The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) has urged the government to lead discussions to prevent a repeat of last weekend’s scenes at Dover, where coaches were delayed up to 24 hours.
The critical incident at the port has today been declared over following lengthy queues at passport control, which were first reported on Friday night.
The Port of Dover partly blamed the issue on the high volume of coach bookings on ferries and promised to review procedures in time for Easter this coming weekend.
Following similar problems in Calais in February, CPT Coaching Manager Phil Smith told routeone of the damage to the industry and says the coach sector should be treated better.
“We can’t afford another episode like this,” he says. “Coach travel is far more CO2-efficient than travelling by air or by car or even train. We are the champions of environmental travel when it comes to people going abroad in large numbers. That should be recognised by government, the ports and ferry companies and all the other stakeholders.”
Mr Smith says excuses over the high volume of coaches at the start of what was for many the Easter school holiday did not stack up.
“They can’t use that a reason for the disruption because the ferry companies know how many coaches are booked,” he says. “I presume ferry companies share that information with the Port of Dover. For me, there’s been an issue in that line of communication; it’s not down to the coach operators.”
The Confederation called for discussions between the government, the Port of Dover, ferry companies and coach operators to end the misery for the industry.
CPT heard many complaints from members of waits of between eight and 24 hours, along with knock-on problems as this took some drivers over their legal hours. It fears the situation could be repeated once the summer travel season is underway.
Graham Vidler, CPT Chief Executive, says: “Something’s clearly wrong when a coach – the most efficient way to transport large numbers of people across the Channel – is treated unfairly compared to other vehicles.
“Coaches provide the answer to the environmental and congestion issues we’re trying to address, yet some of our spacious vehicles full of students and holidaymakers were left stranded.
“The procedures to enter the EU should not have a negative impact on people who don’t want to fly or drive by car to continental Europe. We’re calling on the government, the Port of Dover and ferry companies to get round the table with the coach sector to resolve this mess once and for all.”
“It can’t happen again”
Dave Parry, Managing Director Parrys International, says he had already written to his MP Gavin Williamson to express his outrage at an “unbelievable” situation after Parrys’ coaches had been kept waiting up to 12 hours before crossing the Channel last weekend.
Mr Parry believes it is merely a French passport control staffing issue that could be rectified relatively easily, with coaches processed potentially in minutes. “It has got the resources to do it, it just didn’t do it,” he told routeone. “If [French authorities] can’t do it, the government should say ‘move your passport control to France.'”
He adds that crossing delays were already hitting his business hard. “There is a solution to this and it needs to be done,” he says. “It’s hitting our business when customers know that, if they fly, which is not environmentally friendly, there’s no hold-up at the airports or on cruise ships. Our industry is the greenest of all, and we’re getting victimised because people in the wrong place can’t handle our coaches.
“We’re firing out shots to everybody to say it can’t happen again. If it happens again it’s another disaster for our industry because people will not travel by coach at peak times.”
Barnes Coaches of Swindon was another operator hit severely by the delays. Its two coach-loads of children leaving on Friday endured a 54-hour journey from Swansea to Italy. They were kept waiting for more than 15 hours at the port, so had to spend an unscheduled night in France as a result.
Two of Barnes’ coaches on Saturday had delays of seven and a half hours and nearly 12 hours respectively. Another two arriving at Dover at 0730hrs this morning (Monday 3 April) were both delayed by one hour 45 minutes.
Worsening delays to come?
It is thought the Entry/Exit System (EES), which was due to be launched this year but which has been put back to 2024, could make the issue worse. Under EES, passengers entering Schengen countries will be required to be fingerprinted and have facial biometrics taken.
Mr Parry believes the system may lead to a streamlined process eventually but fears further delays initially.
Port of Dover Chief Executive Doug Bannister told media that Brexit means every passport now had to be checked and that the port was busier than this time last year.
A statement from the Port of Dover reads: “We continue to offer our sincere apologies to all those affected by the prolonged delays that have occurred over this weekend.
“We will be conducting a full review of our plans with ferry operators early this week to ensure improvements are made ready for the forthcoming Easter weekend.”