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Tonnes of new ferry routes have helped to Brexit-proof Irish trade - but choppy waters could yet be ahead

Transporting products across the UK landbridge is going to get rougher before it gets smoother.

coronavirus-sat-jan-30-2021 The Port of Dover. Source: PA

IRISH HAULIERS HAVE welcomed the dozens of new ferry routes that go directly from Ireland to the European continent, but have warned that the easing of Covid restrictions and potential extreme weather events mean that the landbridge needs to be kept as a “fallback”.

The UK landbridge – usually a route from Dublin, to Holyhead, and across the Channel to northern France – has been an convenient, fast and cheap link to the continent.

Since Brexit, that reliability has become unstable – requiring further checks and costs, and risking long delays. But despite adapting to a new way of trading and transporting, it doesn’t appear as though Ireland is completely free from reliance on its UK connections.

Around half of Ireland’s exports to countries other than the UK, and almost 150,000 trucks, travelled over the UK landbridge each year before Brexit. That rate of traffic has now been halved, and is being diverted around the UK on ferries going directly to the EU.

The number of Irish trucks using the UK landbridge fell to 50% in January, after new Brexit checks were introduced covering animal and plant safety standards, customs checks and costs, and regulatory standards.

Meanwhile, traffic flows through Rosslare Port increased by 45%, as 12 sailings a week from all Irish ports to the continent increased to six a day. The routes that circumvent the UK to the European continent are called ‘direct’ routes, and traditionally have taken more time and cost more to use.

Fianna Fáil MEP and EU Trade Committee member Barry Andrews said that direct sailings to the continent had increased from 12 per week to 42 per week, or six a day.

This has happened without much State intervention, and is largely businesses adapting to more reliable routes post-Brexit – despite the new options being slower and more costly than the landbridge. 

Et9B74HWQAUrP-C Source: Irish Embassy Paris

The extra time it takes to make these journeys is significant: a report compiled for the Department of Transport said that if travelling by the landbridge took less than 20 hours before Brexit, it took up to 40 hours for a truck to make the same journey by ferry (called ‘roll-on, roll-off’ or RoRo).

If you load the cargo onto a ferry directly, without a truck, it could take up to 60 hours (‘load-on, load-off’ or LoLo), the Irish Maritime Development Office found (IMDO).

IMDO report Source: IMDO landbridge report 2018

When faced with a choice between a business taking a chance on a faster route that could end up being delayed for hours, or a slower route that will be guaranteed to arrive on time, businesses have – so far – been choosing certainty.

At an event to discuss the implications Brexit has for Ireland and the Netherlands, Barry Andrews said that there were also increased costs to using the landbridge now.

If the costs of the landbridge are greater than the costs of the longer route to northern France by direct sailings, then that’s what’s going to happen. It seems already by the very fact that what was 12 sailings a week is now six sailings a day that people are voting with their feet and they’re [using] the direct routes to northern France.

In response to a question from TheJournal.ie, Andrews said that further delays and “further problems” at the landbridge are due from 1 April.

Irish exporters of food and agri products into Great Britain will need to pre-notify their delivery through UK systems, and supply new export health certificates. These changes will also be required of exporters moving goods across the UK landbridge.

Unfortunately, things are going to get rougher before they get smoother. The UK will start expecting export health certificates for Irish exports of certain plant and animal-based products from 1 April.

“So I think we’re going to have more interruptions before we get to a smoother outcome.”

Today, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney urged Irish exporters to prepare for the extra import checks the UK will introduce on food and other agricultural products. 

“I know businesses are still trying to come to terms with earlier Brexit changes and Covid impacts, but it is vital that exporters fully understand these new UK import requirements and ensure everyone in their supply chain, including the importer and logistics providers are clear on their roles and responsibilities and can meet them.”

Although hauliers have described the post-Brexit ferry routes as “revolutionary” and the routes on offer as “varied”, and while accepting that the landbridge route has “changed forever”, they acknowledge that they can’t ignore the landbridge.

Officials at the weekly Dublin Port briefings have said that businesses and hauliers in Ireland do expect to go back to transporting goods via the landbridge if and when operations there settle down and adjust to all the new checks taking place – but some things need to change before that happens.

What’s on board

Pharma goods and agri-food products are among the freight that used to be sent via the landbridge that is now being sent by ferry routes to the European continent.

The products still being transported through the landbridge are live fish, and anything with a very short shelf life. 

At the beginning of the year, there was some suggestion that there was a shortage of items on supermarket shelves in Ireland because of Brexit. 

Anecdotal reports of less fresh food or meat on shelves were shared.

brexit Empty food shelves in Tesco's store in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. Source: PA

But Irish officials had denied that there were problems with fresh food, and that deliveries were arriving into the country, despite any minor problems faced.

There had been stockpiling done by some supermarkets, but this was mostly non-perishable goods – as the weeks move on, they will soon need orders of those products again.

President of the Road Haulage Association Eugene Drennan told TheJournal.ie that products being sent from Great Britain need a health cert, so any animal or plant-based products are having problems being sent into Ireland.

He said that some goods require up to seven separate documents, which he called “ludicrous”, “cumbersome” and “tough going”. 

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Not all plain sailing

Before a Brexit deal was struck, routes were being announced that circumvented the UK landbridge, mostly linked to the next nearest countries to Ireland – France and Spain.

New routes include those from Cork to Zebruggee; from Dublin to Santander, via Liverpool; from Waterford Port to Rotterdam and Liverpool; from Dublin to Leixões in Portugal, via Liverpool; from Rosslare to Cherbourg and Cork to Roscoff.

Since Brexit came into force on 1 January 2021, other routes have also been announced by Stena Line, Irish Ferries, and Brittany Ferries, including:

  • On 2 January, DFDS announced a Rosslare-to-Dunkirk route for 120 lorries/ trailers, as well as drivers, six times a week
  • Instead of 4 January date, Stena Line added a second ferry to its Rosslare-Cherbourg route ahead of schedule amid significant disruption to freight deliveries
  • On 18 January, Brittany Ferries started a weekly crossing between Cherbourg and Rosslare “to support the freight sector”
  • On 4 February, Brittany Ferries started three new weekly freight only sailings between Rosslare and St Malo in France.

Hugh Bruton, General Manager of Brittany Ferries Ireland, said last month that Irish traders were now looking for direct links to western France – as opposed to north France where most ferry companies service.

But hauliers have said that some of these extra ferry services are allowed to happen because of Covid-19 travel restrictions – there are no passengers to transport, so freight can be prioritised by using bigger ships for freight routes.

In response to this, a spokesperson for Stena Line said that they are offering short-term services because of Post-Brexit changes in trade flows, but still have “the same or more” capacity as before the pandemic and Brexit, and the same landbridge and direct routes still exist.

“When travel volumes return, we will have to adapt to that, in a safe way, and combine freight, cars, drivers and travel passengers (RoPax) as we have done for almost 60 years.”

A spokesperson for Brittany Ferries said something similar: “The new services had nothing to do with the current situation restrictions regarding passenger travel. They came about entirely as a response to a demand for freight capacity direct to the continent which we were happy to be in a position to satisfy.”

Irish Ferries declined to comment.

It’s also been highlighted that direct routes to the continent are longer and possibly more expensive route to transport goods: the landbridge can be 5 or 6 hours shorter, and businesses have to pay “around €500 per truckload” to send it via direct routes. 

Stormy weather may also be a factor – on days where sailings are delayed because of choppy seas on the open seas, trucks may be diverted towards the landbridge which involves shorter crossings to the continent. 

This means that most hauliers and officials are expecting to “fallback” to the UK landbridge at some point. 

Between a possible lifting of Covid-19 restrictions this summer that may see a rise in passengers looking to travel by ferry; the UK introducing new checks and documents needed by Irish exporters from 1 April; and the threat of bad weather, we’ve not yet cleared all problems with exporting and importing goods post-Brexit yet.

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