Calais disruption: Summer of discontent

It’s not been an easy couple of months for operators crossing into Europe – and it’s not been a picnic for businesses trying to run services in the south east either. Jessamy Chapman talks to some of those operators who have been affected by disruption in Dover and Calais.

With strikes by French ferry workers blocking up the port of Calais since June, causing traffic chaos and allowing unusually high numbers of migrants to try their luck in stowing away on the stationary vehicles, it’s been a tough summer for businesses trying to cross the Channel.

And, because of the resulting backed-up traffic on both sides, it’s not just the coach operators, drivers and holiday makers going into Europe that have suffered – it’s those simply going about their business in Kent and the rest of the South East, as well.

 

Operation Stack

The deployment of Operation Stack on the M20 is supposed to avoid gridlock on the motorways, but the reality is that it can cause massive queues across Kent.

Clive Eglinton, MD of Sittingbourne-based Chalkwell, says that the disruption affects its commuter, local bus and private hire services in Kent and out towards London. He reports that Operation Stack brings Maidstone almost to a standstill, and the company has struggled to keep its drivers within their hours. “The impact of Operation Stack is to see the congestion spread over a much wider area,” he says.

Alistair Bayliss, of Bayliss Executive Travel, agrees. “It’s just moving the problem to a different area of Kent,” he says.

As this issue goes to press Operation Stack is not being used, but the government has announced a new plan to ease pressure on the M20 by holding lorries at Manston Airfield in East Kent, taking an estimated 50 miles of lorries off the road.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has also announced a temporary relaxation of the drivers’ hours rules (routeone, News, 8 August) for drivers in the UK affected by Operation Stack, and subsequent delays throughout the rest of Kent.

 

School trouble

“The couple of weeks prior to schools breaking up was when we experienced most disruption,” says Ian Fraser, MD at The Kings Ferry. “We advised customers traveling during this period that we would be unable to visit Calais or Cite Europe because of the safety concerns.

“We offered our customers alternative destinations, the option to postpone their trip at no cost, or a full refund. All of our customers were very accommodating once we explained our concerns, and either opted for alternate destinations or a postponement of their trip.”

Luckett’s Travel of Fareham has suffered: A major school trip, which would have seen children performing music at the Menin Gate in Ypres, was cancelled because of the delays en route and the fact that a return time couldn’t be guaranteed. Various day trips have also been cancelled. “It’s not right to set off on a trip with that level of uncertainty,” says Paul Barringer, Group Sales and Marketing Director.

The result is that passengers’ confidence in booking a trip is affected. “With any trip we do now, we get regular phone calls from passengers to ask whether it’s running and what will happen,” says Mr Barringer. “It’s the randomness of it – it’s fine today, but it could pop up again tomorrow.”

 

Customer impact

“Our experience has been relatively calm,” says Richard Grey, MD of Grey’s of Ely. “However, what we are seeing is increased concern from clients.

“You need to manage a client’s perceived fear of the uncertainty of what could or might happen. I think the longer this goes on, the worse this type of worry will get, and the migration of people using alternate ports such as Dunkirk and the Hook will increase.”

“Most of our regular customers are booking UK destinations, and just don’t want to risk the Calais disruptions,” says Stephen Dine, MD of Empress Coaches of Hastings. “The media is playing a good role in whipping up the problem.”

John Fowler, Coach Services Manager at Epsom Coaches, tells routeone: “Reassuringly, our loyal customers are still booking the excursions we operate to Bruges, Boulogne and Ypres.

“Unfortunately one excursion that did depart was turned back to the UK at the tunnel exit in France.” Epsom cancelled two other day excursions and rescheduled a third, and its private hire side was badly hit, with five different schools cancelling.

Terry McIntyre, MD of Hoddesdon-based Golden Boy, relates that a coach returning from Germany with a school party in July was delayed for nearly three hours by a blockade near Calais. When it arrived at the Euro Shuttle terminal, it had missed the train, and three other trains were cancelled.

Golden Boy had to send a relief driver to Medway Services late at night to continue with the journey back to Hertfordshire.

Mr McIntyre says: “We provide our drivers with the Border Force Code of Practice and ensure that they know what their responsibilities are with regards to carrying out thorough vehicle checks at the ports.”

 

Eurotunnel support

“We have had heart-warming co-operation from Eurotunnel in assistance with moving spaces to other dates,” says John Fowler. “The relaxation of drivers’ hours assisted greatly with a tour we had starting out to Switzerland which was delayed at Folkestone, but the greatest disruption for the departures which have operated has been seen returning to the UK on the French side, with two-three-hour delays.

“Obviously all the above does come at a cost, and it is a shame that industrial action from another EU state should have such an effect on our trade.”

Alistair Bayliss praises Eurotunnel and the ferry companies for the way they have dealt with the problems. “We’ve been in continual contact with them and they deserve huge credit for the way they have tried to communicate with coach operators. Every time we’ve needed information they’ve been spot on; Eurotunnel has bent over backwards to assist us.”

Dave Houghton, Director of C&J Tours, says its recent journey to Lake Constance has suffered changed pick-up times and a reduced number of pick-ups to give enough time to get to Dover, which inconvenienced passengers, and it also changed its overnight hotel at an extra cost. “I’m glad we only do a couple of European tours a year,” says Mr Houghton.

 

Advice for operators

Richard Grey says: “Advice specific to coach operators is quite sparse. We have for many years used a modified version of the Freight document (www.zigs.me/4ZM) to help our drivers comply with UK border control, and with the recent press about the operator caught with clandestines on his coach, it is even more prevalent that these checks are closely adhered to.

“The relaxation of drivers’ hours last week by DVSA for drivers passing through the port of Dover/Calais is welcome, but ultimately the route cause needs to be promptly addressed. Otherwise there could be serious consequences for the industry for coach travel abroad, as clients may look to fly and then use a European carrier to better serve their needs, and avoid the port issues all together.”

Christopher Nice, Director of Communications at the Confederation of Passenger Transport, says: “We appreciate that the situation has become increasingly difficult for drivers of both PSV and freight vehicles and we have urged operators to make sure that their drivers/staff are fully briefed and prepared before setting off on any tours which run via Calais.

“The CPT continues to express its concerns about the current situation – especially in relation to the cost and inconvenience being experienced by customers, and the effect it is having on drivers – with the DfT and the freight and seas sectors, and we will keep members informed on how these discussions develop.”

Mr Fraser says: “We have strong procedures and an extensive check list in place for drivers visiting or stopping in Pas de Calais.”

Paul Barringer says: “It’s a far wider issue than we can deal with, but we make sure we work with our customers to keep them up to date with news as we get it.”