Channel Tunnel. Photo: Youtube

Brexit means record business for Eurotunnel

Channel Tunnel. Photo: Youtube

Channel Tunnel has seen an all-time record in freight traffic across the North Sea last month. While the English and the French have, on occasion, not seen eye to eye on matters of state, they are in agreement that the difference of opinion over Brexit has been anything but detrimental to business under the waves.

For freight, specifically their road vehicle shuttle, October 2019 was financially the best ever in the Tunnel’s 25-year history, according to Getlink, the parent company responsible for operations linking Great Britain and France via the Channel Tunnel. Citing stockpiling in preparation for the now-abandoned Brexit date of 31 October, Getlink say that their results in the month represented an all-time record of almost 154,000 trucks transported though the 31 mile / 51km twin bores. That beat by around 1,500 trailers the previous record, also set this year (in March).

Gauge difference

To environmentalists those figures will be music worthy of a Eurovision Song Contest win. They will be calculating the road miles and emissions saved as a result. However, there remains the issue of road shuttle trains providing only the relatively short hop between Coquelles and Folkstone. While it would be good for the planet, and potentially commercially desirable to run further by rail, especially on the UK side, the historic loading gauge of the British railway network makes that impossible, without wholesale rebuilding.

Routes have been enhanced over the years, and the use of low-floor rolling stock (such as Megafret) does permit more through running of intermodal trains, even with high-top containers. However, the Tunnel’s loading gauge is far larger than either the British or French networks, meaning all road traffic has to detrain on arrival.

Parking problem

With 32 trucks per train, and a train every ten minutes at capacity, that does bring problems, particularly for the local authority in the English County of Kent. The Garden of England, as it is affectionally known, can often become the Lorry Park of England, whenever Tunnel operations go less than faultlessly.

For many years, on the British side, a contingency called Operation Stack has been used, to park heavy goods vehicles heading for the Continent on the carriageway of the approach motorway. That plan has been enhanced since fears that the aftermath of Brexit would bring customs chaos to the ports. An entire airfield (the former holiday airport of Manston) has been commandeered to take any overspill.


Meanwhile, freight forwarders have the headache of actually stocking that stockpile of everything from white goods to aspirin. While it has meant more miles on the roads of England, all that freight has been dispersed away from the Tunnel relatively easily. At one stage this Autumn all warehousing in the UK was entirely booked.

It has not been like that since the depths of the Second World War. Given that most stock will be rotated, that means there is another pile up of men and materials desperate to get out of France due around the end of January next year. It may mean more Dunkirk spirit and bumper to bumper traffic in the Lorry Park of England, but that is likely to lead to another bumper month for Tunnel operations.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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