The future of ferry travel after a year of challenges

Michael Grey highlights how ferry operators and ports in the UK and Europe are adapting to operational changes prompted by both Covid-19 and Brexit

The future of ferry travel after a year of challenges
How will those operators offering routes directly from Ireland to the continent make it pay?

Regardless of what has been thrown at them over the past year, it is clear that ferry operators and ports in the UK and Europe have responded well. Lockdowns, seasonal surges and the pre- and post-Brexit challenges have been dealt with in a highly professional manner, despite the forecasts of chaos. The way that half a dozen large ships’ worth of lorries swallowed up the vast lorry parks in Kent, England with commendable speed deserved more publicity than it ever received. But it is only bad news that gets noticed.  

The adjustments ferry operators had to make to cope with the disappearance of passenger traffic was clearly painful, yet efficiently undertaken, demonstrating the flexibility of the ferry fleet and management skill. Some routes have been suspended, but will probably return in time, while the opportunity has been taken to move ships around and offload some which have become less economic to operate. New tonnage, ordered before the word “pandemic” had become common currency, has also been delivered. 

It is very interesting to see the new choices that are available to those Irish hauliers who have previously run their road services across the Irish Sea and the Channel, with the “land bridge” of the UK en route to Europe. They now have the option to sail direct to the Continent, with several ferries offering what remain as intra-European routes shorn of the bureaucracy and additional paperwork necessary following the UK’s departure from the European Union.  

On the one hand, it might be suggested that any sea service that takes trucks off the roads is very welcome from an environmental perspective and, as such, should be encouraged in a post-Covid-19 world where people are expected to become more focused on saving the planet. On the other hand, a 24-hour voyage between Ireland and Dunkirk, France or Zeebrugge, Belgium may be very relaxing for delighted long-haul routiers, but it must be paid for.  

Can a ferry running six times per week, with some 60-70 trucks onboard per one-way voyage, for example, earn enough from its users to remain viable, no matter how much red tape is saved by its customers? Think of the number of revenue-earning voyages an Irish Sea boat or the short-sea Channel ferries can pack in during a 24-hour period. Similarly, there is a limit to what the onboard services can earn from road haulage customers who have little cash to splash, while the price premium for the trouble-free long crossing has to remain within reasonable bounds, if the vital repeat business is to be encouraged.  

A good comparison might be the long haul ro-pax services to Spain. They are often somewhat marginal but normally have a sizeable passenger load to assist the contribution from freight that is not available on the new Ireland-Europe services. Lessons from overnight services up and down the North Sea (some of which had a short life) suggest that there is a delicate balance to be struck, not least in the minds of those running haulage companies. It is possible that more of the loads both east and westbound might well convert to unaccompanied arrangements in time. One might also suggest that while Brexit might bring initial paperwork complications, these will become less onerous and more automatic in the coming months as people become accustomed to the new dispensation. However, as with any new ferry route, one has to wish everyone involved a fair wind and full vehicle decks.  

What ferry lines are attempting to undertake is to change their users’ habits, and as the operator of every new ferry operation has discovered, this is often very difficult indeed. Hauliers, who tend to operate to as tight a margin as any ship operator, are exceedingly nervous about anything that departs from their customary cost-structure and often have to be seduced by attractive introductory rates to attempt the unknown, in terms of both costs and schedules. Initial bookings, the operators have said, have been encouraging, but whether these new routes will stand the test of time, we must wait and see.

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

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By Michael Grey
18 May 2021

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