At the midway stage in 2022, unitised traffic volumes – made up of finished goods such as food, clothing and manufactured products – are performing strongly, according to the Irish Maritime Development Office.
In the Roll – On / Roll – Off (RoRo) market, Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and the Port of Cork handled a combined total of more than 600,000 units in the first half of the year. This represents 2% growth on 2019, or pre-pandemic, volumes, and means that the RoRo market is now on track to surpass 1.2 million units in 2022, a record annual total.
In the Lift – On / Lift – Off (container) market, traffic volumes are currently at record levels. Dublin Port, the Port of Cork and the Port of Waterford handled 595,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU’s) in the first half of 2022. This represents 11% growth compared to 2019, or pre-pandemic levels, and 1% growth from 2021. The second quarter of 2022 recorded a total volume of over 311,000 TEU’s, the highest quarterly total on record. Like the RoRo market, the LoLo market is also on course to record 1.2m TEU’s in 2022, surpassing the annual record set in 2021 of 1.18m TEU’s.
Following the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1st 2021, the IMDO reported on the significant impact this event had on the structure of the unitised freight market on the island of Ireland. Eighteen months into the post-Brexit era, these impacts remain unchanged. The following paragraphs encompass the main shifts that have occurred in unitised freight markets in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The demand from Irish importers and exporters for RoRo services on direct routes between a port in the Republic of Ireland and a mainland European port (e.g. Cherbourg, Rotterdam) rose dramatically. In 2021, the volume of RoRo traffic on these direct services rose by an unprecedented 94%, from 198,000 units per year, to 383,000. This trend has continued into 2022. One in three RoRo units now travels on a direct route between Ireland and a mainland European port, compared to approximately one in six pre-Brexit.
Since the end of the Brexit transition period, RoRo operators have responded to this demand by introducing unprecedented levels of capacity on direct routes. Incumbents announced increases in fleet size, vessel capacity, as well as intensification of existing schedules. In addition, several new routes were introduced. The momentum behind this increase in direct capacity has also continued into 2022. In July, Finnlines, a subsidiary of the Grimaldi group, launched a new RoRo route between Rosslare and Zeebrugge. This investment by another new entrant to the Irish RoRo market reemphasizes the persistent nature of this ‘direct demand.’
Intra – Modal Competition
In the LoLo market, the majority of services from ports in the Republic of Ireland are already on direct routes to mainland European ports, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. Like RoRo operators, LoLo operators have therefore benefitted from the post-Brexit increase in demand from Irish importers and exporters to access EU ports directly, without the need to adhere to new customs requirements at UK ports.
As a result of this change in demand from Irish importers and exporters, intra-modal competition within the unitised freight market (i.e. RoRo Vs LoLo) has increased significantly post-Brexit. Services offered by both operators can be effective substitutes for one another, providing access to central European shipping hubs, meaning operators in both markets compete for similar business.
Loss of Landbridge
Beginning in early 2021, the IMDO has documented the significant declines in RoRo traffic between ports in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain (i.e. ROI – GB). This traffic has consistently been between 15% and 20% below pre-Brexit levels, and this remains unchanged in 2022. This has been driven by the following three factors.
First, a decline in the demand from Irish importers and exporters to make us of the UK road and ports network as a means to access markets in mainland Europe, a route commonly known and the UK Landbridge. This has been the predominant cause of the decline in ROI – GB traffic. This UK Landbridge traffic has, in large part, moved to the direct EU services described above.
Second, a decline in the demand of Northern Irish importers and exporters to make use short sea RoRo services between Republic of Ireland ports and UK ports, particularly Dublin Port, as a means of accessing markets in Southern England and Wales. This can be referred to as the Irish Landbridge. This Irish Landbridge traffic has moved to RoRo services between Northern Irish ports and ports in Great Britain, (i.e. NI – GB), driving record volumes on these routes, and causing further losses for Irish port traffic.
Lastly, the relocation of distribution hubs from Great Britain to mainland European countries has amplified the reduction in ROI – GB traffic. Following the end of the Brexit transition period, several large retail companies with Irish stores have relocated distribution warehouses from areas such as southern England, to areas such as northern France and the Benelux region.
In all of the cases described, the imposition of customs declarations and customs checks on trade between the EU and the UK has underscored these shifts in Irish freight traffic patterns.
The IMDO has noted in previous reporting that Brexit has fundamentally altered the composition of Irish maritime freight traffic. At the midway point in 2022, this remains the case. Direct demand in RoRo and LoLo markets is at record levels, with more new RoRo routes added in the second quarter of 2022. Roro traffic on GB routes continues to record declines of between 15% and 20%, with no immediate signs of a return of Northern Irish traffic or UK Landbridge traffic to pre-Brexit levels at Irish ports.
Overall, unitised freight traffic in Ireland is strong, given the many challenges faced over the past two years. However, economic headwinds such as inflation, high energy costs, elevated containership freight rates, and persistent port congestion at major hubs have meant that the outlook for global seaborne trade is increasingly negative. Despite the extremely high levels of uncertainty, the Irish maritime sector has, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, proven its considerable resilience and adaptability to changing global circumstances. These characteristics may be required again in the latter half of 2022.