a geographical focus but 74

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Table 1 Repositioning literature review matrix – chronological order. Geographical scope/ management approach

Maritime repositioning

Inland repositioning

Intermodal repositioning

Inter-organisational horizontal and vertical collaboration

Imai and Rivera, 2001; Tioga Group, 2002; Feng and Chang, 2008; Notteboom and Rodrigue, 2008; Alvarez, 2009; Griffin and Griffin, 2010; Shintani et al., 2010; Brouer et al., 2011; Song and Panayides, 2012; Wolff et al., 2012; Dong et al., 2013; Vojdani et al., 2013; Tran and Haasis, 2014; Wang, 2014; Wu and Lin, 2015; Rodrigue and Notteboom, 2015; Wu and Lin, 2015; Zheng et al., 2015. Lopez, 2003; Köchel et al., 2003; Lam et al., 2007; Li et al., 2007; Chou et al., 2010; Bell et al., 2011; Song and Dong, 2011; Chao and Yu, 2012; Epstein et al., 2012; Altena, 2013.

Parragh et al., 2008; De Jong et al., 2013; Olivo et al., 2013; Kashiha et al., 2016.

Crainic, 1993; Jansen et al., 2004; Konings, 2005; Olivo et al., 2005; Boros et al., 2007; Van Der Horst and De Langen, 2008; Dong and Song, 2009; Huth and Mattfeld, 2009; Theofanis and Boile, 2009; Karmelic et al., 2012; Sterzik et al., 2012; Bandara et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2017.

Boile et al., 2008; Song and Earl, 2008; Kolarovszki and Dubravka, 2013; Dang et al., 2013; Kolarovszki, 2014; Jirsak and Krsnakova, 2015.

Konings and Thijs, 2001; Toth and Vigo, 2002; Macharis and Bontekoning, 2004; Chang, et al., 2008; Vojdani, 2010; Ng, 2012; Braekers et al., 2013a; Braekers et al., 2013b; Chang, et al., 2015; Song and Dong, 2015; Moon and Hong, 2016.

Intra-organisational approach (company focus)

the geographical affiliation and decision-making autonomy when it comes to regional and local (inland) repositioning management by ocean carrier as the key parties determining the empty repositioning strategies and approaches. To sum up, the literature review suggests that at least two fields have been neglected. Firstly, information about hinterlands and landlocked countries is not sufficiently considered. Secondly, there is no empirical evidence or validation of most of the optimisation research studies from a business perspective. Addressing both deficits remains the primary research motivation. Therefore, a set of research questions (RQ) supplemented with a followup qualitative analysis of the responses is conducted. The necessary semi-structured interviews and qualitative analysis are directed to gain further and necessary insight into different themes within empty container repositioning and its management in practice. The current research is the result of on-going fieldwork and dialogue with managers and practitioners directly involved in container transport operations in the CEE hinterland. In the section that follows and based on the authors' initial fieldwork, the Czech Republic as a landlocked hinterland market is briefly described.

beneficiaries (Wang et al., 2008). In general, ocean carriers consider their containers to be equipment. Therefore, container movement-related decision-making centres on freight facilitation and reduction of transportation and handling costs. By contrast, leasing companies define containers as key assets (Theofanis and Boile, 2009) and search for those business partners that allow them to best recover their investment costs (Wang, 2014). Most authors agree on the complexity of container shipping as an integrated part of global supply chains, which supports the need to regard empty container repositioning as a truly multi-faceted problem. In most published works concerning maritime or intermodal repositioning, collaborative network analysis appears to be a key approach to resolve the problem (Chang et al., 2015; Wu and Lin, 2015). There are collaboration-based solutions with different potentials for application based on business barriers. Such solutions include street turns or triangulation, neutral point storage at inland empty return depots run by operators and depot direct off-hiring linked to leasing contracts (Boile et al., 2008; Song and Dong, 2015). However, for inland repositioning, this collaborative approach is rarely adopted. Instead, pricing policy mechanisms are designed for container depot services or to minimise inland transport times. From a methodological point of view, all these contributions rely on either collection of descriptive data or mathematical optimisation. Finally, concerning the CEE hinterland, there is a striking literature gap. With a few notable exceptions, little research has been done in the region (De Langen, 2007; Zanuy, 2009) or in landlocked hinterlands in general (Kashiha et al., 2016; Ke et al., 2015; Raballand, 2003; Richardson and Harrington, 1991). In addition, no research in these areas has specifically dealt with empty container repositioning issues. Only a few published studies have focused on the stress of empty container repositioning and elucidate the importance of empirical data (Konings and Thijs, 2001; Van der Horst and De Langen, 2007; Wolff et al., 2012). The reviewed literature sets the repositioning research preconditions such as equipment interchangeability, technological innovations, pooling strategies, collaboration or definition of maritime, inland and intermodal repositioning via geographical scope as given. Did the authors attempt to challenge or question the meeting of these preconditions or definitions using empirical (primary) data collection? Do the business practitioners such as the ocean carriers' managers engage the container repositioning problem through the perspective of maritime, inland and intermodal geography frame, collaboration approaches or technological solutions? What about the dynamics of (inland) hinterland wherein the volumes of repositioned containers are less robust, include the movements within relatively small geographical region with different dynamics from sea accessible areas? Besides, the reviewed research studies lack the answers regarding

3. The Czech Republic: a typical landlocked hinterland Since joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, the Czech Republic has been well integrated in the European intermodal transport system. Thanks to its geographical location, it acts as a freight distribution gateway between the markets of the EU-15-member states, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and between CEE markets, including EU countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia as well as non-EU countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. The Czech Republic is a landlocked country. Despite efforts to reduce the cost of distribution, transport costs in land-locked countries are higher in general, rendering it a challenge for local manufacturers, distributors, importers and exporters to compete on the global market (Rodrigue, 2013). Development and application of efficient management strategies and decision-making for both full and empty container movements towards seaports and depots in neighbouring countries is thus of strategic importance. Most international overseas trade depends on the efficiency of rail and road links to nearby European seaports, such as Hamburg and Bremerhaven in the North Sea range and Koper in the Mediterranean range, as shown in Fig. 1. In 2015, the port of Hamburg dominated with a 59% share (300,000 TEUs), followed by Bremerhaven (19%), Koper (14%), Piraeus (3%) and Rotterdam (3%), with the remaining 2% shipped via Antwerp, Trieste and Gdansk (see circles without titles and percentage shares). Even though the Czech Republic is an export-oriented economy with 75

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Fig. 1. Port shares for overseas containerised cargo for the Czech Republic (in %, country borders highlighted) in 2015 with an illustration of the European rail infrastructure network. Source: Hafen Hamburg Marketing, e. V. (2016), No Tech Magazine (2012), MTCR (2015), SSL (2016).

scoped by the CEE regional repositioning and the vertical and horizontal collaboration approach. Unlike full container movements, empty maritime container repositioning is an endogenous activity determined and managed by ocean carriers (Song and Dong, 2015). Therefore, the RQs are directed to a set of ocean carriers' managers' and not to managers of logics providers or freight forwarders that determine the movements of full containers (Song and Panayides, 2012). This research-narrowing excludes the regional or global intermodal transport chains including only trucking, rail, air, inland waterways navigation or short sea shipping where the transportation of non-standard sized containers is possible, like 45 or 53-ft containers, unit load devices (ULDs), etc. The research study elaborates both national (Czech) and regional (CEE) aspects of empty container repositioning management by addressing the research questions and analyzing their responses by interviewees and how they support or challenge existing literature. Although the qualitative survey is limited to a sample of ocean carriers' top managers in the Czech Republic, the results provide useful empirical evidence that assists ocean carriers or other container owners to better understand the dynamics of empty container repositioning management within the landlocked European hinterland. The research applies a broader perspective than other studies on inland logistics platforms in the CEE region, considering the role of adjacent local market players' branches in empty container repositioning management. As in other inland hinterlands, in the Czech Republic, only a limited number of ocean carriers is engaged in container hinterland operations (Boile et al., 2008; Richardson and Harrington, 1991). Thus, a largescale empirical survey is rejected in favour of conducting focused expert interviews with ocean carrier managers. The interviews with experts and qualitative analysis aimed to answer the following four RQs that address the areas neglected or non-validated areas in the reviewed literature:

a foreign trade surplus, its container imports represent approximately 55% of the total containerised cargo. Approximately 76% of all containerised cargo imported to or exported from the Czech Republic is handled by rail (EC, 2012). Rail transport remains the preferred mode for repositioning empty containers in the Czech Republic, not trucking, as in other stated countries (Song and Carter, 2009). For instance, once full containers reaching Prague by rail or road from Hamburg are emptied, they are moved by rail to empty container inland depots in Germany and Austria, where they are either reloaded or empty repositioned by rail to seaports and overseas destinations. The Czech Republic–Germany container flow parallels those of other CEE and EU member countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia. In recent years, the Czech Republic market has experienced changing dynamics in terms of the export and import TEU volumes generated by shippers. Ocean carriers are failing to respond effectively to the increased demand for empty containers for export, while imports remain stagnant, and special types of containers such as reefers or flat racks are regularly not available to shippers (SSL, 2015). In other words, ocean carriers seem to reject active participation in local or regional repositioning management, instead simply including inland repositioning of empty containers as a cost component in their carrier haulage rates. Since inland transportation, as a part of carrier haulage, is relatively more profitable than merchant haulage (Crainic, 1993), ocean carriers fail to use the opportunity to attract more customers located in the landlocked hinterlands. They struggle to stay pricecompetitive compared to freight forwarders acting as multimodal transport operators (MTOs) or non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOCCs) for full container load (FCL) door-to-door shipments. In 2015, 15 ocean carriers were directly represented in the Czech Republic with either a branch or agent office. However, the number dropped significantly due to mergers and acquisitions in 2017, and a substantial share of containerised cargo was managed by branch offices located in Austria, Germany or Poland.

• RQ 1: What are ocean carriers' top managers' perceptions of empty container repositioning in landlocked hinterlands? • RQ 2: Are these managers aware of different approaches and stra-

4. Research scope, questions and basic approach Based on the limitations of the research scope, the focus is restricted to two dimensions of container repositioning: geographical dimension

tegies for mitigation of empty container movement?


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• RQ 3: How are empirical data relevant to container movement op•

• General perception of empty repositioning by ocean carriers or their agents' country-level top managers. • Knowledge of optimisation and cooperation approaches regarding repositioning management. • Knowledge of different forms of cooperation within repositioning

timisation in the case of landlocked hinterlands if they are shared with ocean carriers, service providers and customers in domestic or neighbouring markets? RQ 4: How does the local branch of an ocean carrier record present or forecast future development of container movement imbalances regarding the containerised exports and imports?

To answer these intentionally narrow research questions, a qualitative research approach and just eight interviewees are sufficient, especially in the initial stages of such research (McCracken, 1988). A qualitative methodology based on a limited set of interviews is applied to answer a specific set of research questions and better address perceptions of the phenomena expressed by different individuals representing different organisations and bodies (Chytilova and Chytil 2014; Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Kirk and Miller, 1986; Miles et al., 2014; Näslund, 2002; Patton, 2002; Rubin et al., 1995). Marshall (1996) discussed the value added to any qualitative research study by an understanding of complex issues while answering humanistic “why?” or “how?” questions. Additionally, qualitative research approach was useful for alternating between the empirical field and different theoretical frameworks to enable further comprehension of the research subject (Kvale, 1996; Orton, 1997; Yin, 2003). According to Sandelowski (1995), a limited sample of representatives is always justifiable when the interviewees are selected by the researchers according to the needs of their study. Such selections are made based on the researchers' belief that the interviewees have broad general knowledge of the subject or relevant experience (Morse, 1991). According to Eisenhardt (1989) and Yin (2003), a limited sample of market representatives leads to increased external validity of the study and produces more generalizable research findings. Table 2 illustrates the distribution of the selected interviewees. The ocean carriers (OCs) and interview dates are purposefully unordered and encoded chronologically or via OC numbering. Random encoding matching limits the potential that the data can be distortedly interpreted by the interviewers during qualitative analysis (Kvale, 1996; McCracken, 1988). The selection of interviewees was neither accidental nor convenient. The authors used a judgmental sample technique to actively select the best sample for answering the research questions. This intellectual strategy is based on the researchers' practical knowledge of the research field, available literature and the research study itself (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The range of interviewees is as diverse as possible in terms of experience and expertise (Marshall, 1996). The authors contacted all 15 OCs present in the Czech market that offer merchant haulage (port-to-port service) or carrier haulage (door-to-door service, including inland transport, causing them to act as MTOs) services. All interviewees are experts in the field under study in terms of both business experience and company management positions. Contact with the interviewees was initially established via e-mails and phone calls. The managers' contact information was provided by the Prague manager of Hafen Hamburg Marketing. For the qualitative study, the interviews were structured in the following ways:

management, including descriptions of data sharing with other company branches and transport chain partners. Description of data collection methods, including forecasted future developments regarding trade imbalances.

The interview questions addressing RQ 1–4 were structured as illustrated in Fig. 2. Since the data obtained from these interviews was comprehensive in terms of information, Creswell's (2007) method of qualitative data analysis was applied. This method consists of the following steps:

• Data collection (interview content supplemented by business-to• • •

business marketing presentations, web page information and company documents). Data organisation (preliminary taped interviews and written notes). Data classification and analysis. Representation and outcome.

The analysis was conducted to identify the relevant transport processes linked to empty container repositioning of maritime containers from an OC perspective. Furthermore, data was validated through triangulation using not only recordings and insights from the interviews but also observations of official company documents (available in print or electronically) and information from the companies' websites and business-to-business event presentations. Initially, the researchers planned to conduct a quantitative assessment of the RQs. However, since a limited number of ocean carriers controls the intermodal market, the method of a quantitative survey with a sound set of relevant company managers with sufficient market representativeness and responses with reasonable validation possibilities was deemed infeasible to address the RQs. In addition, due to legal regulations, data sensitivity and market competition issues (Belohlavek et al., 2015; Wolff et al., 2012), company managers could not provide a full set of quantitative data, which is required for a robust assessment of hypotheses. The research motivation was explained in the first section of the interviews. Second, the design of the interview was communicated. Third, a predefined set of open-ended questions for each RQ was asked. Such questions ensure flexibility and freedom in the interview. The semi-structured format enables interviewees to focus on key issues. Moreover, comparable questions were asked in different forms to guarantee the consistency of the interview data. The questions required the interviewees to describe or reflect on their perceptions and experience. One of the authors participated in the interviews. With the permission of the interviewees, all interviews were recorded. To avoid misunderstandings, all conducted interviews were transcribed, and the interviewer shared his interpretations of the data with the interviewees

Table 2 Interviewees, company position and type of interview. Interviewee (original position indication)

Ocean carrier (carrier/MTO) indication

Date of interview

Type of interview

Country branch manager CZ and SK manager Branch manager Liner manager Operations manager Sales country manager Senior equipment manager Czech sales country manager

Ocean Ocean Ocean Ocean Ocean Ocean Ocean Ocean

02/08/2016 27/07/2016 25/07/2016 29/06/2016 28/06/2016 28/06/2016 23/06/2016 21/06/2016

Personal Personal Personal Personal Personal Personal Personal Personal

carrier carrier carrier carrier carrier carrier carrier carrier


1) 3) 8) 2) 5) 6) 7) 8)


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Fig. 2. Structure and areas of interview questions addressing RQ 1–4.

management autonomy in the OC companies at local and regional level. Yet, such a valuable research outcome was not the research aim. On the other hand, it elaborates the perspective of repositioning as a subproblem of other decision-making problems.

for approval. In addition, the interviewer took notes and made observations. All eight interviewees and the interviewer are from the Czech Republic. Therefore, the interviewees were carried out in the Czech language. In-person interviews were conducted on the OCs' premises and lasted 40–102 min based on interviewees' availability. The interviewees were encouraged to share all information they considered relevant to the research. The objective of this approach was to find out their opinions about what is important and whether the researcher should look closer into other topics related to the RQs. Overall, the interview recordings increased the reliability of this study and made coding and the follow-up qualitative data analysis simpler (Carlson and McCaslin, 2003). The interviewer listened to the audio recordings of each interview two to four times and transcribed them. The interviews were transferred to MAXQDA (Hatani, 2015; Hejnal and Luptak, 2015), a qualitative analysis software tool used to illustrate the importance of the RQs according to interviewees (not according to the interviewers). Then, the transcripts were read two to three times. Other information used for coding was obtained from field notes and observations made during the interviews. In the following section, the authors present the findings from these expert interviews.

5.1. General perception of empty container repositioning Regarding RQ1, all interviewees were familiar with empty container repositioning, as seen in the transcribed and key-worded responses to the related sub-questions. More specifically, OC 1, OC 5 and OC 7 confirmed that empty container repositioning is managed locally at their branch office by individual specialists or dedicated equipment departments that do not deal with sales or customer service. OC 2, OC 3, OC 4 and OC 8 repeatedly confirmed that their local branch or agent office deals with sales and customer service and accepts global and regional strategies and orders from their regional headquarters in other countries. Hence, they distribute only quantitative data that allow container repositioning within the OCs' clustered markets. Initially, OC 6 described local independence regarding container repositioning management, later confirming its dependency on equipment and repositioning strategies from abroad. All interviewees were aware of global and regional repositioning strategies applied at a regional or local level (within the Czech market). OC 4, OC 5 and OC 8 elaborated the geography frame by port-to-port repositioning and door-to-door (intermodal) repositioning yet did not explicitly address the problem from an inland perspective. OC 2, OC 3 and OC 6 perceived repositioning as organisation of empty container movements between inland and seaport container terminals and depots based on cooperation with primarily rail operators. They did not consider the possibility of implementing an optimisation or repositioning strategy within only a landlocked hinterland area. These findings partly question the traditional geographical classification of repositioning as maritime, inland or intermodal (door-todoor), used in many studies that applied mathematical optimisation models. In other words, based on the interviewees' responses to questions dealing with repositioning in landlocked hinterlands, local OCs in the landlocked hinterland do not consider repositioning to have an inland dimension. Instead, they perceive the problem as one involving port-to-port, door-to-door and port-to-door optimisation. None of the interviews explicitly described or appeared to perceive the container repositioning problem as a problem with resource or equipment allocation, vehicle routing (Cordeau et al., 2007; Parragh et al., 2008; Song and Earl, 2008; Toth and Vigo, 2002) or a combination of both (Huth and Mattfeld, 2009). All except OC 6 mostly considered the problem from a cause-based perspective (i.e. trade imbalances between overseas origins and destinations). Therefore, the findings for RQ 1 strongly support the assumptions presented by Kashiha et al. (2016) and Sterzik et al. (2012): that, regardless of whether containers' origin or destination is sea-accessible (or not), container movement within hinterland markets is managed by OCs from their ocean domain hubs.

5. Qualitative analysis findings Table 3 illustrates the outcome of qualitative data analysis of the semi-structured interviews using MAXQDA and shows the importance of RQs according to the interviewees, measured by the time spent responding to each RQ and the number of characters transcribed from interviewees' responses to the RQs and their sub-questions (Marshall and Rossman, 2014; Rubin et al., 1995). The RQs were ordinally ranked from 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest) based on these measurements for each interviewee (OC 1–OC 8), demonstrating the relative perceived importance of RQs. This ranking affects the “weight” of responses during interpretation (Hatani, 2015). In terms of number of characters and time, RQ 1 and RQ 4 and their related sub-questions were the most interesting to interviewees, while RQ 3 and its sub-questions was perceived as by far the least important. The number of characters for RQ 2 was lower in comparison to RQ 1 (most general “tour” question) and RQ 4. Addressing the research questions, the secondary value-added of the responses' analysis tends to reveal the decision-making processes and Table 3 Interviewees' perceptions of each RQ according to time spent discussing the question (recordings) and number of characters used to discuss it (transcripts). Interviewee

OC 1

OC 2

OC 3

OC 4

OC 5

OC 6

OC 7

OC 8


2 3 4 1

1 2 4 3

1 4 2 3

3 1 4 2

3 2 4 1

2 4 3 1

1 3 4 2

1 3 4 2

1 2 3 4


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not yet shared.

5.2. Awareness of empty container movement mitigation strategies and approaches

5.3. Relevant data sharing with other ocean carriers, service providers and customers

For the topics covered in RQ 2 and its sub-questions, the interviewees' knowledge about business mitigation strategies and solutions differed considerably. According to OC 2, OC 3 and OC 6, tactical and operational decision-making at the local level empirically proves the application of depot-direct solutions (Boile et al., 2008). They confirmed that maritime empty containers are temporarily stored at inland container depots run by operators instead of being sent back to the port immediately. Regarding street turns (all interviewees used the term “triangulation”), such solutions are rarely used due to ever-changing export and import demand imbalances due to preferred customers with long-term contracts based on tender conditions. Except OC 1 and OC 7, which have the largest market shares in the Czech Republic by TEU, the other OCs lack information regarding fleet truck movement and utilisation by tendered and spot road hauliers (Rathousky, 2012). All interviewees stated that most exporters and importers with ever-changing container demand are not willing to adjust their loading and unloading windows to the contracted OC. Empirically, this information confirms the existence of barriers to street turns (Smilowitz, 2006; Song and Dong, 2015), limiting this solution's application (Jula et al., 2003). The responses by OC 1 to OC 5 and OC 7 confirm the limits of container substitution by size and type as an empty container repositioning solution (Chang et al., 2008). In addition, those interviewees were not aware of explicit policies defining the rules and acceptance conditions of substitution of different container types by contracted long-term customers at the local or regional level. The possibility of reuse of empty containers through Internet platforms providing information about containers' location, status, inventory or upcoming export loads to road hauliers or terminal operators was neglected by interviewees since all except OC 7 considered this information to be highly sensitive, in line with Theofanis and Boile (2009). In 2016, OC 7 planned to join the BoxTech Technical Characteristics Database repository developed by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to provide container owners (OCs and leasing companies) and other container shipping industry stakeholders a platform on which to share and exchange technical details about container fleets. A driving force for this initiative was a recent amendment of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulation concerning Verified Gross Mass (VGM) of containers by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) effective from July 2016 (WSC, 2015). Solutions based on container leasing involve long-, medium- and short-term fixed leases (Di Francesco et al., 2009). All interviewees stated that most containers (more than 50% of their TEUs) were owned, a number were on long-term lease (30–40% of their TEUs) for export from and import to the Czech Republic and some (3% of their TEUs, the maximum stated by OC 6) were on short-term lease. The OCs considered long-term leases to last for one to six years, although Theofanis and Boile (2009) considered them to have eight-year terms. In the past, OC 4 and OC 5 actively searched for information about the technological development of containers to improve handling and stacking efficiency. However, they have not had the opportunity to test foldable containers in the Czech market or determine the cost of using foldable containers as such data is not distributed or shared between the companies' regional headquarters (OC 5) or local branches (remaining OCs). Thus, they perceived such solutions as not currently marketable. Otherwise, they would have been already adopted. Finally, the authors can assert that RQ 2 confirms the practical applicability of the foldable container solutions and guidelines presented by Bandara et al. (2015) or Moon and Hong (2016). Simply stated, they are viable once quantitative data regarding container operations is available and shared vertically among shipping industry stakeholders. However, according to the interviewed OCs, such data is

Overall, responses to RQ 3 provided limited data to analyse. While discussing and responding to RQ 3, all interviewees repeatedly used terms such as “ban” (all interviewees two or more times), “competition” (all interviewees at least once, and OC 6 and OC 7 three times), “trade secret” and “information misuse” to describe factors inhibiting data sharing. OC 8 was the only interviewee to state that some information on the availability of empty container equipment is shared with one of its key global customers. In addition, OC 7 stated that several of their global customers consider demand for empty (export) containers on a regional or global level. Thus, the interview responses challenge previous studies' assumption of independency between the demand and supply of empty containers (Altena, 2013; Dang et al., 2013; Olivo et al., 2013). However, it supports Vojdani et al.’s (2013) assumption that a given corporate policy results in a lack of rationalisation and optimisation of container repositioning management by OCs. 5.4. Data collection and distribution and future developments regarding trade imbalances The analysed responses for RQ 4 can be split into two sets. OC 3, OC 6 and OC 8 neither forecast sales nor equipment demand (and related container movements) since their regional headquarters are responsible for those tasks. They discussed the OCs' estimated export and import imbalances in the short term (scope of weeks) and long term (over the period of year), describing inland markets as a “black box”. In other words, they could not confirm whether optimisation tools for determining the status and movement of full and empty containers are employed at the regional or local level. OC 3, OC 6 and OC 8 confirmed, that rail operators regularly report data concerning stacked empty containers from inland terminals to local OC branches. On the contrary, OC 1, OC 2, OC 4, OC 5 and OC 7 actively try to forecast the TEU volume of Czech imports and exports and forward locally available aggregated data to their regional headquarters. They thus have direct access to local market data, allowing them to forecast future development of equipment movement and availability for the whole market as well as those for full containers. OC 1, OC 2, OC 4, OC 5 and OC 7 were not willing to discuss which types of optimisation tools or decision frameworks they use. Therefore, the authors could neither support nor challenge the preconditions for empty container repositioning optimisation tools proposed by Chou et al. (2010) or Epstein et al. (2012). According to the author's findings, the role of local branches is to forecast TEU volume (full container) sales targets for each period in export and import directions. This supports the assumption presented by Karmelić et al. (2012), Theofanis and Boile (2009) as well as Tran and Haasis (2014): demand for full container transport heavily affects OCs' repositioning decisions and strategies. However, these authors address empty repositioning decisions originating from TEU flow forecasting, mostly between sea-accessible regions. They did not consider (or quantify) regional imbalances between export-oriented countries (such as Austria) or import-oriented countries (such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) within landlocked hinterland regions. Only OC 1 and OC 7 apply empty repositioning decision-making and strategies on a local basis. Other carriers simply report aggregated data obtained in the local market to headquarters that are responsible for empty container repositioning management. Those headquarters usually disregard terminal volumes within the country and perceive the whole market as import-oriented. Finally, empirical findings explain why most researchers favour mathematical optimisation approaches without further empirical validation. Simply stated, (big) data is generally perceived by practitioners 79

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putting practical verification of a wide range of optimisation methods based on mathematical modelling on hold. Yet, further research efforts shall complement the limited set of existing inter-organisational empirical studies focusing on vertical collaboration and stressing intermodal repositioning for empty container movement (Konings and Thijs, 2001; Wolff et al., 2012). By addressing the research topic of empty container repositioning at a broader level, the authors draw conclusions regarding empty repositioning management in landlocked hinterlands as well as support or question the replicability of empirical data from the Czech Republic. In the local market, OCs collect data to facilitate strategies and approaches dealing with empty container repositioning optimisation. Unfortunately, their local branch offices lack autonomy management and decision-making capacities in most companies based on analysis of the survey responses.

to be too sensitive to share with anyone else for analysis (Polacek, 2012). This undermines their ability to resolve empty repositioning problems using horizontal or vertical collaborative approaches as data sharing is a key precondition to their mitigation. 6. Conclusions and future research potential Persistent trade imbalances between overseas cargo origins and destinations and empty container repositioning management are increasingly important topics worth of further investigation in research and business practice. The survey results complement the current knowledge about empty container repositioning of standardized maritime containers. The authors focused on a landlocked hinterland, which so far was not covered explicitly in other geographically framed repositioning studies or those focused on sea-accessible hinterlands with different market dynamics. Most of the existing research does not employ empirical data. The authors' objective was to gain information from business practitioners to support or question the preconditions or conclusions presented in previous literature, as outlined in Section 2. The key research value of this contribution is grounded in a detailed discussion and qualitative analysis of the research questions based on collected primary data in Section 5. Moreover, the research findings outline the decision-making structure and management autonomy by OCs at regional and local level of company management not explicitly addressed by the RQs. They are a secondary, yet valuable outcome of the qualitative analysis. Besides, further research on repositioning as a sub-problem of other decisionmaking by OCs is perceived as a field worth of further research investigation. To conduct the complex research on decision-making structure and management autonomy (Gray and Davies, 1981) a study outside of the researched scope shall be carried out. Regarding the limitations of this research, the study analyses primary data collected in one landlocked hinterland market only. The OC market positioning, level of management taking decision-making steps in the repositioning of empty maritime containers and shipping market concentration can differ in other contestable, landlocked hinterlands. It may highly affect the repositioning management dynamics with e.g. Austria as a market with TEU export surplus. Therefore, it is necessary to address the RQs, methodology and related qualitative analysis by expanding the empirical research to other landlocked hinterland markets within and outside the CEE region. The objective will be to compare responses to the RQs with the research study outcomes for the Czech Republic. Apart from OC 1 and OC 7, active OCs in the landlocked Czech container transport market are not known to implement any specific inland or intermodal container repositioning strategy for landlocked markets in the CEE region. This conclusion implies that maritime repositioning (port-to-port) is still by far the dominant repositioning dimension to which the OCs apply strategies. Therefore, it draws the most interest among researchers (Alvarez, 2009; Chao and Yu, 2012; Dong et al., 2013; Notteboom and Rodrigue, 2008). On the other hand, the interviewed OC managers challenge the traditional geographical classifications of maritime, intermodal and inland dimensions, meaning that the inland dimension is an insignificant problem. The research findings question the presumptive independency of demand and supply of empty containers (Altena, 2013; Dang et al., 2013; Olivo et al., 2013). Empirically, this research study complements previous studies proposing barriers to practical repositioning solutions such as street turns (Smilowitz, 2006; Song and Dong, 2015). Using the example of a landlocked hinterland and the empirical findings regarding interrelated RQs, the authors can confirm that OCs do not wish to revise or share their actual empty container management strategies, disregarding the potential and importance of collaborative repositioning approaches. At this point, there is little evidence in research or business practice to suggest that this situation could change,

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