A safe harbour: Port of Cork

Henry Kingston. Credit: Port of Cork

Henry Kingston, port engineering manager at the Port of Cork, Ireland, describes how the port prepares its business for growing trade in oil, agriculture, and pharmaceuticals

Location, location, location. It is a phrase most people associate with residential property, but it is even more important to get it right when it comes to port and harbour development. Is there a large enough economic hinterland? Is there sufficient space for development? Is there enough onward connectivity? Is there appropriate depth and shelter for modern ships?

Every port development must positively answer these questions if it is to build a long-term business case for itself. Unfortunately, not all ports can answer affirmatively to all four and the negative impacts that causes have major repercussions for their long-term viability.

Statio bene fida carinis

Down in the southwest of Ireland where the Celtic Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, lies Cork, the second largest city in Ireland, and the second biggest natural harbour in the world by navigational area. A port that works hard to future-proof its business, Cork has been welcoming ships for centuries. Although we do not know for exactly how long Cork has been a commercial port, it goes back at least as far as Latin being the lingua franca because the city’s motto is statio bene fida carinis – a safe harbour for ships.

Today, Cork wins the Republic of Ireland’s silver medal for total turnover, and in 2018 it handled 10.66 million tonnes of traffic including container traffic of 228,762 teu. Those numbers are not going to overawe Rotterdam or Antwerp, but they represent almost full capacity for a vital cog in an economy that has the world’s fifth largest GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund.

With the Irish economy recovering well from the financial crisis, and continued growth widely predicted for many of the port of Cork’s dominant users, such as oil, agriculture, and pharmaceuticals, the port recognised that it needed to continue to grow if it was to continue to deliver service excellence to its varied customers. So, in July 2018, the port made the biggest investment in its history: EUR80 million (USD80 million) to build Cork Container Terminal (CCT) and future-proof the needs of southern Ireland and its exporters.

The container terminal will become fully operational by 2020 and initially offer a 360 m-quay with 13 m depth alongside. Additionally, a 13.5 ha terminal and associated buildings, as well as two ship-to-shore gantry cranes and container-handling equipment will be constructed simultaneously. A project of this size so close to a major city presented numerous complex engineering calculations and required very careful stakeholder management.

It became clear as we advanced through the environmental assessment and the planning process that the associated road improvements that were being developed in parallel would not be delivered by the time CCT became operational. We overcame this challenge by developing an enhanced mobility management plan, and installing the first vehicle booking system (VBS) in Ireland. This is integrated with our terminal operating system and will ensure that departures and arrivals can be managed to minimise congestion and impact on local residents.

Boots on the ground

Dredging was another major challenge for us. The land bank that CCT is being built on involves 60 ha of land that was reclaimed from the harbour in the 1980s, and we are using 17 ha of that for CCT. This involved acquiring a dumping at sea permit from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that’s a process which can take many months to get from start to finish.

Moreover, these permits are for a fixed period. So, it was a major concern of ours that we should be able to achieve the licences involved while at the same time, having the flexibility in our environmental planning, funding allocation, and construction programme to deliver on our targets. Knowing how much was at stake, the port has worked diligently over the past decade to develop its relationship with the EPA, and by working together in partnership we were able to get sign-off for the necessary permits right on schedule.

Once we had permission to start dredging, we encountered additional technical complexity from the geology and underlying strata. Cork is a limestone region and during previous digs in the 1980s and 1990s, we regularly discovered caves and caverns underneath the seabed. While the port put forward an employers’ design – a piled combi-wall with anchored tie-backs – it also permitted a contractor’s proposal for key elements such as the quay wall and the container compound.

This involved doing a lot of site investigation and research up front, but it meant that we could have a lot of confidence that our proposed plan would work. However, we left the final decision with the contractor on the basis that they assumed the risk for any subsequent design changes. In the end, the winning contract proposed an open deck piled structure and they have come across places where there is more rock than expected but also locations where there is less rock than expected. To overcome these hurdles, they have had to innovate around solutions on the seabed, such as rock-pinning. Ultimately, because of the way we have structured the contract, we know that we will have cost certainty and a viable terminal.

For the dredging, a backhoe dredger was deployed. However, towards the end of our permit, it became clear that the backhoe was not being as productive as expected. To ensure that the contractor was able to complete on time, it was necessary for them to charter a trailer suction hopper dredger as well. Working in combination, they were able to extract all the dredge material with any rock-won material reused ashore; one more way of ensuring that CCT’s development is as sustainable as possible.

Ready for business

In 2020, container lines will feel the full force of numerous historic challenges, such as IMO 2020 and Brexit, not to mention the escalating number of tariffs worldwide; each will impose its own costs and complexities. Those same lines do not need the added inconvenience of long dwell times or unproductive terminals, or concerns about the competence of the port that they are going to visit. Unfortunately, it is still an accepted cost of doing business at too many terminals.

With the well-designed engineering and successful development of CCT, these difficulties will become a thing of the past for carriers visiting Cork. Once it becomes operational next year, CCT will have some of the most efficient container handling facilities in the world and provide unbeatable market access for Ireland’s importers and exporters. CCT has laid the foundations for its success after one year into its development and by mid-2020, all of Ireland and much of western Europe will benefit from it.