A report commissioned by the Irish Government has found that there is already sufficient ferry capacity between Ireland and Continental Europe. It finds that even in the event of disruption to the UK “Land-bridge”, the Irish Government should not need to directly intervene. The challenges posed by both Brexit and Covid-19 are considered.
No evidence was found to show that the current supply of direct capacity to continental Europe is inadequate. The report also finds that the shipping industry is confident in its ability to respond to changes in demand.
Irish Ferries, Stena Line, Brittany Ferries, and CLdN all currently offer direct freight ferry services between Ireland and the European mainland. Additionally, there are a number of direct Lo-Lo (Lift-On-Lift-Off container) services between Ireland and the Continent.
However, the IMDO does recommend that the state continues to monitor the situation. Previously, the Minister for Foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, has stated that the Irish Government is prepared to subsidise direct ferry routes to mainland Europe should it be required post-Brexit.
It is recommended that importers and exporters should be encouraged to contingency plan. The authors also recommended that the government should undertake a further communications campaign immediately.
The report comes following concerns raised publicly by some politicians and members of the haulage and export industries that Ireland does not currently have enough direct ferry links to continental Europe. They fear that should there be disruption to the Land-bridge, there wont be sufficient direct capacity to cope. Disruption is expected even if a trade deal is reached between the UK and the EU due to new processes and procedures.
Impact of COVID-19 on Ferry Services
The report, published yesterday by the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) builds on previous work undertaken by the office in 2018. It also highlights the significant impact COVID-19 has had on the shipping industry. Ro-Ro freight volumes have been down every month this year versus last year, except for July and September.
According to the report, passenger volumes on Irish ferry services fell by 91% versus last year in quarter 2. Services between Northern Ireland and Great Britain fared slightly better with an 83% reduction versus Q2 2019.
While volumes recovered a little in Q3 2019, across all routes they were still down circa 70% on Q3 2019.
Despite a reduction in demand for freight transport to the continent, ferry operators have already added additional freight capacity the report finds. Additional capacity includes three new services added by unaccompanied freight specialist CLdN, a Lo-Lo service from Waterford by BG Freight Line and Hapag Lloyd, and the addition of sailings by Brittany Ferries from Rosslare – Cherbourg and an additional sailing between Cork and Roscoff from March 2021. The latter will add both passenger and freight capacity to that at present.
Surplus capacity, yet demand expected to fall
Having conducted a comprehensive analysis of existing capacity on all of the corridors from Ireland to the UK and Europe, the report concluded that surplus capacity currently exists on all corridors.
However, due to seasonal and economic factors, demand in Q1 2021 is expected to fall significantly from current levels. Presently and historically, more Ro-Ro units have reached the continent from Ireland via direct routes than Land-bridge.
Industry well positioned to respond
In conclusion, the report finds that the shipping industry is well positioned to respond and if necessary add additional capacity to direct continental services.
Indeed, the report states that consultations with the shipping industry have found the industry is confident in its ability to respond to changes in demand. Capacity was already put in place in anticipation of continued growth in freight demand during 2020 which never transpired.
Stena Line is already on record stating that should more capacity be required on its Rosslare – Cherbourg route, it can transfer larger vessels to the service.
Daily service to France
The Swedish company has also come to an agreement at the request of the Irish Government to coordinate its schedules with Irish Ferries on their Ireland to France routes from January. This will mean there will be at least one daily Ireland – France (and return) sailing for 2021. A Stena Line spokesman has also confirmed that its Ireland – France service was only two thirds full during 2019.
One finding of the report is that since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a continued shift to unaccompanied freight transport. Unaccompanied traffic was found to have recovered faster than accompanied, and by June was already seeing larger volumes than during 2019.
The report notes that unaccompanied freight obviates the need for the driver to travel and so mitigates Covid-19 related risks.
Lo-Lo volumes were found to have continued to grow this year, with throughput 6% higher in Q2 2020 than the average volume between 2014 and 2019. This is attributed to importers and exports trialling alternatives to the land-bridge option through the UK.
The report also states that Lo-Lo services have the advantage of being able to add and flex capacity with comparative ease to Ro-Ro, and suitable available ships are generally available for charter.
While Lo-Lo has been expanding in Ireland since 2014, the report finds that volumes from Northern Ireland have remained constant during the same period.
Continued Impact of Covid-19
The authors of the report assume that the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to have an impact on international travel for much of 2021. This is expected to lead to passenger volumes being significantly below those recorded in recent years.
While the freight market has been affected less by the pandemic, the report authors expect freight volumes to be marginally below 2019 levels for the remainder of 2020 and much of 2021.
However, it is also acknowledged that there could be surges in demand as companies increase buffer stocks or to satisfy pent-up consumer demand following periods of travel restrictions or lockdown.
The Future of the Land-bridge
The report acknowledges “increased concern about the future efficacy” of the UK land-bridge after the transition period ends. There is a working assumption that there could be very significant delays at cross-channel ports. It is therefore recommended that Irish importers and exporters have alternative arrangements in-place to ensure reliable routes to market.
However, the report references the previous land-bridge report conducted in 2018 which found that demand for land-bridge services was relatively inelastic for delays of up to 12 hours. It was found that beyond 12 hours delay, of if the land-bridge was no longer an effective route to market for certain users, there may be a greater migration of traffic to alternative routes.
Direct consultation with the shipping industry has shown that the industry strongly believes that Dover – Calais will remain a “vitally important artery for UK trade”. The industry also believes that any operational or administrative delays that are likely for January 1st will be quickly overcome. As a result, the shipping industry itself is confident that the UK Land-bridge will continue to be viable as a route to market for Irish businesses.
The full IMDO report can be downloaded from its website here: https://www.imdo.ie/Home/site-area/news-events/report-department-transport-re-assessment-ireland’s-maritime-connectivity