As wheeled cargo presents unique characteristics and challenges, both ports and vessels have had to innovate to accommodate seamless transportation. The presence or lack of ramps or ferry slips and onboard or dockside cranes is a vital factor on this front, which facilitates or hinders loading methods. Therefore, RoRo and LoLo, two different loading methods, are often compared in terms of their efficiency in handling wheeled cargo. Both offer distinct advantages as well as drawbacks. This article intends to explore those aspects, so as to help readers decide which suits them best.
RoRo and LoLo: loading methods and vessels
To begin with the definitions, RoRo stands for Roll-on/Roll-off, while LoLo stands for Lift-on/Lift-off. As loading methods, RoRo means workers drive cargo on and off ships, while LoLo means cranes are used to lift the cargo. RoLo also exists, combining the two as cargo is driven on and lifted off, but it’s more niche and case-specific than either.
Notably, however, the terms refer to both loading methods and vessels. RoRo ships typically come with ramps or slips that allow workers to drive wheeled cargo on and off them. Conversely, LoLo ships come with on-board cranes or similar handling equipment that let them handle cargo unassisted. For this reason, LoLo ships are also often called geared vessels.
As loading methods, both RoRo and LoLo have historically seen uses for a wheeled cargo of various types. While LoLo remained prominent for car transportation during the first half of the 20th century, RoRo became a viable alternative due to carrier advancements. Both are viable options today, with distinct advantages and disadvantages that address global trade challenges differently.
The aforementioned carrier advancements have yielded many different types of RoRo vessels over the years. By definition, RoRo vessels facilitate RoRo as a loading method to various degrees and meet specific transportation needs.
ConRo vessels are hybrid ships, hence the name; they combine the features of RoRo and Container ships. Such vessels accommodate both containerized and unitized wheeled cargo, on deck and below-deck respectively. For the purpose of transporting automobiles, internal ramp systems keep cars separated from other vehicles.
RoPax (roll-on/roll-off passenger) vessels are RoRo vessels that facilitate both wheeled cargo transportation and passenger accommodation. This term is mostly technical, however, as vessels with both a RoRo car deck and passenger facilities are often referred to as cruise ferries.
PCC and PCTC
PCC (Pure Car Carrier) is a type of vessel that is specifically designed to only carry cars. Conversely, PCTC (Pure Car and Truck Carrier) vessels allow transportation of cars and trucks, and can also accommodate other types of traditional four-wheeled vehicles.
Another hybrid vessel type, RoLo (roll-on/lift-off) vessels feature vehicle ramps as well as cargo decks that require cranes to access. Therefore, while they can serve as RoRo vessels, they may also accommodate cargo that requires cranes to be lifted off.
By definition, LoLo vessels facilitate LoLo as a loading method. They thus allow for various types of containerized cargo outside of unitized automobiles, as their on-board cranes facilitate non-RoRo cargo loading.
While many types of ships can serve as RoRo vessels, geared vessels are the primary, de facto LoLo vessels. They are cargo ships that come equipped with on-board cranes to lift cargo on and off the ship. They are therefore independent of dockside equipment, unlike container ships.
RoRo and LoLo: comparing the loading methods
As highlighted previously, both RoRo and LoLo have distinct merits as loading methods. It is notable, however, that LoLo better fits the ecological import standards many countries, as well as the European Commission, have adopted. Nonetheless, one should generally best decide on using either loading method on a case-by-case basis.
A primary factor where RoRo and LoLo differ is the associated costs. RoRo is generally more cost-efficient and cheaper, requiring a less complicated logistics chain. It also entails lower unloading fees, as it does not come with container handling fees as LoLo does. However, LoLo tends to also be comparatively safer, so additional insurance costs may somewhat shrink the gap.
Conversely, insurance aside, LoLo might be cheaper for some shippers - but only under specific circumstances. In the comparative study of Ro-Ro & LoLo operating systems he coordinated, Julio Martínez Alarcón argued that LoLo “is generally a less expensive system”. He continued by noting, however, that that is only the case if one’s logistics chain includes rail transport “and concerns high-volume cargo”. Furthermore, he added, “[t]he LoLo system also offers a higher load capacity”, which may make LoLo more appealing cost-wise in cases of mixed cargo shipments.
In terms of safety, then, LoLo is generally the safer option. Wheeled cargo enjoys fewer protections in RoRo, as it must remain unlocked and be driven on and off the vessel. This need for workers to drive them on and off vessels increases the risk of accidents and damage, while LoLo minimizes such risks. Unitized wheeled cargo also sees exposure to the elements on vessels’ decks, as opposed to LoLo where containers offer protection.
Of course, both RoRo and LoLo are generally safe loading methods; some argue the safety risks are inconsequential. However, most agree that LoLo is the comparatively safer option.
In terms of convenience, RoRo has a distinct advantage. The process of loading and unloading wheeled cargo by driving it is much less time-consuming than using cranes to do so. This makes RoRo undeniably faster, and thus especially appealing in cases of high value-added products. In turn, this lets said wheeled cargo or products make it to their final destination much more quickly than LoLo would allow.
Port availability and constraints
Notably, LoLo has a specific, albeit circumstantial, advantage in terms of port availability. The vast majority of ports have the equipment to handle LoLo shipments, regardless of port size and country. In contrast, some smaller ports and countries do not permit RoRo shipments for a variety of reasons.
Lastly, LoLo is unquestionably more eco-friendly, as RoRo entails more CO2 emissions by default. Thus, between RoRo and LoLo, the latter is more future-proof in regards to green regulations and shipping guidelines. Due to it being greener by nature, it is not unlikely that LoLo may become a more competitively viable option over RoRo in the coming years.