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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ferry battles on the Channel

During my long involvement with the ferry industry on the Irish Sea, I worked for companies (Sealink and then Sea Containers) which also had extensive operations on the English Channel. Now while the Irish Sea ferry industry may not have been for the faint hearted, I rarely had pangs of regret that I had not become involved in the English Channel scene, for very few ferry sectors around the world are as ‘cut throat’ and fast moving as the Channel.

Operators there, from the 1990s onwards, came face to face with the ‘triple whammy’ of the opening of the Channel Tunnel, the expansion of low cost airlines operating routes between the UK and continental Europe, and the withdrawal of ‘duty free’ which had previously generated huge amounts of retail income.

P&O and Stena Line – two huge players in that market – merged their operations in 1998 but a mere four years later Stena Line withdrew from the Channel completely. In 2005, and after 40 years of distinguished service, Hoverspeed’s operations came to an end. More recently, 2012 saw the demise of SeaFrance – a wholly owned subsidiary of the French railway company SNCF. And it is the fall-out from the liquidation of SeaFrance that continues to grab headlines.

This month sees the final ruling from the UK Competition Commission (now the UK Competition & Markets Authority) on whether MyFerryLink – in effect, the successor to SeaFrance – can continue to operate services between Dover and Calais. MyFerryLink was formed when the Eurotunnel Group stepped in to acquire SeaFrance’s Rodin, Berlioz and Nord Pas-de-Calais, manning those ferries with staff from SeaFrance who formed a worker’s co-operative – a ‘Société coopérative et participative’ (or ‘SCOP’ for short).

Last year, and following a challenge by P&O and DFDS ferry groups, the Competition Commission (CC) prohibited MyFerryLink from operating services due to competition issues and the potential that MyFerryLink and Eurotunnel operations – when taken together – might claim more than half the available market. MyFerryLink appealed that ruling but a provisional judgement from the Commission on 21 March will not have raised MyFerryLink’s hopes of a successful outcome. This provisional ruling confirmed that the Commission has jurisdiction over the Eurotunnel Group’s acquisition of the three ferries and related assets from SeaFrance, and the process will now move to a final ruling this month.

It is yet another intriguing chapter in the story of the Cross-channel ferry sector and the eventual outcome will have a significant impact on operators, passengers and staff – not least those staff who are part of the ‘SCOP’ working onboard the three vessels.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR

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