Dublin Port – A Dublin Heart

How do you increase a port’s capacity without taking up any more space or slowing down the work it is already doing? Dublin Port has the answer.

Dublin is Ireland’s biggest port by some distance. Most of Ireland’s population is on the east coast of the country, and most of the trade for that population comes through this port. The containers and trailers it processes make up 80% of Ireland’s cargo imports. That is including the four million tons of petroleum that come through the port, which represents an entire third of the total energy consumed in the Irish economy, including coal, gas, and renewables.

Right now, the port is undergoing a transformation that will have ramifications for decades to come, and it needs it, as demand is only growing.

The port is being developed on the basis of a plan that spans 30 years up to 2040. We call it Masterplan 2040, rebuilding a lot of existing infrastructure and adding new infrastructure, but all on the port’s existing footprint,” explains Eamonn O’Reilly, CEO of Dublin Port. “We can’t expand outwards, so we are bringing the port to its final capacity by 2040.”

The plan involves implementing a number of “Strategic Infrastructure Development Projects”, one of which is nearly halfway through construction, another of which is about to commence, with a third one going into the planning process next year.

Doing the Work

Of course, because Dublin Port is in the heart of Dublin itself, it can’t simply purchase surrounding land to expand its capabilities, which means some creativity is required to build capacity.

“We’re trying to transfer all the port-related but non-core activities away from the port so we can redevelop the land for containers and trailers,” O’Reilly tells us. “Dublin Inland Port is 14 km away, and we’re moving a lot of non-core activity to the inland port to free up space. We’re rebuilding a lot of old quay walls built in the 20th century which are not fit for purpose. So, we’re strengthening them and deepening them.”

To achieve these goals the Port is spending 80 million euros a year on capital projects, but despite the extensive nature of the work, Dublin Port can’t afford to slow down its day-to-day business.

“The biggest challenge is carrying out all that work in an already busy port that has seen, notwithstanding the crises over the last year, growing volumes of trade,” O’Reilly points out. “We’re trying to do this work within the port while maintaining throughput. Getting planning permission, raising finance, we’ve succeeded in that. The real challenge is just doing the work.”

To do that work, an epic, 30-year plan needs to be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks.

“We’ve got three big projects, and each is built out as multiple smaller projects,” O’Reilly explains. “You displace as small an amount of cargo as possible, finding the balance between how small a project you carry out and the economics of dividing a big project into lots of small projects.”

 To complete that work, Dublin Port has a small, but dedicated team.

“There are only 153 of us in the company. It’s a very small workforce and all cargo handling operations are carried out by private sector companies,” O’Reilly tells us. “So, recruitment has focused on getting the right number of people with the right skills into the organisation.”

A large proportion of that staff is engaged in day-to-day marine operations. Pilot boats, tugs and critical infrastructure maintenance all need to be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“But aside from those groups of staff it is quite a small organisation,” O’Reilly acknowledges.

The aid that organisation, a great deal of technological infrastructure future-proofing is taking place.

“To reach our capacity targets for 2040, we need an identifiable quantum of infrastructure,” O’Reilly points out.

For that infrastructure to aid the port’s capacity cargo needs to move through the port quickly and efficiently. The waterside port already operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with ships coming in continuously, getting discharged and loaded around the clock. O’Reilly tells us that goods need to come in and out of the port on the landside 168 hours a week, but at the moment that figure is closer to 60 hours and even within that there are peaks and troughs.

“We need landside operations spread over 168 hours, all day Saturday, Sunday, and every day of the week,” O’Reilly insists. “We will be developing digitalisation solutions to help facilitate that.”

Achieving the right level of throughput requires not just the effective application of technology, but also changes in behaviour.

“We’re having to change supply chain behaviours, shipping lines, hauliers have got to get used to the idea that you can’t leave containers around the port until you need them or drop exports off days before they’re sailing and get effectively free warehousing,” O’Reilly points out. “We need terminals to implement booking systems, move imported goods to inland locations at all hours of the week, and much of this is in the context of custom controlled movements because Britain is outside of the common market.”

Investing in Community

There is no denying that the way ports work and the roles they play within communities have changed dramatically, and as an urban port Dublin Port’s challenge is not just building capacity within the physical confines of its space, but also maintaining bonds with the community that surrounds it.

“When I look out of my window, I can see houses where people live. Dublin is an estuary port. It’s built on the river and the city envelops the port. You can’t hope to develop a port if you’re faced with a lot of opposition from the citizens in your immediate neighbourhood,” O’Reilly says simply. “In the past, the link between the port and the city has been strained to breaking point. Ports have become more industrialised, there is more capital, but less labour, so that historical connection is weakened and even broken.”

Dublin Port recognises this issue and is working hard to reintegrate the port into the city. However, O’Reilly is adamant that this needs to take place at a level people can understand and identify with, not simply dry economic figures.

“People aren’t interested in GDP growth or business talk. People are interested in the heritage of the port and in the cultural relationship with the port,” he tells us. “We’ve commissioned song cycles held in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. We’ve commissioned plays by leading Irish playwrights to packed houses in the Abbey theatre.”

This cultural patronage is combined with building public infrastructure such as cycle paths through the port, and even cultural venues in the middle of the port which have already hosted plays.

“We have had three exciting and innovative pieces of theatre in the Pumphouse already and have a pipeline of exciting projects for the future. We are providing physical infrastructure for leisure, and supporting and commissioning work in the arts and heritage sector”, O’Reilly says.

Building these cultural links is important because Dublin Port is not going anywhere.

We’re getting busier and busier and busier. We’re reaching full capacity and over the next 18 years we are already hitting a number of pinch points,” O’Reilly says. “It’ll be gradual, and very challenging, to keep the capacity here to cater for the growth we expect. At the same time, 2040 is only 18 years away. Planning for additional capacity outside of Dublin Port needs to get underway.”

More like this