Contrasting expectations for Irish Rail freight

Too much land at Dublin port is being used for Brexit checks, which has critically impacted rail freight. Meanwhile, in the southern port of Waterford, there is plenty of scope, and the operators are eagerly awaiting new traffic.

The rail freight outlook in Ireland is in free-fall or on an upward trajectory depending on with whom you speak. The post-Brexit scene is sharply divided between traditional east-coast business and thriving southwest ports.

Suspension of rail freight from the port

Dublin Port put aside a tract of land for the expected backlog of road trailers requiring an inspection in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. That led to the partial suspension of rail freight from the port – much to the annoyance of several parties concerned. However, the expected turmoil has not materialised, and operations are running smoothly. On average, only three trailers are being called for physical inspection on each ferry that arrives.

Searching for the rail freight terminal? It’s on the north bank, near the east wall, towards the west of this picture, taken from the south (Dublin Port)

Dublin Port Chief Executive, Eamonn O’Reilly, says the outlook is rosier than forecast. “As each month goes by, the negative impact of the exceptionally weak start to the year post-Brexit is being reduced”, he said. “The effects of Brexit on the pattern of trade through Dublin Port are now becoming clearer with very strong growth of forty per cent on Ro-Ro and Lo-Lo (load on, lift off) services to Continental European ports compared to a decline of nineteen per cent on services with ports in Great Britain. Border inspections on imports from GB are operating very efficiently with no queuing or significant delays.”

Rail freight potential “very low”

Ironically, the Brexit-related congestion at Dublin Port earlier this summer came about due to re-routed traffic arriving directly from the EU and avoiding the so-called ‘land bridge’ via the UK. That put pressure on the port and led to the suspension of rail freight services. A comment to Irish media from Dublin Port warned about uncertainty over the continuation of rail services.

Irish Rail has a modest but modern freight fleet at its disposal. New business would be welcomed from most quarters. (Irish Rail)

The matter is so sensitive to the Irish economy that questions have been raised at the country’s parliament. Transport Minister Eamon Ryan had asked the port for clarification and had been told that the potential for domestic rail freight in Ireland was very low. A memo between the port and the minister, quoted in the Irish Independent newspaper, noted that “viable rail freight operations in Europe typically operate over distances greater than 500 kilometres, which simply didn’t arise in Ireland”.

Irish government strategic review

Almost all forwarding from Dublin Port goes by road at present. However, the Irish Department of Transport contests the scepticism for the future of rail freight on the island. They cite the need to significantly reduce emissions as a new factor. “Rail plays an important role in this regard, as moving more freight to rail would assist in reaching our decarbonisation targets for the transport sector”, reads the department’s statement.

The Irish government is in the process of a strategic review of its heavy rail network. That review, however, is not anticipated for publication before the end of summer 2022. understands that an additional study into the port capacity study is also underway. Meanwhile, Eamonn O’Reilly at Dublin Port said he had no specific issue with rail playing a part in operations. “We are running out of space, and rail takes up an awful lot of space”, he said. “We are not against rail freight, but the challenge we have is the land area we have.”

Waterford facilities under-used

In contrast, the under-used rail facilities at Waterford are set for re-activation. The south coast port generally receives cargo directly from Europe, thereby avoiding any Brexit issues. That has proved something of a bonus for the port – and rail freight prospects.

Not exactly seeing eye to eye. Dublin Port’s Eamonn O’Reilly (right) is sceptical about rail freight’s contribution to the Irish economy, while his counterpart at Waterford, Frank Ronan, eagerly awaits its return this month (Dublin Port and LinkedIn)

The rail terminal – at the deepwater Belview quays – have four rail sidings alongside the berths. The port says they currently can handle both bulk and intermodal cargo. “Our container terminal computer system can handle movements to/from rail as efficiently as with other modes of transport”, says the port’s website. “There is currently capacity for weekly rail services connecting with regional centres – Dublin area and North West Ireland.”

Bulk and intermodal rail capacity

Waterford has historically derived significant income from cruise-related traffic, but Chief Executive Frank Ronan recognises the growth potential from the rail freight facilities. “We are still missing car park and cruise revenue, but overall, we are satisfied with the levels of business performance”, he said. “The under-utilisation of the container terminal capacity remains both our main challenge and a major opportunity. The imminent return of rail freight services at the end of the month is eagerly awaited.”

Irish Rail notes that Waterford’s Belview facilities have had daily movements scheduled. Three bulk trains of wood pulp and two intermodal services have all served Ballina in the North West – the major terminal for that part of Ireland.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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