Ferries, a flexible alternative to bridges and tunnels

Michael Grey outlines why ferries are often preferable to fixed links between countries or cities
Ferries, a flexible alternative to bridges and tunnels
A rendering of the new battery/hybrid ferries that started crossing the Thames this January

By Guest |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Around midsummer, there was a curious juxtaposition of stories in the UK press. As a sort of oblique intrusion into the Brexit debate, the then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested that Northern Ireland be joined to the British mainland by means of a bridge. Whether this was a serious suggestion, or just a red herring to confound the European Union Brexit negotiators who have been focusing on the UK’s border with Ireland, it would have undoubtedly quickened the pulse of the international civil engineering community, which tends to be the beneficiary of grand political schemes for replacing ferries with fixed links.

A few days later, ferry operator Stena made its own statement of faith in the flexibility of ferries, by revealing that one of its new E-Flexer newbuilds (to be built by AVIC Wehai in China) would be allocated to the route between Holyhead, Wales and Dublin, Ireland. Whatever the uncertainties surrounding Brexit and so-called hard or soft borders, or the remote possibility that the ‘Boris Bridge’ might be thrown across the North Channel, it illustrates the flexibility that ferries provide. Bridges, or indeed tunnels, take years of political debate, surveys of potential traffic and arguments about the costs. Conversely, a decision to reinforce a ferry link, replace or modernise tonnage, or test an entirely new ferry route, can be done almost immediately in relative terms.

There is a classic example of this on the River Thames, where the Woolwich Free Ferry has carried passengers and road vehicles across the river for nearly 130 years. The present three ro-ro ferries have been running non-stop since the early 1960s when they replaced the original early 20th-century paddlesteamers, but they have been threatened by a replacement fixed link for the past 20 years. This is undoubtedly needed, as the existing East London river crossings (two tunnels downstream of Tower Bridge) are hopelessly congested. However, arguments have raged about the location of a new crossing, whether it should be another tunnel or a bridge, the escalating costs of both options, and who should be paying for such a structure. Meanwhile the three ferries, which are well maintained by their current managers Briggs Marine, have trundled on, keeping communities connected and serving as useful relief valve for the congested tunnels. They remain convenient, essential for their regular patrons and (above all) a toll-free crossing.

Perhaps despairing of ever resolving the arguments over the fixed links, all parties involved decided that ferries remained an elegant, easy option and two modern vessels were ordered in Poland. Designed as battery/hybrid craft by Norwegian company LMG Marin, they will enter service early next year, when the three elderly craft will finally be retired. The arguments about a fixed link between the north and south banks of the Thames in East London will doubtless rage on as the novelty of the two new ships disappears.

Importantly, it cannot be assumed that the completion of a fixed link will automatically represent a death warrant for the ferries which hitherto have provided any crossing. For example, the extensive bridge between Malmö, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark, may have killed off the ro-ro passenger ships that previously served the two cities, but those running across the Sound a few miles to the north are intact and very busy. Indeed, considerable investment is still going into the service between Elsinore, Denmark and Helsingborg, Sweden, with the most modern ships I the fleet being electrified to improve their environmental performance.

Put simply, while bridges and tunnels clearly have an important place for those who can summon the political will to have them constructed and afford to use them, ferries tend to survive and prosper because they take people where they want to go. The great bridge across the Bosporus between Asian and European Turkey may be a civil engineering triumph, but it soon became congested, attracting traffic like a magnet. The network of both passenger and vehicular ferries has remained and is currently being modernised. Similarly, when the Auckland Harbour Bridge was opened in the 1960s, it initially killed off the passenger ferries that served both sides of the harbour. But as the fixed link became congested, its convenience was limited and a thriving ferry service, taking passengers exactly where they want to go, was re-established. It is a pattern that has been replicated elsewhere.

People confidently predicted that the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France would sound the death knell of the Channel ferry trade, but it has effectively readjusted, offering what the Shuttle does not – time to rest and shopping and dining opportunities. The ferries also provide choice and a valuable alternative should problems arise with the fixed link. 

Although technically possible to build, a fixed link across the Irish Sea would have a stupendous cost and would probably founder on issue of political will to build it. As with any massive civil engineering project, a new bridge would be a bonanza for its builders and the extensive workforce that would be employed to construct the bridge and develop the surrounding infrastructure. But it’s not difficult to see the years of political arguments that would rage, with the governments in Stormont, Edinburgh, Westminster and Dublin, perhaps even in Cardiff, raising important issues and inevitably delaying the project. The better and easier option is to focus on ferries, which with a multiplicity of routes, at least take their customers to where they want to go. The ferries, perhaps with the stimulus of competition, will get bigger, better and more enjoyable to travel on and terminals can be improved for both freight and passenger users at a fraction of the enormous costs of the massive civil engineering projects presently reverberating in the fertile minds of their designers. 

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