Multimodalism and Through Transport–Language, Concepts, and Categories

D. Rhidian Thomas | Ost Colloquium: Multimodal Transport

The legal framework of international multimodal transport is tangled and complex, primarily because of the failure to agree on a discreet international convention. By contrast, agreement has been reached on several international and regional unimodal transport regimes. Consequently, the legal position relating to those regimes enjoys greater clarity and certainty, but none is wholly free of difficulties. It is also obvious that the logistics of international multimodal transport manifest a greater and more varied number of performance operations than international unimodal transportation, a factor which further contributes to the prevailing legal and commercial complexity.

In relation to international multimodal transport, there is also a less settled usage as to the appropriate defining language, with such phrases as “multimodal transport,” “combined transport,” “through transport,” and “intermodal transport” used interchangeably and somewhat loosely. In the defunct United Nations Convention on International Multimodal Transport of Goods of 1980 (Multimodal Convention), reference is made to “multimodal transport.” This mode of description appears to be increasingly followed in linguistic usage; though, as a perusal of texts, journals, and law reports will readily confirm, the alternatives are far from disappearing.

The same comment can be made about the drafting and description of transport documents. The language adopted in relation to international multimodal transport bills of lading and waybills, predominantly sea waybills, is again varied. The Multimodal Convention alludes to “multimodal transport documents,” which may be issued in “negotiable” or “nonnegotiable” form. A number of representative examples may also be extracted from current documentary practice in international trade and commerce. MULTIDOC 95 is described as a “Negotiable Multimodal Transport Bill of Lading” and its sea waybill equivalent MULTIWAYBILL 95 as a “Multimodal Transport Waybill”; COMBICONBILL is described as a “Negotiable Combined Transport Bill of Lading” and its nonnegotiable equivalent COMBICONWAYBILL as a “Combined Transport Sea Waybill”; and CONLINEBILL 1978 contains provisions that state that they are “Applicable only when document used as a Through Bill of Lading.”

The question raised in this Article is whether the variety of language observable in the sources, commentaries, and documentation is at all relevant to comprehension and categorisation. Does it indicate conceptual differences and so assist in our understanding of the subtleties of the law, in drawing vital lines of demarcation, in identifying and distinguishing different categories of transportation and transportation documents, and in ascertaining their distinctive legal significance? Or, more simply, is it a symptom of indolence and indifference, a reflection of a wider societal sloppiness to language and the correct use of words, and thus of no particular legal significance? This question has particular relevance to the use and understanding of the descriptive words “through transport,” and addressing this question will be the main focus of this Article. But first a brief comment on the concept of multimodalism.