The U.K. government plans to reopen an old sea route to move freight between southern England and Belgium if bottlenecks develop after Brexit, according to people familiar with the matter.
Department for Transport officials are in talks with ship brokers to charter so-called roll-on roll-off truck ferries to run between Ramsgate, England, and Ostend, Belgium, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the conversations aren’t public. The route could potentially extend to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, the people said.
The flotilla plan would take effect in case of a chaotic no-deal divorce from the European Union, or under any scenario that involves delays at the border such as customs checks after March 29, the people said. The DfT has acknowledged making contingency plans in recent weeks, without providing details. Ramsgate would help alleviate pressure on nearby Dover, Europe’s busiest ferry port, and lower the risk of road backups as long as 17 miles.
Lorries are now carried between Dover and Calais, France, 25 miles across the English Channel, with minimal delay. But customs checks, if required, could take up to 45 minutes per vehicle. The U.K. government has said it fears France could impose extra delays on its side—which French officials have denied.
“We also need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, whereby the authorities at Calais are deliberately directing a go-slow approach, by supporting a diversion of the flow to more amenable ports in other countries,” Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told Parliament on Oct. 25.
The 65-mile strait between Ramsgate and Ostend has been inactive since a commercial ferry operator shut down several years ago. Local officials have sought to revive the route for truck cargo since before the 2016 Brexit vote, however that plan hasn’t borne fruit. The government’s initiative also faces the challenge of getting the boats on a short-notice timeline.
A spokesman for the Port of Ramsgate, about 20 miles north of Dover, said he couldn’t comment because officials there are restricted by a non-disclosure agreement with the U.K. government. The DfT declined to comment. Ostend port officials said discussions are ongoing with various parties, without providing details.
Operator TransEuropa collapsed in 2013, ending passenger service between Ramsgate and Ostend. The council of Thanet, which controls the U.K. port, said it’s been keen to re-establish the link since before the Brexit vote, and is currently in discussions with a separate company, Seaborne Freight, for a truck-ferry route to Ostend.
The government’s initiative is separate from that of Seaborne, which is promoting a potential route on its website, according to the people. Seaborne declined to comment, citing a non-disclosure agreement it wouldn’t specify. Thanet said it’s not in discussions with the U.K. regarding the port and or potential operations, and its talks with Seaborne aren’t Brexit-related.
“We recognize that Ramsgate could play a role in supporting post-Brexit resilience by offering an alternative route for some cross-Channel traffic, to ensure at least some movement of goods should there be significant delays in Dover,” the council said in an email.
For its part, Dover has been keen to defend its territory. The port, which operates 120 ferries a day carrying 10,000 trucks, accounts for 17 percent of the U.K.’s trade in goods. It placed a full-page ad in the London-based Times claiming other so-called short-sea routes would be too long, require ferries that don’t currently exist and need “massive investment.”