Tuesday, 19 January 2021

An ill wind


The problems which Brexit has brought to Welsh ports are extremely serious, particularly for those whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened. And there is no doubt that the reduction in trade is likely to be long-term rather than ‘teething problems’ given the way in which hauliers are bypassing the UK and using more direct ferry services between Ireland and the European mainland. That will unquestionably damage GDP and prosperity in Wales. But having said that, I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t an environmental benefit being delivered by avoiding trucking goods offloaded from a ship on one side of the UK all the way across to the other side where they’re put back onto another ship (or train) to cross the water to the mainland.

If we started with a clean sheet of paper, would we really design systems the way that they were working prior to Brexit? I’ve often asked myself why (in the case of goods which are simply transiting across the UK) we don’t simply put them on a train at one port and then take them off at the other port – or even in Calais, after going through the tunnel. It would require investment in rail infrastructure, of course (although it might avoid, or at least delay, some investment in the road infrastructure by reducing the volume of heavy freight traffic) but would probably provide a faster overall transit at lower environmental cost than a stream of lorries. Avoiding the UK ‘land bridge’ by using longer distance ferries probably achieves similar environmental benefits, at the cost of a longer transit time.

Seeing benefits in Brexit isn’t something that comes entirely naturally to me, to say the least, but could the reduction in the number of lorries travelling across the UK from one port to another be a benefit? It’s clearly not an intentional benefit – the UK government seems genuinely surprised at the consequences of the deal it signed in such a rush. The problem is that, precisely because it is an entirely unintended and unforeseen (by the UK Government at least – clearly the Irish government and the ferry companies saw this one coming a long time ago) consequence, the government has not planned for it, or given any thought to the impact on jobs, livelihoods and communities. Rather than calling for changes to the deal so that we can go back to the way things were, might it not be better to start, even now at this late stage, thinking about how we respond to that impact, rather than act as though it is only going to be for a few weeks?


dafis said...

The shape of the main British land mass is an obstacle to swift sea borne traffic. Massive dog leg around Cornwall wherever you intend getting to on mainland France. Further south to say Santander is a touch more direct but bloody rough at times.

So your idea of a regular train to ship demountable containers is sound. It would justify an investment in improved rail from Holyhead and Fishguard/Pembroke to cross UK to feed Dover tunnel terminal or to feed another ferry at any number of possibles on the English Channel coast and likes of Felixtowe round on the East coast. I believe that there is a Hull to Rotterdam ferry of some sort. So who knows what might catch on. One big question - Is the UK government minded to invest in any rail project that is not immediately tied into its HS2 fixation ? And would they do it quickly to catch a market before it disappears into alternatives.

Jonathan said...

In another life I worked for P&O and Hansa Line (ro-ro) and tried to set up Fferi Cymru (Wales to Spain). In theory you are right about Ship/rail/land route across UK. Its how and when containers were invented in the US. Eg "Landbridge". Remember Freightliner? But its not how ro-ro works.
Ro-ro means smaller operators like TD Williams of Ammanford. They have HGVs, they load them, they drive them using local lads, wherever. Anywhere in the EU no problem at all. Mostly they don't use containers because their HGV is the container. They like a choice of ferries eg out via Dover back via Cherbourg. Because they are lorry operators, time at sea is down-time and costs them. So they like the short sea routes. So a ferry from Wales to Spain, which is what I tried, goes against the HGV culture. You'd need a very big corporate effort to set up what you have in mind. This would include the Government. Talking of culture, I have a soft spot for TD Williams, Mansel Davies, Frenni Transport etc. They are our people and they do a good job and often speak Pembrokeshire Welsh. Nowadays, their trucks are faster and don't even block the A487 like they used to! In theory you could band them together and tie them into a Landbridge system, which would be green. But this is Wales. You'd need a Welsh star to build a serious shipping (+rail) corporation. Think Reardon-Smith. We had a guy called Govan Davies in the Daugleddau who got as close as anyone. Oh for a Welsh Onedin Line for 21st Century. Any one else interested or is it just me?
Finally, geography is against us. Ireland being an island HAD to sort shipping especially ferries, and they have. Wales has the landmass of England to bear in mind. This is fine for gas going to Milford Haven (with pipeline to cross England). Ferries are not a natural fit for Wales to EU. It is not immediately obvious what other shipping sectors would suit Wales.

John Dixon said...

Dafis and Jonathan,

The 'wondering aloud' about putting lorries on trains wasn't really intended as a serious suggestion in current circumstances (I'll come back to that). Nor was I particularly thinking in terms of containers. My idle speculation was more about the sort of drive-on drive-off trains used by the operators of the Channel Tunnel, and the only lorries I had in mind were those originating outside GB whose destinations are also outside GB. The dynamics for traffic which originates in, or ends up in, GB are clearly different.

However, returning to 'current circumstances', that ship has now sailed, to coin a phrase. Those operators using the long distance direct ferries from Ireland will, over the coming months and years, adjust their business model to suit the new arrangements. I take the point about time at sea mentioned by Jonathan, but that doesn't mean that they'll immediately return to old ways if, in a few years' time (and I suspect that it will take that long), a new agreement with the EU removes or eases some of the current problems. We have to start from the assumption that traffic lost now is mostly going to be traffic lost for ever, and plan accordingly. (The same is true, incidentally, for all the businesses which have relocated or are relocating part or all of their operations to EU bases. Rejoining the EU, even if it happened reasonably quickly, would not be eough to reverse investment decisions being taken now. Rejoining isn't the easy solution as which some present it.)