Port in a storm - Rosslare out to catch Brexit tide
The port is 'easy to get to and easy to get out of', but its strategic location to Europe needs to be maximised more
When Irish Continental Group (ICG) announced its decision not to run its Irish Ferries services this summer to France from Rosslare, Co Wexford at the end of last year, the move was met with both surprise and shock in the south-east port.
After all, the company's new 'cruise ferry', the WB Yeats, which can carry more than 1,800 passengers and 1,200 vehicles, had just arrived in Ireland after a delay and there were great expectations that ICG would put the boat on its Rosslare to Cherbourg, France route.
Instead, ICG decided to operate the ferry service from Dublin Port to Cherbourg, lured by the scope for additional business in the capital.
Irish Ferries is still operating its Rosslare-to-Pembroke service while Stena runs from the south eastern port to Fishguard as well as to Cherbourg.
But if many were stunned by the move, for some in the Rosslare business community it was a progression for Irish Ferries that should have been anticipated.
According to Damien Roche, managing director of Rosslare-based Roche Logistics Group, which he co-owns with his brother Conor, it was simply a numbers game for IGC.
"I wasn't surprised from a commercial point of view. It has shareholders to answer to. The company did the maths and it went with the traffic," he said.
Roche Logistics employs 52 people in Rosslare and 30 at its Swansea depot and runs an average of over 200 trailers weekly between Rosslare and Fishguard.
Roche has a point. Not only is the capital the end point for the country's motorways, but Dublin Port passed its millionth freight trailer unit last year while the Rosslare equivalent was about 140,000.
Rosslare versus Dublin Port is a classic David and Goliath story and, in many ways, the future of the former is unclear despite investment plans for it by its operator Irish Rail and its strategic position with access to mainland Europe.
According to the port's general manager, Glen Carr, there's a €25m investment plan in train for the port over the next five years.
"We're in the final design phase of our infrastructure plan, which will be finished in October. This involves traffic planning and port reconfiguration for border inspection as well as higher capacity.
"Other developments include the expansion of berths - increasing the length of the third berth from 190m to 220m so it will be able to accommodate longer ships - that's the future. We are future-proofing the port and creating more space at the quay side."
In addition to the Irish Rail investment, the Office of Public Works has purchased a 16-acre site near the port, formerly it was a car-distribution centre once owned by businessman Bill Cullen.
It will be used as a temporary facility to carry out checks on UK imports in the event of a no-deal Brexit. While the site is not considered ideal as a border and inspection checkpoint, as it is 2km away from the port, there are plans to build a centralised compound at the Europort that would include 13 inspection bays for trucks coming off ferries and ships, and a parking facility for 35 trucks as well as a border post for live animals.
However, the construction of this will not be finished for a number of years, it is understood.
"Investment from the agencies has been really important to us. All of these agencies will be in one compound at the port, which means a very efficient experience for the customer.
"Our investment plan also involves a €1.5m investment in the digitalisation of the port, automating it. This will speed up check-in facilities and link in to customs and revenue clearance systems," Carr said.
There are also plans for a new road entrance to the port and an extension of the motorway to Rosslare, which is also seen as a way to avoid congestion at Dublin Port post-Brexit.
According to Carr, Rosslare is running at 40pc capacity, so there is plenty of scope for further business post-Brexit and the port is also looking at other opportunities including the energy market.
"We're talking to players in the offshore energy market. Cherbourg has gone into the wind-energy market, Rosslare has the potential to handle the turbines while Dublin doesn't. It could be a great opportunity for us," said Carr.
While Carr is keen to highlight the future of the port, other business people are as concerned about what's happening there now as they are about what the future holds and whether the investment is enough to bring it to the next level.
Irish Road Haulage Association president Verona Murphy, who is based in Wexford, said that while there has been much talk about plans over the past few years, Rosslare never really recovered after the most recent recession.
She added that it has suffered from underinvestment since then, while the port's strategic location needs to be maximised more.
"Let's face it, it's our nearest gateway to the Continent. And with the New Ross and Enniscorthy bypass expected by the end of the year, it will make a big difference access-wise as they were big bottlenecks.
"We need to spread the economic growth and utilise what we have. We can complement Dublin too. Rosslare needs huge investment and has been overlooked in the past, but Brexit has brought to the fore that it is the most strategically-located port when it comes to Europe," she said.
"Dublin is choc-a-bloc. From a hauliers perspective, particularly for Europe, Rosslare is a far better option.
"We need to look at staggered sailings, as is the case in Dublin. We also need to find an operator to take up the vacancy left by Irish Ferries but we need to find that now. I am actively looking at the moment for that. There's nothing from Rosslare to Cherbourg on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday although I realise one of those days will never have a sailing, usually the Monday, because of scheduling,"
For his part, Carr also said the port is actively looking at a way to replace the vacuum left by the Irish Ferries move.
He said that the port's revenues have also taken a hit to the tune of €1.2m as a result of the Irish Ferries move too, but remains profitable. It recorded a net profit of €2.7m last year.
Murphy added that the port's connection with Irish Rail has meant that instead of reinvesting profits back into the port it is being spent on the rail network -a point echoed by Roche.
But Carr said that this would not be the case going forward and that the company is committed to reinvesting profits back into the port business as part of its new investment plan.
"In addition, during the recession, the subvention to the railway was cut dramatically. The profits at Rosslare will be going to the port as part of our plan. Rosslare is a division within Iarnrod Éireann/Irish Rail," he said.
One area where there is agreement among stakeholders on Rosslare's future is that the port could benefit from complementing its bigger neighbour, Dublin.
"We should be looking at this more strategically, and business coming out of south Dublin should be going to Rosslare. Look at our emission targets, surely there's an argument for a rail link for container business if it was viable. It's being done on the continent. We could complement Dublin Port. We should have been doing it for years.
"In addition, lo-lo services could be developed in Rosslare - but we're talking big bucks. We could be talking €100m of an investment," said Roche.
While all agree investment in Rosslare is key to the port's future, one issue that may be weighing on it in the past is its complicated ownership structure, according to Murphy. She added that it might be better served if it were run by a dedicated port authority, as is the case in Dublin.
While Rosslare Europort is operated as a division of Irish Rail technically the port forms part of the Fishguard and Rosslare Railways and Harbours Company, which is a 19th century joint venture company comprising Irish Rail in Ireland and Stena Line in Fishguard.
A report for the Department of Transport in 2017, produced by Indecon, found that the creation of an independent port authority to run Rosslare would be difficult given its complicated legal structure.
"Legislation stipulates that Iarnrod Éireann/Irish Rail is the operator of Rosslare Port and in order to change that we would require a UK Act of Parliament.
"In these times that can be done. We have the Common Travel Arrangement, we have a good enough relationship with our nearest neighbours," said Murphy.
According to Carr, the ownership structure is irrelevant once you have commitment from the board on investment, but one key opportunity is Brexit.
Currently an estimated 85pc of our road freight goes through Dublin Port. While Rosslare will soon benefit from stronger, more direct road links to the capital and is closest to continental Europe and there will be more appetitive for direct sea routes if the land bridge is cut off post-Brexit, he added.
"For example, for time-sensitive goods currently going via the land bridge to Europe, there's an estimated 150,000 trailers, and at a minimum 35,000 of these could shift for direct sailing from Ireland.
"That works out as an additional one ship a day, again at a minimum," he said. "Our message is that Rosslare is easy to get to, easy to get into and easy to get out of."
Rosslare: By the numbers
Rosslare Europort investment plan
Rosslare Europort net profit last year
The hit to the port’s revenues following Irish Ferries’ decision to move its Cherbourg sailing to Dublin for 2019
Irish Ferries’ investment in WB Yeats