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trade winds

Rosslare Europort had one of the busiest days in its history this month - thanks to Brexit

European trade volumes are up close 400% in the first nine months of 2021, according to the port.

SATURDAY, 13 NOVEMBER was a record day at Rosslare Europort, says Glenn Carr.

Over the course of the day, almost 1,000 units of freight travelled through the ferry hub, according to the port’s general manager, making it one of the busiest days in the history of the Wexford port.

This level of activity is something that Carr and his team have had to get used to in 2021.

So far this year, the volume of cargo travelling through the Wexford port has ballooned by 55%, according to Carr. Because of an increase in direct trade with Europe, continental freight volumes  — which have skyrocketed by 378%, Carr says — are driving the overall numbers.

Once upon a time not long ago, Stena Line’s Fishguard and Irish Ferries’ Pembroke services, both in Wales, accounted for most of Rosslare’s business.

“Our only services to the continent, going back over 18 months ago, would have been primarily Stena Line’s three services a week to the port of Cherbourg in France,” Carr explains. 

But there are now 30 weekly services operating to and from Rosslare and the continent, compared to just three or so pre-Brexit.

Overall, there are now 44 direct routes from ports in Ireland to continental Europe — up from around a dozen last year.

rosslare-1 Rosslare Europort on 13 November

What’s being captured by these numbers is a major shift in the rhythms of Irish trade, brought about by Brexit.

“Typically, prior to Brexit, you were probably looking at about 120,000 freight units a year going into the port every year and in or around close to a million passengers pre-pandemic,” Carr told The Journal last week.  

But in 2021, Irish importers are bringing in fewer goods from the United Kingdom than they were a year ago. At the same time, indigenous companies are exporting and importing more directly to and from the continent, fueling demand for direct sailings.

As a result, Rosslare — Ireland’s closest sea trading hub to the continent geographically — is now the main Irish port for roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) traffic serving Europe, Carr says. And having fixed its gaze firmly on Europe in recent years, the Iarnród Éireann-operated hub’s importance within the national port network looks set to grow even more over the coming months and years.

Further shocks

Carr took the reins at the port a little over three years when the question of what sort of Brexit, hard or soft, we would end up with was largely unanswered.

At the time, Rosslare had essentially just two customers — Stena Line and Irish Ferries.

While they were “very good customers to us”, Carr says,  Rosslare was massively dependant on their business.

This became abundantly clear when Irish Ferries pulled its Rosslare to France services in 2018, choosing to operate from Dublin Port instead.

Even without the threat of Brexit, it became obvious that the port would have to grow to protect itself from further shocks.

“We undertook a strategic review of the port and we identified a number of core areas that could be developed. One of those was the business role, the actual business itself,” Carr says.

He recalls, “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the fundamental strengths of Rosslare Port?’

And one of the fundamental strengths is that we’re the closest port geographically to Europe. Sailing-wise, you’re quicker getting to the main ports in Europe from Rosslare than any other port in Ireland. So that always struck me as an advantage.
“Obviously, we also saw that with the likely outcome that was emerging from Brexit, the chances were that supply chains were going to change fundamentally because the fundamental point was that Britain was exiting Europe and becoming a third [region].”

The port’s response was to “get out into the market”, Carr says, and aggressively promote Rosslare as an alternative ‘RoRo’ port to Dublin.

‘Roll-on/roll-off’ or RoRo refers to a type of cargo shipping service where trucks or trailers are loaded directly onto the ferry with the cargo they’re transporting, taking the journey along with the goods.

They’re considered quicker and cheaper than ‘Load-on/Load-off’ (LoLo) services — when the truck pulls up to the board and unloads the cargo, which is then loaded onto a container and put on the vessel.

‘RoPax’ services, then, are ones that facilitate roll-on/roll-off cargo transport and also passengers travelling aboard the ferries. 

As a RoPax port, Rosslare saw the passenger side of its businesses devastated by travel restrictions at the outset of the pandemic in March and April 2020. But around the same time, something else was beginning as businesses began to wake up to the potential for Brexit-related disruption.

“I definitely got a sense from around March, April last year, exporters and importers were beginning to look at alternative suppliers,” Carr says.

Rosslare 3 Glenn Carr, Rosslare Europort's general manager

The UK landbridge — which usually refers to a route linking Dublin, Holyhead, and Cherbourg or Le Havre in Northern France — was once considered the cheapest, quickest way to get goods into Ireland from Europe or move them in the opposite direction.

But with Brexit, at that stage, looming over the horizon and with it the prospect of customs checks, additional costs and lengthy queues in Great Britain, alternative arrangements for trading with Europe were quickly becoming very appealing.

Then everything started to change for Rosslare Europort.

Traffic congestion

“In the March before Brexit, Brittany Ferries made a move to come to Rosslare. So that was the first thing,” Carr says.

“Brittany were operating to Spain from Cork but the service wasn’t doing very well and the haulage industry was telling them that they needed to operate from Rosslare.”

Traffic congestion at Dublin and Cork ports in 2019 and the fear that it would only get worse as a result of Brexit had created demand from hauliers for new services from Rosslare, Carr explains.

He says, “We’re just over 90 minutes from greater Dublin. There were times where hauliers were telling me they were 90 minutes in traffic trying to get into Dublin Port.

“So I believed that there was demand — in Dublin and Cork — from hauliers, given their geographical location, who would prefer to come to Rosslare. We proved that then when Brittany Ferries came to Rosslare.” 

After that, things began to snowball. 

Around the same time, Danish shipping company DFDS approached Rosslare about a new direct route from the port to Dunkirk in France. That service got up and running shortly after Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU in January 2021. 

Rosslare 2 Ships lining up ahead of Brexit Day last January

Earlier this month, Brittany Ferries announced a new sailing from Rosslare to Le Havre in Northern France. The port’s existing customers have also increased capacity on direct European routes.

All of this is being driven by demand from Irish businesses and hauliers.

Part of it is companies wanting to avoid the landbridge, Carr says. 

‘There’s definitely been more engagement from both importers and exporters about direct sailings,” says Carr.

That’s on two fronts. One is that the landbridge, which was traditionally the way you went. The reality is now, though, when you add in all the extra preparation, the customs checks that have to be cleared, the risks that you could get stopped at border inspections and the time that’s lost there — when you add that altogether and you look at a direct route, you can basically go hassle-free. So a significant number of companies have directed that their supply chains move away from that immediately.

But the other factor is Irish businesses finding new customers and new suppliers in Europe as an alternative to Britain.

“In particular industries, we’re definitely seeing where traditionally a lot of goods were sourced in the UK or exported to the UK, there’s been a switch to Europe,” he says.

“We definitely see it in the port in terms of the mix of goods that are there now — ingredients, food, dairy, pharmaceuticals.”

In the year so far, Carr says overall freight volumes travelling to and from the UK through Rosslare are down 55% compared with the same period last year. Earlier this month, Dublin Port said its overall UK trade volumes were down 21% while Central Statistics Offices figures published last week revealed overall Irish imports from Great Britain are also down 21%.

He expects these trends to continue in 2022. Asked what his biggest Brexit-related concern is for the coming year, Carr claims he doesn’t have any major ones.

“We would like to see our UK traffic return to a more appropriate level than what it is at the moment,” he says.

“We’ll be working with our shipping lines on what we can do as a port to help them get more trade going. But I don’t have concerns about next year. I have great excitement about further opportunities.”

At some stage next year, the UK is set to finally implement long-delayed checks on goods coming into Great Britain from the EU. 

“We’ll see if that happens,” Carr says, and depending on how that happens, and the degree of what happens, we could see even further substantial demand for additional direct services.”

“We’d like to think, however, that we will find a sensible solution that will ensure we ultimately will always trade with the UK.”  

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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