Photo: Rosslare Europort

Managing Director Glenn Carr on Rosslare Europort’s post-Brexit success story

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Brexit has presented a number of challenges for the Republic of Ireland, whether it be the situation in Northern Ireland, or the difficulty of trading with Great Britain now it is outside the single market. However, for Rosslare Europort, the new trading arrangements between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have clearly resulted in a European freight traffic boom.

Freight volumes from Rosslare to the Welsh ports of Fishguard and Pembroke are down by almost a third on pre-2021 levels. However, on routes direct to the European mainland, there has been a whopping 370% increase, which has more than compensated for the aforementioned loss.

The port is being utilized by many more shipping lines than in recent years, and now the facility is looking to make significant investments in order to meet the extra demand for services to and from Europe. This, in turn, is also having a evidently positive effect on the local economy.

In order to get a detailed picture on how Rosslare Europort’s activities have changed in 2021, as well as some perspective on the outlook going forward, we sat down with Glenn Carr, the port’s Managing Director.

In this Trans.INFO exclusive, Mr Carr explains how things have developed at the port since January, and talks enthusiastically about the opportunities the port can take advantage of in the future.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to Trans.INFO Glenn. What has changed at Rosslare Europort since Great Britain left the single market at the start of the year?

First of all, we’ve seen a huge increase in our actual sailings and frequency and connections to Europe. Just over a year ago, we would have had 6 services per week to and from Rosslare, which were to Cherbourg with Stena Line.

Today, as we speak, we have direct 28 services to and from Rosslare to mainland Europe, Ro-Ro and passenger services. Brittany Ferries to Bilbao twice a week and to Cherbourg once a week. Stena Line now operates six services. There’s DFDS too, who operate 5 weekly sailings each way between here and the port of Dunkirk.

So there’s been an almost fivefold increase in the amount of services in and out of Rosslare. It’s primarily driven by the demand in Ireland and Europe from the logistics and freight side of things, and the changes that we’ve seen since Brexit with the supply base.

A lot of people were unsure as to whether the direct services to the European mainland would hold up. There was a theory that a significant amount of traffic would return to the landbridge once the Brexit border situation had normalised. However, we are now almost 10 months into this new reality, and it seems that the direct services to Europe remain very popular. Is that what the figures are telling you?

Yes, we’re actually up just over 58% in terms of the freight through Rosslare Europort compared to the same time last year. That’s a real increase in traffic there.

UK remains -30%, but continental freight is up a whopping 370%+, and that has been quite steady now. In fact, last week DFDS announced they were putting on 30% extra capacity by bringing in a bigger vessel in the Regina. That was booked out straightaway on the first sailing.

On top of that, earlier this month a terminal at Dunkirk was even renamed Port Irlande. DFDS were present, as were ourselves. I think that shows a change in commitment, and a reaction to what has happened.

On the landbridge, It’s difficult to get a real picture, because both ourselves and Dublin are down roughly about 30%. However, Belfast is reportedly up 18 to 20%. So there is a slight disproportion of displacement traffic that could be using the landbridge and going into Northern Ireland because of the lighter touch on checks that happens there. Some of that traffic may then migrate south.

We have received signals, both from the industry in terms of the actual exporters and importers, but also the haulage sector – there’s a very consistent message that removing the risk of using the landbridge is much more aligned with their business model.

Also, I think another significant factor has been the driver shortage. There’s a real concern regarding the ability to use the landbridge, even if it is somewhat simpler, on the pure basis of drivers not being available. Drivers are telling their employers that they would much prefer and enjoy the direct services rather than go through the landbridge.

I think the experience that happened pre-Christmas last year is still very fresh in the minds of the drivers – the number of days that they may have been left in Dover etc. The employers of these drivers are very conscious of the need to ensure that they retain these people now. Apart from the wages, the quality of life and the enjoyment of the job is very important.

We listen to the conversations and they say that their preferred option is to go direct. So the industry is saying they want to go direct and so are drivers. At the moment, certainly the haulage sector are saying they’d like to see more services, more frequency and more choice.

The big game changer for us here in Rosslare was the new service with DFDS. At the time, that shaped the market, and we’ve seen some of the other shipping lines react positively as well, notably Brittany Ferries and Stena Line.The service that’s going into Dunkirk at the moment has an average of 95% utilisation. So those vessels are full every time they leave, and there’s still traffic on standby that is looking for alternative routes, or more scenarios to avoid having to go through the landbridge. So if anything, from this week, what I took away was that there’s still opportunity to further grow the direct services, and even provide more choice and service for exporters.

What freight patterns are you seeing emerge at the port at this moment in time?

We’re in the roll-on-roll-off market, really critical just-in-time, farm and food, agri, construction – very high end product, and very much in the just in time.
Rosslare Europort is the number one now in Ireland for the direct Ro-Ro services. The demand is very much in that space. The big industry players in food, farming, and construction, as well as the FMCG operators, are saying that the direct route really works for them, but they want the assurance of scalability. That means having more capacity.

We don’t have a lot of spare capacity on some of our routes, because they’re fully booked all the time. From what I’m hearing, the challenge for the shipping lines is the availability of vessels at this point in time. So there’s a shortage of the right vessels because you want vessels that potentially can offer you the opportunity for tourism as well.

We’re also a passenger port, and we’ve had little or no passenger traffic while we’ve had a huge increase in freight traffic. I’ve no doubt that the shipping lines will want to offer attractive services for the passenger if that increases revenue or profitability. Equally, they’ve got to balance that with the freight, and that means having bigger vessels that can accommodate both passenger and freight, or having a mixture of assets that can provide passenger/freight and unaccompanied freight options. For instance, what we’re seeing is a shift in the freight traffic from accompanied. In January it was heavily accompanied because there was an immediate switch from the landbridge. We’re seeing the unaccompanied grow now though, which is a real positive sign.

I think companies are seeing that the direct routes are working well and are looking to see how they can better improve both the cost and the efficiency. Therefore, they’re looking into unaccompanied freight more.

Again, the driver shortage really heavily plays its part here. Some hauliers tell you that it’s great, maybe just do a short run from a warehouse to the port. The driver gets home every evening. They’re not terribly unsociable hours, the freight unit moves on the vessel and then is picked up by a partner in Europe.

So there’s quite some innovative things happening on the ground as well as a result of the direct sailings. I think it’s a really positive sign when companies are looking at how to better the whole operation around those direct sailings. To me this indicates a real shift in their supply chain and logistics, because they’re looking further down the line now.

Has the amount of freight moving between Rosslare Europort and mainland Europe peaked? Is there scope for even more sailings?

We would support more frequency and more capacity. Indeed, where possible, maybe another connection into northern France or just beyond northern France.

Dunkirk is quite unique as well with the A16 – the ease at which you can go to that port and straight onto a major motorway that connects into the spine of all the motorways around Europe.

I think over the last number of years, maybe the exporters or importers weren’t too concerned about the logistics because they left all that with their haulage partner. They are heavily involved in it now though.

I know some hauliers who may prefer to go through the landbridge because of their business model, but are now being told that they must operate through the direct service. So some big companies have instructed their haulage partner to go direct and not through the landbridge.

A big part of my job in the last few years has been to bring traffic to the port and to attract shipping companies to the port. Two years ago, we were dependent on two customers; Stena Line and Irish Ferries. We were and still are very grateful for those two customers.

When you only have two customers, and one of those makes a decision like the one Irish Ferries did, which was to go out of Dublin to France, that had a really significant impact on our business.

So I was determined to make sure we got more shipping lines in. The catalyst that has given us the opportunity to negotiate in terms of shipping schedules and the services we can offer, has certainly been Brexit.

The run up to Brexit was quite concerning in that we were not seeing enough of what we knew was going to be happening with direct services. We couldn’t get some of the shipping lines to see the big picture. At the same time, the industry was asking for direct services, but they weren’t in existence.

There were days when there were no direct Ro-Ro services, even to France, during the week. That’s just not a good service offering, and that’s why a lot of companies weren’t using direct services back then. Quite frankly, the services being offered were not frequent enough and more people want frequent daily services with choice.

We’ve tried to deliver that at Rosslare Europort for the exporters and importers of the country. I think now we’ve got the frequency and the choice, we’ve seen traffic migrate now into Rosslare purely on the basis of the product offering.

There are some days that we might have three services out from various shipping operators. The good thing is that if the haulier misses that first sailing, they have the option of the next sailing or the one after. This means that more traffic is still coming into Rosslare. The more traffic we can convince to come to Rosslare, the better it is for all shipping lines coming into the port.

The big issue when I came into this industry was that we had a lot of capacity on the Irish Sea, but there’s no point in having that capacity if the customer doesn’t want it. What the customer wanted was frequency and daily sailings.

It’s great now that we have 28 every week to and from Rosslare for our customers. That’s what they want. As I said, we could do more. I’m very hopeful that we will deliver more, because it gives everybody some choice. It also gives competition and efficiency.

Given the significant increase in activity at Rosslare Europort, will you be looking to make some investments to better meet the rise in demand for freight traffic coming in and out of the port?

Yes, absolutely. First of all, Rosslare was an underutilized port, so we had a lot of capacity on our berths. In fact, we were probably only utilizing around 30% of our berths. We’ve three berths in Rosslare, so we had capacity straight away. Perhaps unlike Dublin Port, which is heavily congested and has real restrictions now in terms of space, Rosslare was underutilized. We can relieve Dublin of some of the congestion it’s currently experiencing. The outside of the port is also very important, and the road network is getting upgraded. So you’re looking at under 90 minutes from Rosslare to Dublin now. The Cork and Limerick motorways have all been upgraded too, so you can get to Rosslare quite quickly. Moreover, in order to deal with the current growth in traffic and future growth in traffic, we are starting a 14 million euro expansion involving a redesign of our port, plus enlargement of our import/export yard and storage facilities.

We’re also looking to extend one of our berths to have it ready for the largest vessels that might be out there in both the roll-on-roll-off and passenger markets. The other thing is technology. Rosslare and a lot of ports are very manual. We’re hopefully about to sign contracts in the next few weeks with a major software provider. We’re investing just over 2 million euros in technologies with regards to the digitalization of the port. Things like automatic check in and automatic traffic routing. We want to track and trace all of the activity in the port through one system, and have multi-user gates for freight and passengers. We believe technology can be a real enabler for the port.

One of the unique things we’ll be doing, particularly on the freight side or a gating system is, having technology with the ability to know in advance as you approach the gate, exactly what unit you are, what vessel you’re going on and route you to where you should park in so we can get you on the vessel as quickly as possible. With unaccompanied freight it’s the same; you could leave your unit or your trailer in a dedicated area that is then linked with our tug masters and drivers, who very efficiently know when to pick up that trailer and drop it onto the vessel.

We believe the technology that we’re going to be implementing over the next 18 months shall be some of the most leading edge technologies to be deployed.

Importantly, all the technology is already there. If you go to the airport, or anytime you go to an Amazon warehouse, that technology is already there.

We’re working closely with the shipping lines on this and with the stakeholders in the port. As I say, we hope to have that technology rolled out in line with our plan to build a new freight entrance, new customer areas, as well as new import and export yards.

We are also looking for a secondary investment. Rosslare Europort is geographically the closest port to mainland Europe and the UK, and it’s going to be the closest to where the offshore wind and energy development shall be happening in the Irish and Celtic sea.

We will bring forward a proposal to the Irish government to make Rosslare Europort the wind energy hub with regards to the infrastructure that the developers of the offshore wind farms require to do the assembly, storage and construction of these turbines.

Offshore wind will bring many other activities and investment to the region. What would be critical is that the port has the right infrastructure in place. I’m talking about how to deepen the port to perhaps go to 11 metres, creating a dedicated quayside berths of over 400 metres to accommodate multiple vessels, and probably create an additional 50 acres of available quayside storage space for the storage and construction of the turbines.

I get the impression that the boost in the level of activity at the port has brought a bit of extra buzz to Rosslare. Have the changes that have taken place this year had a noticeably positive impact on the local economy?

Yes, we’ve seen new jobs as well which is great. We’ve seen substantial investment by the government and the state agencies too. For instance, the Gardaí customs control. We’ve had to put in a temporary facility for Brexit in regards to trade with Great Britain, which is still really important for us, both from a freight and a customer point of view.

We shouldn’t lose sight of Great Britain, it is still the nearest country to us albeit our closest EU neighbour is now France. UK routes, both passenger and freight, are very important for us.

We have 4 sailings every day with Stena and Irish Ferries to Fishguard and Pembroke. Passengers have started to come back on those services in particular. I know that freight will grow again, albeit in a different way and subjected to very different rules.

We’ve seen a lot of new jobs created in the port, albeit from Brexit. Not only ourselves, but also other businesses in the area. There’s been an upsurge in activity and people are very excited about the future of the passenger business because the new connections that we have into Europe, such as to Spain, are going to be quite attractive.

Tourist passengers bring money into the region and into the local economy. So yes, the port is an engine driver for the region. It’s great now that the port is able to deliver on its potential.

If the offshore wind is available, you’re then moving on to a whole new level altogether in regards to regional enterprise too.