Freight News, Sea

Divert from Dover to keep UK PLC in business, says ports group

[ October 9, 2020   //   ]

The UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG) is calling for freight to be diverted away from the Dover-Calais and Eurotunnel routes to help the UK’s supply chain keep running after the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year.

In a report published on 9 October, it said that although new border processes and controls would be imposed on freight between the UK and the Continent the UK port sector had significant capacity to cope – provided freight flows diversified their entry point to the UK away from the English Channel.

Ports outside this region could offer capacity equivalent to that of the English Channel Short Straits routes. Customs checks and other changes affecting the Short Straight routes, along with restrictions on the ability of EU HGV drivers to operate in the UK, could mean a switch of between 22% and 60%  of freight volumes to other UK gateways, UKMPG added.

With potential delays for UK exports through EU ports as well as imports, it was important to diversify freight transport across multiple ports, it said.

There could also be environmental benefits from switching traffic to a wider network of ports, often closer to the end customer across the UK as it would replace higher-emission road miles with much lower emission sea miles. This broader spread of traffic flows would also support more port and logistics sector jobs across the UK.

UKMPG chief executive Tim Morris said: “There are ports all around our coast able and willing to bolster the UK’s trading capacity. Realising this additional resilience capacity will deliver crucial benefits to the UK in keeping trade flowing in the short and longer terms, as well as contributing important environmental improvements. We urge cargo owners to intensify their preparations for the new border checks and systems that are coming and carefully review their supply chain options, while Government must provide adequate border infrastructure and maintain a level playing field for ports across the UK.”

EU Transition Minister, Rachel Maclean, added: “We are working with ports across the country to boost capacity and build a greener way of working so they continue to thrive for decades to come.”

The report suggests that reshaped trade flows should increase volumes through ports on the East Coast in particular – from the Thames to the Tees – but also along the South and West coasts. Greater weighting of supply chain resilience and environmental factors would also benefit ports in the north and west.

However, Port of Dover chief executive Doug Bannister said that UKMPG’s suggestions were unrealistic. In an open letter, he said that Dover’s own independent analysis has previously suggested that it would cost around £2.7 billion to take just 20% of Dover’s existing traffic in order to pay for new ferries operating on longer and slower routes. By contrast, a single vessel can complete up to five round voyages in a single day in Dover. Moreover, these new ferries do not exist today and would need to be built; with current shipyard capacities, this would need significant lead time.

The UKMPG paper suggests that other ports might have capacity to take up to 60% of Short Straits traffic now, but acknowledges that this requires both Government and trader support for this offer of ‘resilience’ to be possible, says Dover, suggesting that the cost to businesses and the consumer could be up to around £8 billion.

However, focusing only on port capacity “is terribly one-dimensional,” says Bannister. Other operating models, for example containers and unaccompanied trailers may have inbound dwell times from several hours to even several days whereas average inbound dwell time at Dover is just five minutes, says Bannister.

The ferry links between Dover and Calais, as well as the Channel Tunnel, had achieved their 60% market share of British-Continental EU trade because they were the right choice for business, he said.

He added: “The report is right to focus on resilience as we approach the end of the transition period, but what resilience do you have if you are sending traffic to ports where the ferries do not exist? Neither is that a quick fix. The market dynamic is important here. In fact, rather than investing in new ferries, operators at some of the alternative ports have actually been closing these longer routes with tonnage moving back to the short routes as that is what the market wants – Dover has of course kept going throughout the pandemic.  This dynamic applies to the European side too, with the majority of freight vehicles choosing to route through northern France to Calais and Dunkirk as it is simply closest.”

If there is disruption it will be at every port and: “Sending more traffic to ports that do not even have the ferry capacity will make the situation far worse and create far less resilience for UK trade,” he pointed out.

In contrast, the traffic management regimes for the Short Straits are tested and proven. For example, the recent national security operation that affected all ports with additional screening and searches left around 4,500 lorries in Operation Stack.  When the security operation ended, Dover had cleared all queuing traffic and was back to normal within just 12 hours. “Nowhere else could do that,” said Bannister. “It would take weeks with the current vessel capacities and frequencies available elsewhere.”