Chinese Name: 的里雅斯特港
Location: Aquilinia, Trieste province, Italy
Type of Project: Logistics
Project Developer(s): China Communications Construction Company, Ltd. (CCCC)
Main Contractor(s): n/a
Known Financiers: n/a
Cost: 20 million USD (initially)
Project Status: Suspended
After planning to expand for years, in 2017 the Trieste Port Authority identified Chinese investors as one of the viable sources for investment in Trihub, an expansion project born from a coordinated effort between the Authority itself and Italian Railways Network (RFI). The project was presented at the EU-China Connectivity Platform and received the greenlight from Brussels, so much so that the European Investment Bank loaned the Authority 39 million euros for its implementation, to which the Connecting Europe facility then added financing of 6.5 million. Its aim is to develop the Trieste Campo Marzio station, the main infrastructure serving the port, and turn it into a larger hub connected with the stations of Cervignano and Villa Opicina, also located in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in northeast Italy. The other part of the Trihub project regards the reactivation of the Trieste Servola and Trieste Aquilinia stations, which will allow for direct trains on the line that links Trieste to Venice, another important port on the Adriatic Sea. This is the component of the project in which the China Communications Construction Company, Ltd. (CCCC) was to be involved.
During the official state visit of President Xi Jinping to Italy in April 2019, the Italian and Chinese governments signed a broader MoU in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. On that occasion, the Trieste Port Authority signed a separate agreement with CCCC that amounted to little more than a declaration of intent and goodwill for the development of future relationships between the entities. However, although the agreement between the port and CCCC per se had pure economic objectives on the Italian side, its inclusion in the broader MoU between the two countries gave it political significance.
This was followed by a more specific, and to a certain degree pragmatic, bilateral MoU between the Authority and CCCC, which was signed in Shanghai in November 2019. This latter MoU envisioned three areas of collaboration: one in Italy, one in China, and one in third countries. The part regarding the presence of the Trieste Port Authority in China comprised two offers. First, the participation of the Port of Trieste in a new logistic park in China, which would sell Italian products. The possible areas identified were Shanghai, Ningbo, and Shenzhen. Second, there was an option for Italian enterprises to sell their products on an online platform offered and already operated by CCCC. Similar offers were made to the other signatory of the MoU of March 2019, the Port of Genoa, but they were not part of a follow up MoU. Representatives from the Trieste Port Authority subsequently visited the areas where the logistic park could potentially emerge; however, the latest update shows that the agreement did not go any further than that.
With regard to the potential collaboration between the Trieste Port Authority and CCCC in third countries, the agreement envisioned the construction of a large intermodal terminal in the city of Kosice, Slovakia. This part of the agreement appears to be still in motion at the time of writing.
As for the Italian part, the agreement with CCCC originally envisaged the construction of a rail intermodal platform in Aquilinia (Trieste) which would have supported the port’s logistic platform. Officially, the offer was for the development of both Servola and Aquilinia, but the President of the Trieste Port Authority has stated in an interview with the author of this profile that the Chinese side was never really interested in Servola. When the agreement was signed, the plan was to reactivate the station of Aquilinia which already possessed rail tracks able to support trains of 750 metres in length—ideal for loading and unloading containers. The Italian Railways Network (RFI) was included as a third party. CCCC would have built the new rail intermodal platform and the Trieste Port Authority together with RFI would have paid rent to use it. All of this provided CCCC (or one of its subsidiaries) won the public procurement for the project; it was agreed that the port authority would have provided suggestions to CCCC on how to draft their proposal. However, to this day, no investments have been made and no proposal advanced by CCCC.
At the end of September 2020, Germany’s Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) concluded an agreement with the Trieste Port Authority to invest in the development of the port’s logistic platform, a project that would have been connected to the rail intermodal platform. The investment includes the acquisition by HHLA of 50.1 percent of the shares of the platform, with the rest belonging to Francesco Parisi S.p.A. (about 23 percent) and ICOP (22 percent), while the remaining shares will be held by Interporto di Bologna. In 2018, China Merchants Group had also shown interest in investing in the logistic platform, but the investment never materialised.
According to an interview conducted in November 2020 with the President of the Trieste Port Authority Zeno D’Agostino by the author of this profile, explorations carried out in October/November 2020 by the Authority and the city of Aquilinia have shown that there is no physical capacity for the planned changes, so the rail intermodal platform cannot be built.
Since its signing, the agreement between the Trieste Port Authority and CCCC has received international backlash from the European Union and the United States. The Italian track record with corruption, mostly in large infrastructure projects, the difficult situation of the country’s economy, and previous examples of Chinese enterprises buying majority shares of distressed ports (for instance, see the Piraeus port in Greece) have been raised as points against the agreement. Three concurrent developments have put an end to the planned project, at least for the time being. First, the Italian government that took power in September 2019 was keener than the previous populist government to listen to European and American preoccupations. Second, after one year, CCCC had yet to present a draft proposal for the project, which the port authority needed to open the process for a public bid. Finally, the technical considerations mentioned above raised serious doubts about the feasibility of the project.