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Brexit: a ship too far

2018-12-31 09:06:20

Some of the media has been picking up on the situation in Ramsgate in the aftermath of last week's 107 million ferry contract award by the Department for Transport.

Alerted by Conservative County Councillor Paul Messenger, rather than working it out for themselves, we have the likes of the BBC reporting on one of the beneficiaries of the Department's largesse. This is Seaborne Freight, which is taking 13.8 million to provide a ferry service from Ramsgate to Ostend from the end of March next year.

What makes this exceptional is that, unlike the other two beneficiaries which are established ferry companies (Brittany Ferries and Danish shipping firm DFDS), Seaborne Freight is a newly established company incorporated only on 5 April 2017 with no track record whatsoever of providing ferry services, and with no ships to its name.

With a total equity of 374,275, of its seven current directors, only two seem to have any active shipping links, running a company called Albany Shipping. This itself is only four years old and claims to be focusing on supporting the oil and gas industry in African and Middle Eastern countries.

This, on the face of it, does not seem to be the best of backgrounds for providing a high intensity cross-Channel ferry service, in a business where P&O's Spirit of Britain, commissioned in 2011, cost 157 million to build. For its MV Pont-Aven, launched in 2004, Brittany Ferries paid 160 million.

These are only a few of the oddities in what looks to be an extremely murky tale. The tale itself seems to start shortly after Seaborne came into existence with a report in the specialist press from October 2017 stating that the company was preparing to start up a new cross-Channel freight service from Ostend to Ramsgate, starting in March 2018 using three ships with six departures a day.

One of the ships was said to be the MS Nord Pas de Calais, a ro-ro ferry formerly operated by SeaFrance on the Dover-Calais route and currently owned by the Spanish-Moroccan operator FRS and renamed the Al Andalus Express after a refit in 2016. Details of the other two ships were not disclosed.

At that time (9 October), the local media was reporting that the mayor of Ostend had announced that a "basic agreement" had been reached with Seaborne on providing the ferry service, confirming that it was due to start on 1 March 2018 with three ships.

Interestingly, although the announcement had been broadcast on Belgian TV, it had not been confirmed by Thanet council, owner/operator of Ramsgate Port. All council leader Chris Wells would say was that he could "confirm that we continue to have discussions with several interested parties around the possible commencement of new ferry services from the Port of Ramsgate, including Seaborne Freight".

By March 2018, we saw Councillor Paul Messenger in action, stating that he had been informed that Seaborne were ready to start their new freight ferry service, although Ostend Port could not confirm this. And, with no service running by the following month, all Thanet Council could do was confirm that it was in talks with authorities in Belgium and with Seaborne.

The local media report disclosed that an agreement between Seaborne and Ramsgate had not been signed but a start was anticipated for mid-April and early May. Everything, it seemed, depended on Ramsgate, including Ostend Port which was waiting for Thanet Council before making the necessary investments to prevent migrants in Ostend from getting on the ferry to England.

Still no ferries sailed but, by early August, Seaborne was declaring that it was aiming to begin sailings at the end of the year and had launched a website advertising the route. The ferry MS Nord Pas de Calais/Al Andalus Express was still being cited as one of the ships identified as being suitable for the route.

By the end of the month, though, Thanet council leader Bob Bayford announced that a ferry deal was "closer", although no contract had been signed by Thanet and there remained the question of which vessels could serve the route.

Ramsgate Port by then was in serious trouble, having made losses of some 20 million over eight years, excluding costs of 5 million compensation paid for illegally stopping live export, and 3.4 million for bankrupt TransEuropa Ferries unpaid fees and charges when it stopped operating in 2013.

However, with money draining away, and still no ferries sailing, November brought cheerful news from Chris Grayling's Department for Transport. It was revealed that the government was considering a 200 million scheme for expanding the facilities at Ramsgate, in an attempt to bypass the Dover-Calais bottleneck in the event of a disorderly Brexit.

Even then, there was the "small" problem of the approach to the harbour having silted up through lack of use and the narrow berths which prevented larger vessels being used. Whitehall officials say that Mr Grayling was looking at dredging the port an area where Thanet's performance is not impressive.

A particular benefit of the scheme was the thought that if French President Macron made life difficult after Brexit, trade could be moved out of the Pas de Calais to Belgium.

Yet, with Thanet Council claiming that Ramsgate could have the potential to provide enough sailings to divert 3,360 lorry movements per day, Pauline Bastidon, head of European policy at the Freight Transport Association, said the port could not replace Dover in the short term. "Like a lot of the other ideas it is not realistic to see a massive shift from Dover to Ramsgate in the next four months. It takes time to launch new services", she said.

But, even as the government announced its contract to Seaborne and the news broke of the status of the company, there stood on record a neglected piece from the foreign language Puente de Mando in June of this year. It broke the news that the Al Andalus Express was set to join the fleet of the Spanish carrier Naviera Armas, for which it was already operating under charter, sailing under a Spanish flag.

With the ship currently operating as a ferry in the Canaries, between Las Palmas and Puerto del Rosario, the only ship that can be named as suitable for the Ramsgate-Ostend route is clearly not available for hire elsewhere.

Even then, with a capacity only of 90 vehicles and single-deck loading, it is not an optimum vessel for a high density route requiring fast turnovers. But then, as a vessel originally designed as a specialist rail ferry, that was never its function. Even were it available, it would hardly make a dent in the traffic which might be displaced from the Dover route.

This then raises further questions about the DfT contract. Not only is Seabourne a company without ships, in its short history it has a recurrent history of failing to deliver - having originally planned to start operating in March of this year. And now, having identified only one ship for its potential service, it is unable even to show that this vessel will be available.

If this is representative of the contingency planning which this government is undertaking in the event of a "no deal" Brexit, then we are in more serious trouble than we could ever have imagined.