Find alternative Brexit ports UK business and freight operators told

The UK government has issued a veiled warning that it expects disruption at the busy English Channel ports in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit transition period ending on 31 December. Politicians in London have advised pharmaceutical companies to build up a six week stockpile of essential medical supplies, to safeguard against problems importing after arrangements with the EU come to an end. Rail freight operators are already preparing for consignments to be transhipped at alternative ports elsewhere around the UK.

Brexit has not gone away. The coronavirus crisis may be monopolising the headlines, but the UK decision to leave the EU is still on the agenda. Although technically already out of the EU, the transition period runs until the end of this year. As yet, a definitive trade deal between the UK and EU still seems a long way off, and there is mounting concern that a ‘no deal’ scenario will come to pass as 2021 dawns.

Co-ordinated approach

Immediate implementation of unfamiliar new customs arrangements will, say the UK government, make delays inevitable. The guidance for medical supplies has come amidst fears that the coronavirus pandemic could flare up again in the winter, precisely at the time of transition.

Britain has intermodal and bulk handling ports all around its coast, many of them rail connected (Network Rail image)

“To build upon past work and ensure a co-ordinated approach, we will be asking suppliers to confirm their contingency plans”, says the UK Department of Health. In a letter to industry, the government department has asked suppliers to avoid the busy Channel ports, particularly Dover and Folkestone.

Plans for Shuttle services

There are already plans made by the local authorities in the South East county of Kent, to prioritise part of the motorway network for Channel trucks. The arrangements call for a fifteen-mile (24 km) stretch of the motorway to Dover to be segregated to handle traffic backed up en route to the freight shuttle and ferry services.

Rail Shuttle services, and direct freight through the Channel Tunnel have been operating without incident since the pandemic struck. Revised working practices have been in place for several months, and there have been no reports of disruptions resulting.

Red tape delays

The early warning from the UK government may encourage international traders to consider alternative ports around the UK. While the official message is aimed at medical supplies, other sectors are cautiously looking at ways to avoid costly delays. That most likely wold mean using other ports, further from the Continent, but potentially less likely to be disrupted by red tape delays.

Port of Tyne South Shields, near Newcastle is a historic port with modern facilities (Port of Tyne)

The UK still has a legacy of trading ports around the coast, and many are still rail connected, even if facilities are under used or dormant. Smaller South Coast ports, like Marchwood near Southampton and Fowey near Plymouth are both rail connected and potential alternatives, while Southampton’s Freightliner Maritime Terminal is within a busy port with several daily intermodal flows already in place.

Alternatives ports of entry

Further around Great Britain, there are a number of East Coast ports that could step in to handle extra rail traffic. Associated British Ports Ipswich could take pressure off nearby Felixstowe, while North East deep water terminals like PD Ports Teesport (pictured above) and Port of Tyne are close to markets in the North of England. Grangemouth can handle traffic directly into Central Scotland and is well placed for distribution southwards. Infrastructure management agency Network Rail endeavours to keep a current list of intermodal port facilities available, via its website.

The initial government advice remains in place for medical supplies. However, the underlying condition is a potential headache for all sectors come the New Year.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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