Yet again we are faced with congestion at the port of Dover. This is a recurrent problem to which neither Dover Harbour Board (DHB) nor the Kent Resilience forum have any answers or solutions. Instead, the same old lame excuses are trotted out.
Well, we have weather all the time in the channel and ships nowadays are far more capable than they once were in my time in the Merchant Navy. True, the sheer size of some of them (some ferries are larger than the Titanic) and the inbuilt issues of a savage tide race in the Admiralty harbour can cause delays, but last weekend’s weather was no worse than many others.
“Unanticipated levels of traffic”
It is near Easter. School parties have traditionally travelled to the ski slopes of Europe at this time of year (at least from those families who are not worried about heating or eating) so, even at DHB, experience would tell them that there would be a lot of travellers, mixed up with the freight, at this time of year. Perhaps ‘unanticipated’ was the wrong word. We forgot and did not plan ahead, might be more pertinent.
The perfidious Franks have imposed border controls on the basis of the UK being a ‘third party state’ since the UK‘’’s exit from the EU. They told the UK that is what they would do, and they have a perfect right to do so. We know what that means. Every passport has to be checked and stamped. It increases passport checks for cars to about 90 seconds per vehicle, but for coaches longer, sometimes much longer. Think how long it will be to process a coach load of school children or OAPs, and what problems might result.
DFDS ferries promised 5-minute checks for coaches, so what happened there? In November, they declared they had a phone app for the coach driver so he could transmit photos of the passports of all the coach passengers to the border office for checking. So what happened there?
UK bound coaches have suffered delays before during peak holiday periods such as earlier this year in February during the strike of French border officials, but at that time there were arguments that the cause of delays was not the strike but rather the sheer number of coaches.
Part of the issue may be increased prices and reduced service levels at Eurotunnel. Over a quarter of coach companies surveyed say they will not use the Eurotunnel again. Instead they prefer the ferries, no doubt encouraged by ‘competitive pricing’ from the likes of P+O, who seem to be at the bottom of some of this problem.
Coach operators and tour operators are on very tight margins and this year, with inflation at a 40-year high, consumers are seeking value. The coach is not only a cost effective mode of transport, it is also relatively green compared to flying or individual cars, so a switch to the lowest priced short sea crossing provider might have been anticipated.
So what do we do?
The coach operators are seeking answers and I think they have a reasonable case.
So here is a suggested plan of action:
- DHB should talk to the ferry operators and find out what bookings they have taken or anticipate. That way they (DHB ) will know what is going to happen.
- There is an almost empty lorry park at Sevington, Ashford. Why not use it as a coach passenger processing centre on a temporary basis. Cars and trucks will proceed as normal and coaches could be processed there, in batches by French border control, and escorted to each ferry in a convoy. Some diplomacy around the 2005 Le Touquet agreement about the siting of Channel border controls would be necessary.
- The Kent resilience forum could examine these options and suggest other remedies, including more use of cross Channel rail for school parties.
- For a change all parties could be proactive and stop sitting on their hands, hoping that something will turn up, because only nemesis will come calling, unless someone does something.
- There should be a long term plan. DHB has just trousered £60m to solve this issue, but Dover is too small. At peak periods Ramsgate might be used. But its harbour will require regular dredging and only smaller vessels can use it, so perhaps a time charter with Stena Ferry company might be necessary.
- Longer term planning will certainly be needed when the new bio-checks are imposed, on the identity of each passenger.
Finally, what does Dover get from all this? Every year we get the same problems, and the local residents and those living in the district get the flak. It’s not as if there are job opportunities, thanks to P+O’s unlawful sacking of all of its seagoing staff.
The residents of Aycliffe are especially afflicted when ‘critical incidents’ are announced. Their only reward seems to be that they lose their evening bus service, so maybe the decision makers at Whitehall, Maidstone and Dover ought to spare a thought for the long suffering citizens of Aycliffe and Dover.
How it will affect Fastrack
By the way, the shiny new Fastrack bus service will come to a screaming halt every time this happens, so I would like to hear what contingencies there are for such eventualities.
My advice to all here is to stop trying to manage things in silos, you must cooperate and work together with the common aim of transporting goods and passengers safely and speedily across the channel.
Editor’s note: Co-Editor Chris Hammond went via the Ferries on 4 April, by which time the congestion had cleared. He was told by some staff there that the problem earlier in the weekend was at the border controls. Some of the ferry boats were departing half empty at a time when the coaches were queuing at the border controls.