Dublin Port faces problems of access, efficiency, expansion and appearance


Eight thousand trucks trundle through the streets of Dublin every day on their way to and from Dublin Port. The tonnage of goods being transported has doubled since 1995 and is projected to increase by at least a further 35 per cent by 2005, boosting the number of daily truck movements to 10,600.

With the Port Tunnel unlikely to be completed even by then, access to Dublin Port has become the most critical problem facing it, most visibly evident in the almost continuous stream of trucks up and down the Liffey quays. In effect, the port is being strangled by the city and is, in turn, strangling it.

A recent study by KPMG, commissioned by Dublin Chamber of Commerce, identified access as one of the key challenges facing the port. The study found that the port was losing potential business due to major traffic delays and inadequate road access, with the delays costing £30 million annually.

Rail access to Dublin Port is also becoming increasingly dependent on the availability of "time slots" in rail schedules to avoid clashing with DART, Arrow and mainline services. And proposals for a rail-based national freight distribution centre at Clonburris, near Clondalkin, appear to have been abandoned.

Last year, the port handled almost 20 million tonnes of goods, worth around £30 billion. This level of trade is by far the largest volume of cargo carried through any of the Irish ports and over 70 per cent of it is unitised (i.e. container-based), with "ro-ro" (roll-on, roll-off) accounting for 53 per cent of the throughput.

"As one of the most highly traded economies in the world, the ability to ship goods in and out quickly and efficiently is paramount to success", said Mr David Manley, the chamber's president, in his foreword to Dublin Port 2000 - Gateway to the World, its glossy report on the port's economic impact, published in May.

The chamber believes it is "essential that Dublin Port continues to thrive and develop in the interests of the city, region and nation". But the report warned that projections of a throughput of over 25 million tonnes by 2004 will place "an intolerable pressure for additional land to accommodate this major growth".

Given its own historical associations with the port, the chamber not surprisingly endorses the plan to infill 52 acres of the inner bay at the eastern end of the port, facing Clontarf. It recommends that this proposed extension should include a purpose-designed cruise liner terminal, to "enhance access for tourism".

Dublin Port is developing a "significant" cruise business now worth some £6 million a year, according to the report, with regular dockings by liners at the Ocean Pier in Alexandra Basin. During the week, the Royal Caribbean line's Splendour of the Seas called in for a day with 1,900 high-spending passengers.

But the chamber is not entirely uncritical. It says port users complain about the lack of shopping, restaurant, public transport, parking and other facilities, as well as the shortage of storage space. It also calls on the Dublin Port Company to devote more attention to landscaping "as part of its environmental responsibilities".

This would become more urgent due to the "encroaching development of lands adjacent to the port for both commercial and residential uses", such as the East Point business park and the apartment blocks springing up in the Docklands area. Tree-planted mounds are planned to soften the hard edges of previous infill.

Visually, Dublin Port is a mess. Its main spine, Alexandra Road, may sound very grand, but it is actually one of the bleakest landscapes in Dublin - a chaotic accretion of yards for containers and bulk cargo, including a tank farm for petroleum products which occupies more than 100 acres of the port's land.

Mr Enda Connellan, the port's chief executive, sees a lot of merit in the idea of relocating the tank farm to a site on the M50, which could be serviced by pipelines from the port. Petroleum products could then be distributed from this location by oil tankers, thus eliminating one category of port-related truck movements.

"I fervently believe that the best way to transport oil is by pipeline", Mr Connellan told The Irish Times. "Given a free hand, it would make a lot of sense." However, he pointed out that a proposal from Shell for an aviation fuel line from the port to Dublin Airport had met opposition from residents along the route on safety grounds.

There would also be problems in persuading the oil companies to go along with a pipeline plan. Many of them have long leaseholds on the site they occupy in the port, some at peppercorn rents set in 1908, and they would have to be compensated. Mr Connellan estimates the overall cost of relocating the tank farm at £50 million.

If it was relocated to a site on the M50, however, a great deal of land in the port used solely for storage would be freed up - roughly double the acreage of the controversial infill scheme, which is being vigorously opposed by Dublin Bay Watch, chaired by Mr Gerry Breen, who was elected as a Fine Gael member of the City Council last year.

According to Mr Connellan, the proposed infill "has been blown out of all proportion" in a debate marked by "a lot of uninformed comment". In the hope of reassuring Clontarf residents, in particular, the area of water proposed to be infilled will be marked out with buoys to show people the extent of the company's ambitions.

He agreed that the port would have more credibility on this issue if it had implemented a report some years ago by landscape architects Brady Shipman Martin to soften the hard, rectilinear edges of its northern boundary on the Tolka estuary. At the time, however, "this cotton-pickin' organisation was on the bones of its ass".

Now enriched by its takings from the huge volume of trade it handles, the port company has some money. Over £50 million has been invested in new facilities, such as the new Stena terminal, and there are plans to spend a further £75 million. It has also been buying back leasehold interests to give it more control over land use.

"There is a lot of room for improvement", Mr Connellan said, adding that the port was "committed to improving its external appearance". But it will have a tough task getting approval for the infill scheme, especially after the Department of the Marine rejected its environmental impact statement as "wholly inadequate".

Flexible "round-the-clock" working times for the port should also be considered, according to the chamber of commerce report. As Mr Tom Coffey, director of the City Centre Business Association, has often pointed out, truck movements to and from the port bear little relation to sailing times and could quite easily be rescheduled.