More than twelve years after its return on the Czech market, the port of Trieste is aiming to strengthen its position as a container port in Czech Republic and, specifically, in Bohemia. What are the outlooks and issues of this logistical challenge?

Almost a historical event. On July 17, 2008, the first direct freight line train arrived from Trieste to Losovice, a small town located in the northwestern part of Bohemia. Ninety years after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Julian city found again its place in the transport of industrial goods to and from Bohemia. At first, the route was served once a week and the most optimistic forecasts were mentioning a progressive increase of up to five weekly connections. Due to the economic crisis and the drastic drop in road transport prices, the Bohemia Express linking Losovice and Trieste eventually ceased its service only a few years after its inauguration.

Twelve years of development

Many Triestines often recall the former common inclusion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when their city became a thriving metropolitan center (assuming thereafter a more outlying role within the Italian state) and did not get discouraged by the numerous boundaries and barriers that have come between their city and Prague over the last century. On the other hand, there is no lack of ambition: the port of Trieste, along with other Northern Atlantic ports, would like to become one of the main ports of arrival of the new Chinese Silk Road. “The ships coming from Far East could save up to 3-5 days of sailing in reaching the heart of Europe via Trieste, compared to the North European ports”, informs the Port Authority, underlining the main competitive advantage of their own port. Not even the competition of the Athenian port of Piraeus, seen from the Lloyd Tower, seems to be worrisome as it is considered too out of the way from the central European markets.

Without doubt, the numbers of the last few years are encouraging. The great increases refer mostly to the movement of containers. If in 2009, as a follow-up of the recession, the movement of containers was reduced to 277,000 TEU (the standard volume unit value for this type of transport, a TEU is about 40 cubic feet) then ten years later, in 2017, the volume had more than doubled to 616,000 TEU. “The goal is to reach one million containers in the coming years”, mentions Zeno D’Agostino, president of the Port Authority. Particularly important in the dynamics of the freight hub is the transport of trucks on board of ferries, the so-called ro-ro, especially from Turkey, to the extent that a Turkish company, Ekol, acquired in 2016 the port’s ferry terminal. The Msc company is present as well with its cargoes from Far East. The sector where the maritime port of Trieste stands out, with a volume of almost 44 million tons, is the transportation of fuels and liquids. The oil tankers arrive here to power the Transalpine Pipeline (Tal) which covers up to forty percent of the German necessities. Through the Ingolstadt – Kralupy nad Vltavou pipeline, the Tal covers the fundamental Czech crude oil consumption, creating an important alternative to the Russian Družba oil pipeline.

Despite all positive performances, Trieste remains a medium sized port in the cargo and container sector. The neighboring port of Koper recorded in 2017 a flow of 911,500 containers and a cargo volume similar to the Julian hub (about 18 million tons). Incomparable numbers were reached in Hamburg, where 8.8 million containers and a freight volume of around 130 million tones are being moved throughout the year. An amount of 460,000 containers are being transported yearly from the German port to Czech Republic and Slovakia, out of which 90% is being moved to railways. One hundred twenty trains are heading on a weekly basis from Hamburg to the two cities while from Trieste only 11.

The importance of railways

Broadly, the growth registered in the last few years is also the result of the strengthening of the entry-exit port infrastructures in Trieste. The railways are the key infrastructure for the foreign markets – around ninety percent of the transiting freight flow being directed to it. “Everything that we do is connected to the railways. The port’s railway development undergoes an unprecedented growth. It went up from 5,980 trains in 2015 to 8,681 in 2017 and we are getting close to reaching 10,000 at the end of 2018”, underlined Zeno D’Agostino during a presentation of the port of Trieste in Prague, organized on June 6 last year, in cooperation with the Italian-Czech Chamber of Industry and under the patronage of the Italian Embassy in Prague.

Trieste is particularly well positioned among the central European countries due to the European Baltic-Adriatic corridors, which connect the city with Austria, Slovakia, Moravia and Poland and the Mediterranean one with the ending line in Budapest. Moreover, the proximity to the main ScanMed corridor allows reaching Germany and the Scandinavian countries, as shown by the example of the new intermodal train connection with Kiel and Göteborg.

The Czech Republic has also been able to take advantage of this expansion, especially Moravia. The Baltic-Adriatic corridor passes through the Břeclav – Bohumín route through the second historical region of Czech Republic. Nowadays, seven trains (three managed by Ekol and four by Msc) are being directed to the interport Ostrava-Paskov. A further impulse on this railway will be probably given by the recent agreement on the development of new services on the Baltic-Adriatic Corridor, signed in September between Mercitalia and the Polish group Pkp Cargo. The latter is the owner of the Paskov interport through its Czech Subsidiary Advanced World Transport (the former Okd Doprava, the second freight railway transporter in Czech Republic). Not even this type of transport is free of issues. Mostly, the difficult Austrian territory has real chokepoints, which can only be overcomed by completing the new Koralmbahn section and the Semmering base tunnel, scheduled for 2026. Additionally, the carriers complain that the fees applied in private interports, such as the one in Paskov are too high and are lowering the competitiveness of rail transport. In this case, the new allocations from the European funds could come in handy: the announcement concerning the interports was launched in October this year.

Nevertheless, the transport issues to Moravia are nothing compared to the existing situation in Bohemia and Prague. In this case, the railways connection with Trieste is affected by the poor state of routes to Germany. “Today, the Děčín-Bad Schandau border is sustaining the entire railway traffic towards Germany”, underlines the association of railway transporters Žesnad. This situation is clearly in favor of the northern ports, which manage to guarantee much shorter travel times compared to Trieste that loses this way some of its temporal advantage. Paradoxically, Bohemia is isolated from Bavaria, one of the richest and most industrialized regions in Europe. The situation does not seem to improve in the near future. The Czech railway administration, the Sždc, decided this spring to modernize the Plzeň-Furth in Wald mainline by maintaining the single-track profile, while transporters were demanding a double one. “This route, at similar starting conditions, could reach similar traffic volumes as the one for Děčín, one hundred trains a day”, underline the transporters. Among the one hundred trains, some could be leaving the docks of Trieste and arriving in Bavaria via Brenner, avoiding this way the railway chokepoints in Moravia and Bohemia. Should this not be accomplished, Bohemia and Prague will remain a gray area for the Triestine port.

by Giacomo Dei Tamburi