ESPO’s Executive Committee meeting of 24 September was kindly hosted by the Port of Trieste, a port that celebrates this year its 300th anniversary. Since last year, the President of the Port of Trieste, Mr Zeno D’Agostino, has also been serving as ESPO’s Vice-Chairman. We thought it would be a good idea to ask our Vice-Chairman about his views on his port, the challenges it faces, his personal career and many more interesting questions!
(c) GIuliano Koren
Can you briefly present the Port Network Authority of the Eastern Adriatic Sea? What are its main characteristics and challenges?
Located at the heart of Europe, in the northernmost point of the Mediterranean Sea, the Port of Trieste is the 11th European port and the first Italian port in terms of total tonnage, as well as the main oil terminal in the Mediterranean.
Our main characteristic is that we are a rail port: in 2018 Trieste ranked first among Italian ports for rail traffic, which grew by 63% in 2015-2018. The railway allows Trieste to be the only Italian port with a truly international catchment area, with more than 200 trains every week linking the port to key industrial and logistics hubs in 13 countries. In 2018, we reached 55% of modal share in ISO container traffic and 24% in road transport units (semitrailers), mainly with Turkish destinations.
One of our main strategic targets is a further increase of the modal share because we believe that rail intermodality is crucial for becoming more environmentally friendly.
Other key characteristics of the port of Trieste are a naturally deep sea floor up to 18 meters, combined with intermodal connections and a port masterplan allowing 93ha of new potential developments. This makes Trieste a strategic hub for European trade to and from the Far East, Middle East and Levant along the New Maritime Silk Road.
Moreover, its special free port status granted by international law offers several customs-related benefits to the goods either transiting through Trieste or being stored and processed in the free port area or in the new free-zone logistics park (“Freeste1”) inaugurated in 2019.
The last topic I would like to address is the port reform of 2016. We are now a Port Network Authority, managing not only Trieste, but also closer ports such as Monfalcone. Right now we are working to fully integrate in the Network the Port of Monfalcone, which is located 20 km from Trieste and has great potential for non-unitised freight and specialised Ro-Ro traffic.
How did you get into maritime transport? How did your career path lead to this position?
When I arrived in Trieste, I was struck by the fact that the three founders of Austrian Lloyd were all landlubbers and that none of them worked in shipping. My background is similar. I travelled “by train”, a journey that allowed me to understand the great potential that innovative port authorities have as promoters of logistics opportunities. I served as Secretary General of Naples Port Authority, and subsequently I became CEO of LOGICA scarl, the Agency of the Campania Region for promotion and research in logistics and freight. There I experienced the fundamental role of Public Administrations, which have the crucial task of combining theoretical knowledge and implementation capacity at the local level.
After that, I have been General Manager of Interporto Bologna and then director of strategy, development and marketing at Consorzio ZAI - Interporto di Verona, the largest Italian inland terminal. From all these experiences comes my strong belief in the central role of railways in supporting maritime traffic.
You have been leading the Port Network Authority of the Eastern Adriatic Sea since 2016. What do you consider your greatest achievement so far in the port? What do you still hope to achieve in the port?
I could say that from 2015 to the present, the port has flourished once again. Traffic has doubled and, foreign investors and investments combined with new partnerships have re-launched the image of the port and of the city on the international stage.
The achievement I am most proud of is having hired 400 new people. I have always said that the port needs brains more than cement and new quays. And this is what we are investing in; human capital comes first and foremost. The dialogue and social harmony that we currently enjoy in the port have allowed us to do great things. Trieste is a medium-sized port, but it is a great laboratory, to the extent that we have become a reference model for the innovative management of port labour. We collaborate extensively with universities and research centres (keep in mind that Trieste is a major science hub). We have opened the port to the citizenry with a special Open Day and we organised many workshops for children in order to help them discover the port through a creative approach. The port is also a place of culture with a lengthy historical tradition. This year we celebrated the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Free Port with a rich programme of concerts, entertainment, conferences, book presentations, and a special project we are quite proud of: Trieste’s own Illy, Italy’s flagship coffee brand famous for its cups designed by renowned artists, dedicated a special limited-edition cup to the Free Port’s anniversary.
All of these things make us realise that the port is increasingly becoming a complex ecosystem with new functions. Today, a port can no longer merely be a port, it must also become a hub for innovation: not just a physical space where goods move through, but also a place where minds are innovating. This is my real challenge for the future. It’s not enough to be ready for change, we must anticipate it. Major changes take place on the sea, and it is up to us to grasp them.
You are currently Vice Chairman of the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO). What does ESPO mean to you? What is in your opinion the importance of an organisation like ESPO?
ESPO is an amazing opportunity for port managers to exchange experiences about key topics with members operating in different contexts. ESPO is a key association for the transport industry, making it possible to exchange knowledge and experiences, promoting discussions and solutions to influence the policy debate on European ports. I must say that I am especially proud to represent Southern European ports, who find in ESPO an important voice and a major, open venue for dialogue.
The Port of Trieste also functions as the maritime gateway for some European landlocked countries such as Austria, Switzerland or Hungary that do not have sea ports themselves. Can you briefly describe the importance of your port for those countries?
I strongly believe that the true strength of a port lies in its ability to integrate with continental markets, and we are second to none in Italy when it comes to goods conveyed to railway links. Railroads have been in our DNA since the time of the Habsburg empire. Everything in our port conveys our railway avocation.
Ships and trains are an inseparable pairing, and we are investing everything in this. Railway links have become a strategic sector for the port. We are developing new intermodal services, almost all of which are international, increasing the port’s competitiveness from the maritime point of view. Anyone deciding on which European or Mediterranean port to send or convey their goods through will focus on its ability to be integrated with the market. Therefore, while the railway creates value in and of itself, it also promotes and boosts the overall competitiveness’ of the port.
As of today, we have 14 pairs of trains a week from and to Budapest.
Austria and Germany, in particular the Southern and Eastern areas, remain our main reference markets, which are growing thanks to railway. In the future, the railway might grant even more transport reliability than traditional river-based services from the ports of the Black Sea or of the Northern Sea.
And still, especially as concerns railway intermodality for the Motorways of the Sea, the port of Trieste is increasing its share of importance even for areas farther to the north-west, such as Benelux and the Rhine-Ruhr region.
(c) Fabrizio Giraldi
This year, Italy has been the first EU Member State to join the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure investment project aiming to enhance connectivity between China and other countries on the Eurasian continent. Do you see any opportunities for the Port of Trieste? What is your opinion on the criticism that the BRI serves Chinese strategic interests, and therefore should be dealt with cautiously?
China has been a main player in the traffic of the port of Trieste, dating back to the historical shipping company Austrian Lloyd and its routes between Trieste and Shanghai or Canton. Currently, we are aware of the opportunities arising from inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative. On March 23 in Rome, we signed a cooperation agreement with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) that will facilitate the development of infrastructure in central Europe and will improve the ability of products made by Italian small and medium enterprises to access Chinese markets. CCCC investments will be related to the intermodal logistic platform project. I’d like to point out that China, however, is not the only country interested in our port: we have many opportunities coming also from European investors and other countries.
Our Port Authority is making an effort to ensure that both parties will benefit from the partnership. We want to create a win-win cooperation with China. The power and size of the Chinese players could be perceived as a highly risky feature, but any contract or investment, as far as we are concerned, will have to follow proper Italian and European legal procedures, which will grant a high level of transparency and fair competition. It should also be noted that any commercial decision is subject to the foreign policy guidelines of the Italian government and we will abide by them.
The Port of Trieste is both part of the Mediterranean as well as the Baltic Adriatic Corridor of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T-). How has the port benefited from being part of both Corridors?
Being at the crossroads of two European TEN-T corridors gives us many interesting opportunities. Current and future investments along these two axes will definitely promote the port of Trieste, with advantages in infrastructure, planning and management sectors.
From a market perspective we are sure that the Baltic corridor will be interesting, including from a “landbridge” point of view. But Trieste is interested in the whole TEN-T network infrastructure. Connections with north-eastern Germany (i.e. the partnership with Duisburg) are along other corridors, which may grow in importance thanks to a possible partnership between the Adriatic and the Northern Sea.
(c) Fabrizio Giraldi
Nine years ago, the ports of Trieste, Venice, Ravenna, Koper and Rijeka established the North Adriatic Ports Association (NAPA). Can you briefly explain us why NAPA was created? What has been achieved so far in the framework of NAPA?
NAPA was created in order to boost synergies when carrying out promotional activities at many different levels (regional, national, European, and international) and for various purposes. The first one is to have the North Adriatic ports become the main European logistics platform for traffic from the Far East to Europe and to and from Central and Eastern Europe. Another goal is the development of joint lobbying of national governments and other public entities in order to simplify and harmonise regulations, timing and procedures governing port operations.
Right from the start, NAPA has demonstrated the validity of its strategy, based primarily on the competitiveness of the ports but also on a spirit of cooperation developed at the national, European and international levels.
Rail services and links play a vital role in the Port of Trieste. Could you briefly tell us how the port is connected with the hinterland?
As I said, the Port of Trieste is the only Italian port to have direct international links with manufacturing and industrial regions of northeastern Italy and Central Europe. Different destinations in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland and Luxembourg serve a developing and highly organised economic hinterland.
All terminals are directly served by rail with the possibility of shunting and/or assembling freight trains directly in the various terminals. Our shunting company Adriafer optimises the efficiency and use of infrastructure.
This system allowed us to reach 10,000 handled trains in 2019.
We also have a project financing railway infrastructures inside the port and over the entire port region, which we share with the Italian handler of railway Infrastructure (RDI). By 2025 we aim to have a railway capacity of 25,000 trains, i.e. a potential of 2 million TEU.
(c) Roberto Pastrovicchio
Decarbonisation and digitalisation of the European transport sector will be among the main priorities of the new EU Transport Commissioner, which is expected to take office on 1 November. How can ports further contribute to combating climate change? Could digitalisation play a role here? More generally, which digital innovations in transport should ports definitely keep an eye on in the coming years?
For a port such as Trieste, the first challenge of decarbonisation plays out through the massive development of rail traffic. Providing incentives for terminal operators to transfer their traffic to railways is one of our goals.
The digitalisation of documents and information can also help railway development. There are enormous margins for improvement in the digitised integration of documents along the terminal-railway-port chain. The railway is not everything. We are also coming up with ways to plan systems of incentives and solutions to encourage less polluting shipping models. We are always sensitive to what the industries located in our region are developing: we are in constant contact which companies such as Wärtsilä, which are studying and developing solutions of this nature. In these regards, comparing our best practices with those of other ports is crucial in order to define increasingly innovative, yet coordinated and coherent environmental policy strategies. In this sector, cooperation is undoubtedly more valuable than competition, and ESPO can play an increasing fundamental role as a driving engine. It is too important a topic not to tackle at the European port community level.