UK port routes buoyed by ferry good government cash

Harwich_International_Port (wiki)

The UK government has invested in what it calls vital freight routes, to ensure that capacity is maintained for the flow of critical goods, including food and medical supplies. Several ferry routes between the UK and Europe are to be safeguarded by a multi-million-pound government scheme to help ensure critical goods, such as food and medical supplies, can move freely.

The government in London has signed agreements with six ferry operators to provide up to 35 million British pounds (39 million euros) to help ensure there is enough freight capacity to prevent disruption to the flow of goods.The decision has been made to protect sixteen of the most important routes covering the English Channel, the Irish Sea, the North Sea, and domestic routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which were previously at risk of closure. Ferry operators had warned that the collapse of passenger traffic, as a result of coronavirus, threatened the commercial viability of the routes.

Public Service Obligation

The government has now stepped in and designated several routes as Public Service Obligation (PSO). This gives certain guarantees as to their commercial operation. The PSO designation has been put in place for a period of up to nine weeks from Monday 18 May.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made the announcement.

“From the very beginning of the outbreak, we have committed to do whatever it takes to minimise the disruption caused by COVID-19”, said Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary. “By taking this action, we have helped protect the movement of goods and services in and out of the UK, safeguarding the flow of supplies.”

International and home ports

The UK dependence on sea-borne freight is emphasised but the partner countries involved. The scheme covers ports in Spain, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands.

Whilst the package of support appears to concentrate on ferry-road haulage, most of the UK ports are rail connected. They include Portsmouth, Dover, Tilbury,Teesport, Hull, Heysham, Harwich, and Killingholme (Immingham). Of the other ports in the scheme; the rail connections to Poole and Folkestone lie dormant and unused. Cairnryan in Scotland is not rail connected, but lies close to the former terminal at Stranraer which retains a rail connection for passengers and, potentially, freight. The three ports covered in Northern Ireland are all without rail freight facilities (Belfast, Larne, and Warrenpoint).

Long term modal shift

It is unlikely that the temporary nature of the PSO designation would encourage any operators to make plans for new rail freight flows in the short term. However, with the over-arching government pledges to green the UK economy, ship to rail transport will become more attractive. There is scope for smaller, less than train load operations, which may be more easily accommodated at the facilities existing at the ports covered in this scheme.

Image: courtesy Forth Ports
Tilbury, in the east of London, is among the ports covered by the scheme.

The announcement follows a pledge made last month, jointly by the UK, French and Irish governments. They intend to work together on temporary measures to ensure COVID-19 does not threaten vital freight routes between their countries. The Department for Transport says it is working closely with the transport sector and devolved administrations in the rest of the UK. The DfT says it will monitor the situation on all freight routes, not just those included in this scheme.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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