Back in 2018 we warned that traditional South East ports were in danger of being overwhelmed. We were right as media reports consistently show. It was time then for a reality check about our trade logistics with continental Europe and we still need that, especially with the huge pressures facing our economy just now.
The lessons have been there from the Irish Sea model that we have successfully operated for many years. Our partnership with shipping line DFDS, which operates on the same unaccompanied freight model, has been a huge success already, with growth in the units handled trebling in 2021.
The total freight units carried is relatively small compared to the overall volume of units, but that’s to miss the point. The increase over the year shows that the demand is there for an alternative solution and should give confidence to a traditionally conservative supply chain sector that the change is in their interests.
The supply chain needs certainty, predictability and resilience but we all know about the acute delays and problems that already exist at Dover when there’s the slightest disruption to normal operations. Add to that the complications and extra time required with customs paperwork and it’s easy to see that we’ve reached a tipping point there.
“Businesses simply can’t take a huge gamble on what that post-Brexit world might look like, especially those with ‘just-in-time’ processes or that are shipping perishable goods. They need to take steps now to ensure they can deliver goods on time without incurring massive extra costs or compromising on quality. That is perfectly achievable by moving away from the fixation with Dover and by using unaccompanied trailers as many companies do already on the Irish Sea.”
Currently, more than 75% of all roll-on roll-off (RORO) freight from ports on the near continent passes through the Dover Straits. The market is around 4 million units, of which 99% is accompanied.
This is in contrast to Irish Sea freight, where more than 50% of the cargo is unaccompanied. In this model, goods can be held as contingency stock at the port of entry and trailers do not leave the port until up to 48 hours after their arrival in some circumstances. Such an approach would provide more time for border checks to take place without the pressure of them needing to be completed during a short sea crossing or at a congested border point.
Cargo owners and their supply chain providers typically need freight units to leave ports immediately on arrival or just 90 minutes after vessel departure from Calais. Companies could look at creating stockpiles in UK warehouses that will allow them to meet business requirements in the event of any delays, but that results in long leases and increased road or rail mileage in diverting to warehouses, increased handling costs, and increased risk of damage to goods. Also, it’s not clear that such warehousing is available in sufficient supply or on flexible terms.
Going back to 2018, we carried out modelling that showed that routing via ports such as London Medway is just as efficient as the existing options through the Dover Straits. Although the sea leg is longer road miles are reduced. Door to door cargo owners can actually save money, as well as avoiding congestion and reducing carbon emissions. Other benefits include improved productivity for hauliers as drivers do not waste any time on the sea leg.
We now know that these benefits are real, not just modelled. That’s good news for the whole UK economy as well as the communities in the South East that suffer from avoidable haulier congestion.