Restarting accompanied freight services between Ostend and Ramsgate could take some of the pressure off the Dover Straits
The British government has got into hot water over the award of a "no deal" Brexit ferry contract to a company that do date has never operated any shipping services, Seaborne Freight.
However, what has been overlooked in the negative coverage in national print and broadcast media is that reactivating an Ostend-Ramsgate ferry link is a "no brainer," irrespective of Brexit.
A "no deal" Brexit raises the prospect of chaos in the Dover Straits (ferries and Eurotunnel). This corridor normally caters for around 14,000 trucks a day, of which reefer trucks account for an estimated 15%, and the British economy is dangerously overdependent on it.
The government awarded three "no deal" contracts on the basis that the UK is facing a "situation of extreme urgency" and, as such, the awards followed a "negotiated procedure without a call for competition." The news was released by the Department for Transport (DfT) on Christmas Eve, traditionally a good day to slip things past the media.
The Dover Straits supply chain is no stranger to a "situation of extreme urgency." Everyone in the UK-Continent supply chain remembers the chaos of summer 2015. Groupe Eurotunnel (GET) finally lost its protracted battle with the UK competition authorities to run Dover-Calais ferry services and was forced to put its MyFerryLink (ex-Seafrance) vessels up for sale.The SCOP workers’ co-op that ran the ships went out of business and this led to weeks of strikes, violent protests and sit-ins in the Port of Calais and the GET terminal in Calais-Fréthun, paralysing them for weeks, with long motorway tailbacks on both sides of the Channel.
The DfT announced awards totalling £102.9M. Of this, £46.6M is earmarked for Britanny Ferries to create or increase capacity from France/Spain to the UK South Coast (Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth), and £42.3M will go to DFDS Ferries to lay on extra services at Felixstowe and Immingham on the east coast.
The most intriguing award is the one for £13.8M to an unknown player, Seaborne Freight, regarding freight-only ferry services between Ostend and Ramsgate. Seaborne Freight was formed in 2016 with the object of restarting ferry services between the two ports, but has not operated any services up to now.
There have been no Ramsgate-Ostend ferry services since 2013, when TransEuropa Ferries went bankrupt, owing millions in unpaid port dues. Ironically, if the company had been able to stay in the market until 2015, it would have made a killing!!
The market has been changing since then. In particular, the number of services catering for unaccompanied transports (trailers, containers on ro-ro cassettes and lo-lo container services) over British East Coast ports has been increasing in the past two years and more, due mainly to growing driver shortage problems, overlaid latterly with concerns over Brexit.
Nevertheless, at 14,000 trucks/day, the volume of traffic via the Dover Straits (roughly 55% ferries and 45% GET freight shuttles) is too important to ignore, especially given the high share of reefers and other J-I-T shipments.
On a number of grounds, therefore, Ramsgate-Ostend looks like a good call. The ports are proximate to Dover-Calais, crossing time is just five hours (two hours for Dover-Calais ferries), and crucially the route would, just like the Dover Straits, cater for accompanied trucks, so requires minimum change in supply chain behaviour.
Most accompanied freight via the Dover Strait is coming from Central and Eastern/South Eastern Europe, so in that respect Ostend, which enjoys the same excellent motorway access as Calais, involves at least one hour’s less driving time (100 kms) on the Continent. The Port of Ramsgate claims "excellent road connectivity" [A299→A2→M2], but it cannot match the port of Dover or the GET terminal in Folkestone-Cheriton, which drain straight onto the M20.
Perhaps the biggest concern in all this is the fact that Seaborne Freight has been trying to launch a service since 2016, which begs the question why government support is needed to get it started. Market forces should be moving in the direction of a credible offer on this obvious alternative routing. There are many shippers and transport operators who are reluctant or unable to change their supply chain model to unaccompanied, but want a viable alternative to Dover-Calais to avoid risking a repeat of their experiences using the Dover Straits in 2015.
To qualify for the support, the Seaborne Freight service must be started by "Brexit Day" (29th March) with at least two ferries, but this would need to be upgraded to at least four ferries to have any real market impact.
Where are these ferries going to come from? Of course, ferries can be chartered on the open market, but no-one knows whether Seaborne would opt for bare boat charters or will have to rely on fully-managed services. There are no indications of the vessels it wants to fix.
There is opaqueness about Seaborne Freight’s financial resources, but the company’s CEO, Ben Sharp, has said that backing is coming from City investors. Certainly, Sharp’s colleagues in the company know the cross-channel ferry market, as two of them were with MyFerryLink. Glenn Dudley was freight Sales Director and Jean-Michel Copyans ran the freight operations.
The DfT says it awarded Seaborne Freight the contract after "due diligence." Speaking to worldcargonews online, Sharp said the company was awarded the deal based "on the quality of its plan and its backers.
"We wanted to proceed before now, but the problem has not been with us; it’s been with the infrastructure on the UK side," he said. "Speaking for ourselves, we will be in a position to proceed with or without Brexit. We have the resources, and vessels are being offered to us now. Our investors are a mixture of European shipowners and City of London financial institutions, and we know that hauliers and shippers want to use the services."
He reiterated the point made by the DfT that Seaborne Freight will not get anything from the government unless the services are ready by 29th March.
So what sort of ferries is Seaborne Freight discussing? Freight-only ferries will certainly cost less than ro-pax ferries, but there is a further difficulty with restricted berth sizes and depth at Ramsgate. By way of example, only one of MyFerryLink’s former ships, the converted SNCF/SNAT train ferry NORD PAS DE CALAIS (currently operating as AL ANDALUS EXPRESS in Canary Islands’ trades), would be suitable, but it has an intake of just 75 trucks.
NORD PAS DE CALAIS was used by MyFerryLink to carry trucks with hazardous cargo, which are prohibited from using the tunnel. The GET affiliate’s two ro-paxes, RODIN and BERLIOZ (now operated by DFDS between Dover and Calais as COTE DES DUNES and COTE DE FLANDRES), are too big for Ramsgate (as things stand).
Thanet District Council (TDC), which runs the Port of Ramsgate, is very keen to see the Ostend ferry link re-established and has been in discussions with Seaborne Freight as a "potential operator" for some time, with the Brexit scenario giving added impetus.
As part of this, TDC has "reviewed the capability of the Port of Ramsgate to provide capacity to support the Brexit position which, with an investment of £26M [including dredging], includes the potential for up to 24 sailings a day, to create capacity to divert 3,360 lorry movements per day from Operation Brock from the M20 and M26, significantly reducing pressure on the Port of Dover during peak traffic flows.
"This would be especially beneficial to the ‘Just in Time’ production processes and logistics for example the chilled food sector. This information has been shared with Government. The Government has not responded to the council on that basis, but we are aware that the Government is having discussions with other parties regarding contingency arrangements."
Dredging is now under way at the Port of Ramsgate. Nevertheless, without a big increase in capacity at the port, 3360 truck moves/day (25% of Dover Straits traffic!) is not feasible. However, there are reports that Transport Minister Chris Grayling is willing to invest much bigger sums to boost Ramsgate’s credibility as an alternative to Dover. Assuming the Flemish Ports Association in Belgium is keen on new business, this would put pressure on France to minimise border checks in Calais port and Calais-Fréthun.
The current state of the infrastructure for ferry services in Ostend is unclear, as the Belgian port did not return our calls.
Another strategic point is that Ramsgate is close to the disused Manston Airport. This can be used to hold trucks if there is "friction" in the Ostend-Ramsgate route. Already, the site will be used for tests, holding trucks bound for Dover.
In the event of a Brexit deal, the government aims to recoup [some of] its subventions by selling the extra capacity back to the market. Meanwhile, by taking the strain off Dover-Calais, it is doing everyone a favour!