A €15m plan to transform Rosslare Europort into a smart port capable of meeting the needs of a post Brexit world was announced at the monthly meeting of Wexford County Council.
Port General Manager Glenn Carr said a report on the future of the port has been completed.
'I am one year in the job and I am aware that over recent years there have been concerns at a local and county level and from other stakeholders about the direction Iarnrod Eireann have taken the port, which is designated a Tier 2 port, It has 77 Iarnrod Eireann staff and 80 more staff.
'We have just completed a detailed analysis on Rosslare and its future to see the opportunities and look at the challenges. When I walked into the terminal building I wasn't happy to see what I saw. It's about having a bit of passion about the port and having a place that looks and feels right. I am very aware of the history of the port. We have a sensible, practical plan and I am focussing on getting new business into the port.'
The roll-on, roll-off and passenger side of the business accounts for most activity at the port, he said. 'Irish Ferries and Stena Line account for 98 per cent of all revenues. It's one of my concerns as if either company changes direction in their strategies it will have an impact on the port. It's unique in that it is owned, managed and fully operated by CIE. There are a few hundred auxillary jobs dependent on the port. As Dublin becomes more and more congested there are opportunities for Rosslare as we are easier to get in to and out of.'
He said the loss of an Irish Ferries French service to Dublin Port recently was a blow.
Calling for a further upgrade of the road into Rosslare Harbour and a new entrance, Mr Carr said a new custom's building is needed further away from where the boats dock. 'The Customs building is very close to the berths so when there is a lot of checking going on trucks get backed up. With Brexit any lorries carrying food or animal products are going to be shipped and checked. We just wouldn't have enough room to handle and quickly turn around ships post-Brexit, so we are looking to upgrade Rosslare to a border inspection port as up to 70 per cent of vehicles are carrying food or animal product. People are talking about custom checks but its the agri checks that are going to be quite onerous once Britain leaves the EU. Technically we don't have the space in Rosslare.'
Alluding to a unique ownership issue with the port which would involve changes of legislation in the British houses of parliament, he said it should not prevent the port - which manages 4.1 per cent of the tonnage entering and exiting the country - from growing. 'We have a 4ac site (to be) acquired by the OPW to help get Rosslare upgraded to a border protection port. The low cost of local land is a plus.'
He said Rosslare has been analysed to death over the years. 'I am optimistic the recent study has focussed on commercial opportunities for the port with a practical look at the share of the market. I think the best chance for the region is to work with the other ports together. Between Waterford Port (Belview) and Rosslare you'd have 7.7 per cent of the national tonnage.'
Describing Brexit as a game changer, he said port management shouldn't just focus on Brexit, adding that he has been advocating for the port to be made a border inspection port.
'We are only utilising 38 per cent of all berths,' he said, saying the port could run at a 60 per cent capacity.
In ruling out the possibility of a new berth which would cost around €90m, Mr Carr announced a plan to lengthen the berths. 'In the next three to five years we plan on lengthening berths three and four to 220m from 190m and to put in another double line span. Ships will be double tier going forward and longer than the ships we have now. Dublin Port will continue to grow and attract business but there is certainty a role for Rosslare to play. We are the closest port to the UK and to sail to Europe. We have roll-on, roll-off expertise so we should be able to attract more.'
Mr Carr said preparation work for lengthening the berths is beginning.
'I don't believe Rosslare should be paying for it. It's for the good of the state should it should be Government investment but the Government's policy is not to invest in ports. We have to raise the capital. I am meeting the NTMA this week about funding options for Rosslare. With the customs building you have 20 cars or 15 trucks stuck in traffic once they exit the ferry. We don't have to deepen the berth. We have looked at projected shipping trends over the coming 15 years. '
He said Rosslare Europort needs to modernise to stay competitive.
'Rosslare is a totally manual port. We need to make it a smart port with vehicle recognition technology.'
Mr Carr said the port has not been promoted enough.
'We're about to appoint a business development and sales manager whose job will be to go out and promote the port and sell it. We have brand advertisements hitting trade boards and shipping lines.'
He said €1.6m has been invested in the port this year, between improving the Terminal building, upgrading systems and link spans. 'We'll invest €1.8m every year for the next five years just to stay in the game.'
The port's turnover was €10.7m last year, turning a profit of €2m.
'I spent €2.8m in the past 14 months. Running a port is not cheap but there have seven years when we haven't invested. Iarnrod Eireann has no money. Seven years ago it was facing into insolvency. I am very confident in the plan which we presented to the board last week.'
Projecting a €15m spend on the port over the coming years, including a €1.5m IT upgrade, he said an additional €45m will be needed to improve the road network accessing the port.
Aiming for 20 per cent growth in port traffic over the coming years, Mr Carr added that investment is needed in the port's 'footprint' to make this possible.
'We are only utilising 38 per cent of the current berths. I can take three or four extra ships a week without any real pressure coming on.'
Estimating the cost of the road and customs, agriculture and immigration controls at €45m, Mr Carr said: 'Things are a little confusing with Brexit but Rosslare is to be recommended for a significant facility upgrade with customs facilities. We need a new road into Rosslare for this to work. Rosslare has to be easy to get in to and out of. There are enough challenges already present. We need to make up the time on the road and the delay drivers face in Dublin. We have to create a smart port that is very slick, but at the same time be very respectful of the checks and balances that various departments have to conduct post-Brexit.'
He is preparing for a transition deal and a no deal scenario. 'It's a three year build for the facilities. I have made representations and had representatives from France come from the EU to give consideration for Rosslare to be upgraded to a tier 1 port on the basis that in these unusual times with Brexit but consideration could be given for the likes of Rosslare due to an isolated Ireland post-Brexit that funding for tier 1 status should be granted for Rosslare. There is a big challenge with other ports in the EU making the same argument. At this point in time no shipping line is willing to make a move as everyone is waiting to see what happens in the market.'
New shipping lines to France and Holland are being explored, he said.
'Production and transport schedules might have to change. We are in there promoting Rosslare to attract new shipping lines into the future. Among the markets that can be expanded include wood, agriculture, steel, trade vehicles, renewable energy.'
Council CEO Tom Enright said Rosslare Europort welcomed the investment Mr Carr has made and has committed for the port, adding: 'it's good to see profits are going back into the port and not used to prop up a railway company. I met the chairman of Irish Rail last Friday to discuss Rosslare Europort and the rail service to Dublin. The ownership issue shouldn't hamper the port's progress.'
Mr Enright said there was a report prepared in 2013 that went to cabinet in 2014 and it hasn't seen the light of day.
Cllr Malcolm Byrne said Rosslare Europort is not just important in terms of the area but also in a national and European context. 'We have to prepare for the worst. If the land bridge (through Britain) is no longer an option given what may be coming down the tracks can Rosslare meet that capacity?'
Cllr George Lawlor said Brexit could be a golden opportunity for Rosslare Europort. He asked if a submission was made for the port's development in the 2040 National Development Plan and was told a previous submission is with the Government and is still live.
Cllr Ger Carthy said the port is a major employer in the region, adding: 'Iarnrod Eireann have had to be dragged kicking and screaming here after ten years of neglect.'
Calling for a 'cast iron' commitment that €1.8m will be reinvested into the port every year, Cllr Carthy was told by Mr Carr that it will be.
'Rosslare Europort benefits from being part of a big CIE family,' he said, adding that Ireland will still trade with Britain post-Brexit. He said the port will be ready for whatever eventuality emerges. 'It's being worked through with shipping lines and with the various departments. A no deal scenario will see a emergency plan kick in. We are working towards the possibility of a transition deal being the most likely outcome.'
He said a new road into Rosslare Harbour is vital to the port's development. 'There is no point in trying to attract a business down when it takes an additional 25 minutes to get into the port. All that matters (to haulage companies) is time and money. You have to make the haulier want to come to Rosslare.'
Cllr Jim Moore questioned the likelihood of the port getting enough funding to carry out its ambitious plans. 'It's very ambitious when you look at your own accounts. €2m profit is not huge money and a smart port is going to cost money.'
He asked if the reticence of new operators to develop routes to the port were land or water based, and was told land. Cllr Pip Breen said Wexford County Council has made a submission for the port's development to be included in the 2040 National Development Plan.
Mr Carr said a border inspection post in Rosslare would have to be granted by the EU. Quarantine, cold storage facilities, veterinary buildings and inspection laboratories would all have to be built. 'Rosslare doesn't have these facilities,' he said, adding that trucks will be stopped for around two and a half hours. 'These are sizable checks at a physical facility. One of the advantages of Rosslare is we have the space to have a one stop compound which would be a bit unique. The guards, the customs and Revenue will all have to work together but will all have different agendas. We'll need consultants about traffic management.'
He said: 'We have to be ambitious but careful in our growth. We are looking at 20 per cent growth over the next seven years.'
Mr Carr defended the price companies pay at the port, saying: 'It's not much dearer than Dublin when you factor fuel'. Describing the ring road as absolutely critical, he said: 'Trucks going through the village is not ideal. It should be there for more communal opportunities.
Cllr Larry O'Brien said the biggest problem Rosslare Europort has had has been CIE. 'You are doing your best to get hauliers to go to Dublin, two and a half hours up the M50. Wexford is one of the biggest haulier operated employers in all of Ireland. You are insisting on the new road. There is no traffic jam to the port in Rosslare; there hasn't been for years. You have lost 20 to 35 per cent of your hauliers to Dublin and it wouldn't take a genius to know that a brand and marketing manager is needed. I can't understand how a company can sit back and look at all the business going out of Rosslare.'
He said it is nothing new to Rosslare to have a customs checkpoint.
Cllr Lisa McDonald said she was disappointed by the plan, criticising its lack of ambition. 'These type of plans will never allow the port to develop to its full potential. It's very much on life support down there. I welcome the passion with which you speak about the port. We need to push no to bring the port from a tier 1 to a tier 2 port. You are a railway authority; what Rosslare needs is a port authority.'
Cllr Oisin O'Connell said: 'We have a real treasure on or hands. Who knows what a Warren Buffet would make of it if he were here,' calling for more joined up thinking between the port and Irish Rail.
When asked if more cruise ships could be attracted into the port, Mr Carr said the port makes no money from them, before adding they are worth attracting as they boost visitor numbers into the county. 'We had a cruise ship in 2016 and half of the people who left the ship said it was disappointing,' he added.
Mr Carr said Fishguard port also needs to be improved. Cllr Robbie Ireton suggested that advertising space could be rented out in and around the port to tourism businesses in the county.
Mr Carr said the terminal building has been revamped. 'We have painted it and we have a new cafe and we've been in contact seeing if some high profile restaurant will take over the restaurant we had that closed as it's very important to get life into the place. That area will be done next as part of the refurbishment.'