Brexit-busting Government-chartered ferries are go at Immingham

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 1 Apr 2019

IMMINGHAM’S first Brexit-busting ferries have sailed.

Operator DFDS launched the Government-subsidised extra services between Rotterdam and Cuxhaven, after the busiest week on record. 

The vessels sail with space on them made available on the open market, reducing the cost to the taxpayer, the Department for Transport has confirmed.   

The port’s biggest operator has been at absolute capacity as businesses looked to dodge Friday's Brexit deadline that never materialised. 

Fearing tariffs, hold-ups and delays triggered by customs uncertainty, unprecedented demand was reported by DFDS at its terminal operations on the UK’s largest port, as the controversial ferry contract kicked in on Sunday, despite Britain still being in the EU.

Vessels at both DFDS' outer and inner harbour operations at Immingham.

Andrew Byrne, UK managing director at DFDS, said: “Since the middle of the week before last, until Friday, we have seen levels of activity which are unprecedented. There is no doubt at all that people were panic-moving cargo from A to B, ahead of the potential Brexit on March 29.

“It got to a point where we have to place some restrictions on how we operated the terminal, something which has never happened before in the 27 years it has been operational.

“We have had customers only dropping off if they were picking up – a one-in, one-out situation - such was the volume of cargo.”

Lorries pulling loads and unaccompanied container cargo form a huge part of the trade, with Immingham ideally placed to handle northern European imports, be it consumer goods or manufacturing materials. 

“Lots of customers in continental Europe have been sending and standing goods on the port, just to get goods in to the UK, Mr Byrne said. “We have definitely seen that throughout last week.”

DFDS Seaways' Gardenia Seaways, a recent fleet introduction serving the expanded Rotterdam route.

With Brexit an ever-moving feast in Westminster, those shipping goods have had to best-guess, with the time lag of being at sea. When Prime Minister Theresa May addressed a Grimsby audience at the start of the month, she was asked about some vessels already sailing, carrying consignments unsure of the customs regimes they would be entering.

“Now we are already starting to see it slackening off,” Mr Byrne said of the pre-March 29 initial build-up. “The restrictions we put in place made it inconvenient for them. However, we fully anticipate, whether it is April 12 or May 22, this will happen again. 

“In many ways it is great to be busy, but from a management perspective, we do have standards we like to maintain.”

Mr Byrne said the likes of near-neighbour Humber Sea Terminal at North Killingholme, and colleagues in Felixstowe, were reporting similar situations. 

Port of Immingham. Picture: David Lee Photography Ltd. 

To cope with demand for industrial cargo, such as paper reels and timber stacks “a chunk of additional warehousing space” has also been added to the already increased footprint on Port of Immingham. 

Of the ferries, with DFDS winning a £42 million Government contract in the same batch that saw embattled Transport Secretary Chris Grayling award another deal to a business without any vessels, Mr Byrne said: “The first one was this weekend. They commenced this weekend, and we will constantly review with the DfT, and if they decide they want to do something, be it pausing or postponing, we will act accordingly. We will keep a dialogue open with the DfT.”

A vessel headed out to Rotterdam yesterday, with a departure from Cuxhaven too, as part of the five additional sailings that will allow for 800 extra trailers to be accommodated by the 1,000 strong team on the port.     

On the start of the sailings, with the Prime Minister's deal having failed to win Commons support for a third time, and all eyes on the detail of the indicative votes today, Monday, April 1, for a way forward, a Government spokesperson said: “Leaving with a deal is still our priority, but as a responsible Government it is only right that we push on with contingency measures.

Vessels moored at Humber Sea Terminal, North Killingholme. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

“The Government’s freight capacity contracts run for six months and are a vital part of wider contingency planning. They provide capacity for critical goods, including vital medicines, to continue to enter the UK in a no deal scenario. 

“Due to the agreed extension until April 12, tickets for the first two weeks have been released for sale on the open market which will minimise costs for the taxpayer.”

As reported, the contracts are due to run for six months, which is in line with modelling of potential disruption at Dover.  

Such has been the changing nature of Brexit, the sailings have been honoured as it is not viable to cancel at short notice, with the advanced planning and timetabling required - ensuring ships are available at the right ports to service normal calls.

Stockpiled cars on the South Humber Bank. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

While a clear spike in imports will be emerging as bets are hedged on the Brexit timetable itself, those behind the ports believe an upward trend will also be seen too as supply chains look for stronger links to the UK, avoiding Dover and anticipated delays.  

Dafydd Williams, pictured below, head of corporate affairs and communications for ABP on the Humber, said: “The volumes are up at the moment and we are seeing a lot of activity across the quaysides. We don’t know all the reasons behind it, and clearly there is Brexit, but things are very buoyant at the moment. 

“We think it is a great sign of confidence in the ports, that we represent a really good option for people bringing their goods up.  We have seen trends are up for some time and we are hoping it is not a short-term Brexit effect, but a longer term trade flow, as customers re-route away from ports in the south east to water down impact."

As reported, ABP has expanded its car handling capability by taking extra land on the former Tioxide site in Grimsby.‚Äč

The automotive industry is watching Brexit carefully, as it is highly exposed to tariffs and with complex parts supply chains there have been stark warnings about future UK production from Japanese and European brand owners. 

While it would leave imports unaffected, providing tariff charges didn't put consumers off, it could hit export trade, with Toyota a major operator out of Grimsby, due to the Derby factory, where concern has been sounded. 

Article first published on Friday, March 29; updated on Monday, April 1.

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