Changes to Channel Tunnel after Brexit: will it affect rail?

The Channel Tunnel between France and England will not close when the UK leaves the EU, but there will be changes to the administration. How might that affect rail freight? Will it be allez vert for go or will rouge signals turn red in equal measure?

You won’t find the Treaty of Canterbury displayed on any pilgrimage, but the 1986 document holds as much significance to Channel Tunnel operations as do any of the twenty-four tales for scholars of Chaucer. It may not have the same lyrical poetry, but the dry volume that forms the legal agreement to operate the Channel Fixed Link is up for replacement when the UK transitions out of the EU at the end of the year.

EU law could be revoked

Rail freight operators on both sides of Channel may have been forgiven for taking a detached view of the impending chaos faced by their road operating cousins. Scary stories have been circulating in the UK about vast lorry parks – twenty-seven of them – being proposed all over England, with the sole purpose of holding goods traffic until formalities and additional paperwork has cleared British customs. The UK government official Michael Gove has told Parliament that the disruption could leave up to 7,000 trucks delayed for days, waiting to cross the Channel.

European Parliament. Photo: Wikipedia

“Until the end of the transition period put in place by the agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the Intergovernmental Commission is the national safety authority of the European Parliament and the Council, which is competent for the Channel Fixed Link”, says a wordy multi-lingual statement from Brussels. Unless otherwise provided after the end of the transition period, continues the statement, European Union law will no longer be applicable to the part of the Channel Tunnel under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. That sounds like halt, in any language.

Belligerent Brexiteers and petty Pays de Calais

It is unlikely that trains have to switch running lines under the Channel, although some belligerent commentators on the Dover Cliffs side of the operation would claim that such nonsense is the price of pettiness from the Pays de Calais. Nevertheless, important matters of protocol and safety will need revision if the Tunnel is to remain a legally administered conduit for people and goods between Europe and the newly-independent UK. It is not clear yet how that will be achieved in the remaining timescale, so rail operators may have cause to be a little less detached from the impending dismay of their road-going counterparts.

What is clear however is that in the bureaucrat style of the EU and its Council, a consultation remains open until the first week in October, before the matter will be debated in Strasbourg – or Brussels, depending on the day of the week.

Passengers and freight flowing for now

All that talk of revised regulations may prove academic. Passenger operators only recently resolved immigrations issues which have finally allowed their customers to ride between the UK and The Netherlands, without the arcane procedure of an immigration stop at the Belgian border.

Freight operators too, initially in the livery of DB Cargo UK were only a matter of a few months ago, proudly reporting new collaborations, which made better use of the Tunnel. Back in May, DB were sending trains through from Spain to the UK, and making use of the high-speed line (HS1) between the Tunnel and London. In recent weeks there have been freight flows through the Tunnel at what are generally regarded as passenger-only hours of the day.

Just as the portals of the 26-year old fixed link appear to be opening up with the ease of flow always envisaged by the engineers and collaborators, it would be a pity if the darkness at the end of the Tunnel really did turn out to be a blockage of Brexit bureaucracy after all. Now, which side is the running line again?

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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