Why a ferry brand needs far more than just a good ship to thrive

The secret to success lies in having helpful staff and well-equipped ports, says Michael Grey

Why a ferry brand needs far more than just a good ship to thrive

iStock/Liz Leyden

Ferry operators and ports must collaborate closely to ensure that passengers vehicles can be loaded and unloaded efficiently

By Michael Grey |

When talking about the ferry industry, it is perhaps understandable that so much of the focus is placed on the ships that operate the services. Each vessel represents a significant investment and there is always a touch of glamour whenever a new one enters service – it’s seen as an expression of confidence in future growth and improved productivity in a competitive market. The trend for both passenger and freight service providers is to build bigger, better and more cost-effective vessels which, these days, feature environmental and sustainability improvements. 

We can see this with Stena Line’s E-Flexer series, in which the name gives a clue to their advantages over smaller, less flexible predecessors, as well as the large Cobelfret freight ships which swallow up miles of trailers on several routes in North Europe. Meanwhile, the two P&O Ferries’ double-ended ferries soon to enter service on the cross-Channel route between Dover, England, and Calais, France, will feature diesel-battery power plants and a design that will reduce fuel consumption by some 40 per cent compared to the existing and far smaller ships they will replace. And that distinctive double-ended design will save more time and fuel, eliminating the need to turn around, back and fill, into the berths. It ought to make a big difference over quite a short period, with so many crossings each day.

But if we are thinking about the productivity and competitiveness of a ferry operator, the ship should not be the only criterion. Having efficient terminal facilities, in the right place, is every bit as important, which transfers at least half of the responsibility to the port operator that must provide them. One can think of a lengthy list of ports which struggled, and ultimately proved unattractive for ferry operators, because of their unwillingness to invest in facilities, being located in the wrong place, or their shallow waters, tidal range, or navigational complexities. Perhaps they just could not cope with the exponential growth in ship dimensions, or the fact there was not the back-haul business for the road hauliers.

The transport infrastructure associated with the port can also lead to its success or failure, and therefore local and national governments must play a role too. Ferry routes have stagnated or died because of road connections that nobody could be persuaded to improve to decent standards. In a world where logistics has become a science, it is the costs of time of a shipment from source to destination which will be carefully analysed and poor or congested road connections, will be marked up against the route as a whole. Increasingly, the port authorities and other users of the routes, will find themselves having to contribute to transport improvements and maintenance, often miles from the port itself.

Terminals are measured for their efficiency using all manner of matrices. The efficiency of customs and other border controls are hugely important for both freight and passenger operations. Smooth passage on and off the ships is measured carefully by users who have choices and are in a position to compare one terminal against another. Absolutely crucial to the impression these users take away is the helpfulness and attitude of the staff on the terminal gates. Dealing with sometimes confused drivers, who may have limited language facilities and plenty of documents, even in an age of electronic booking, needs a particular ‘soft’ skill, which, according to good managers, is worth its weight in gold. So, it might be suggested that capable staff, both ashore and afloat, are the most important assets of the port and the ship.

Good terminal design needs to be adaptable and clearly requires serious investment. A typical example might be the £100 million ($120 million) which is to be spent on building three new ro-ro berths at Immingham Outer Harbour in Lincolnshire, England, in a collaboration between Stena and Associated British Ports. There will be no constraints on ship size as there was in the past, when ships had to be locked in and out to the enclosed dock, so the time savings will be considerable. The productivity of a new terminal will thus be eminently demonstrable.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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