CZ/SK verze

"Ports are Critical Infrastructure: If We Don't Work, The Economy Doesn't Work" - A Conversation with Heiko Loroff

&quote;Ports are Critical Infrastructure: If We Don't Work, The Economy Doesn't Work&quote; - A Conversation with Heiko Loroff
photo: RAILTARGET/"Ports are Critical Infrastructure: If We Don't Work, The Economy Doesn't Work" - A Conversation with Heiko Loroff
13 / 06 / 2023

RAILTARGET presents you with an interview with Heiko Loroff, Managing Director at Sächsische Binnenhäfen Oberelbe, where we delve into the evolving landscape of Elbe ports and their integral role in the transport market of Saxony and the Czech Republic. As the discourse unfolds, Mr Loroff sheds light on the existing infrastructure, the potential for future developments, and the profound impact of the Elbe waterway on the regional transport system.

The ports on the Elbe towards Hamburg are developing their infrastructure and are also an investor in the Czech Republic. Mr Loroff, you have the opportunity to present the Elbe ports, the plans and the situation in the transport market.

Thank you, I am glad because we live in a crucial link in the border region of the Czech Republic and Saxony. The Sächsische Binnenhäfen Oberelbe (SBO or the Saxon Ports, Ed.) is a company owned by the Free State of Saxony. We are one of those who have understood very well how vital infrastructure, the Elbe connection to the seaports and the interconnection with the border region are. For us, the Czech Republic is the market that has the greatest development potential; this was not the case at the beginning. Today, we are proud to be able to offer infrastructure in the Czech Republic and Saxony on the transport market. Our infrastructure is very cost-intensive. For this reason, we very much need the support of the EU, the federal government, and the Czech and Saxon governments. But it turns out that the investments have not gone to waste because we are successful in inland waterway transport and rail. Ports can generate significant market-added value for logistics and transport.

Many do not know all your ports. Could you tell us about them?

In Saxony, it's Anhalt Rosslau, then Torgau, Mülberg, Riesa, Dresden, and in the Czech Republic, it's Decin and Lovosice. What many people also don't know is that we are one of the largest port associations in Europe. We have a large market catchment area and, in terms of port infrastructure area, we have a significant position regarding Europe as a whole. 

The Elbe is a European waterway, entrusted to the care of the Czech Republic and Germany. The two countries have recently signed an international agreement on the maintenance and improvement of the navigability of the Elbe waterway. What do you see as the significance of the Elbe being revitalised in terms of transport reliability?

I think it is essential that we do not abandon the Elbe as a waterway. The last two years of pandemics and now the war in Ukraine has taught us that we absolutely need the Elbe waterway. It is our Czech customers who depend on the fact that the amount of goods we are now transporting again via seaports is not sufficient in terms of capacity to be transported by rail. We needed to approve the overall concept document for the Elbe in 2017, and together with our Czech colleagues, we participated in it, as well as in the preparation of the international treaty, which is already in the world, and we need its implementation for further planning. The more time we waste, the greater the investments in the maintenance of the Elbe waterway will have to be later. It is clear, however, that from the German point of view, the Elbe will remain a transport route, and what we have also ensured with the treaty is that the Czech Republic will be linked to the port of Hamburg. We should not give up on this. It is very important for the Czech Republic, and I will continue to advocate for it. 

Mr Loroff, I have noticed that you no longer define yourselves in terms of infrastructure as ports but as intermodal transhipment points. Could you elaborate on that? Does that bring new business opportunities?

Actually, it is nothing new. But we have to adapt port infrastructure to new transport needs as times change. However, where else can you interconnect multiple modes of transport, and preferably more cost-effectively, than at the port? We can, of course, build terminals anywhere on greenfield sites, but we have everything in ports. We are effective 24/7 industrial zones. We have rail tracks, capacity, and spare areas for cargo. We have operational knowledge of all modes of transport and can line trains, operate road vehicles and have access to the waterway. We can make managerial decisions about which transport mode is more profitable at which time. But this is nothing new, our ancestors built all the Elbe ports as railway stations. At the end of the 19th century, it was already known that there were periods of low water on the Elbe, and it was for these periods that alternative transport was necessary. That is why the port of King Albert was built as a railway terminal and similarly all other ports on the Elbe. When we summarise it this way, we can see that we are on the right track, and our economic success confirms this. Naturally, we are saving public money because we are using facilities that already exist here. 

That was also the reason why we invited you for an interview. Inland ports, with their railway infrastructure, are also an element of the large-scale industrialisation of Central Europe. But this infrastructure needs modernisation. What should the state, the countries, and the public budgets on both sides of the border take care of? 

Overall, the prevailing understanding is that infrastructure must be actively managed. It has to really determine what transport should be like in the future. This cannot, in my view, be left to the free market. There are climate, transport policy and business objectives, all of which must be brought together. Infrastructure must remain a public good. It is the case with motorways, roads and railways, and it should be the case with ports.

Everyone immediately questions ports, are they really supposed to be public property like an airport runway?

Yes, absolutely, and in the crisis of recent years, we have learned that ports and their intermodal are critical infrastructure. If we don't work, the economy doesn't work, and the supply to the population doesn't work. But we run the ports as an economic entity according to the principles of the market economy. We are now making a profit and investing in improving the trimodal infrastructure that we want to offer to customers and those entities that cannot afford such infrastructure themselves. It is what we are trying to do, cross-border and as Saxon ports, we are also operating in the Czech Republic because we understand that we are in Europe and transport flows do not start and end at borders. 

Mr Loroff, thank you for the interview. It is a great message that we need to develop port infrastructure and its trimodal potential cooperatively.

The interview was conducted by Jan Sechter, Chairman of the Transport Section of the Chamber of Commerce as part of the partnership with the RAILTARGET interview studio at the transport logistic trade fair in Munich.