Travel: Channel ferry gets that sinking feeling

The Newhaven-Dieppe service is a link with history as well as France.
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The Independent Culture
OSCAR WILDE went into exile on it, Lord Lucan is reputed to have jumped off the back of it, Georges Simenon named a book after it, and the future Vietnamese liberation leader Ho Chi Minh worked as a pastry cook on it. But it now looks increasingly likely that the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry will be consigned to its colourful past as P&O Stena prepares to pull the plug on the much-loved 173-year-old cross-channel service between East Sussex and Normandy.

With passenger numbers down from 1 million to fewer than 700,000 a year, P&O Stena is claiming losses of pounds 8m on the Newhaven-Dieppe link - a victim, it is claimed, of increased competition from the Channel Tunnel. The company has already pulled its troubled fast ferry service, The Elite, from the crossing, and now only one ancient ferry, The Cambria, chugs across from the Sussex coast. The future of even that will depend on the results of P&O's "consultation period" with UK and French unions. Most people expect a withdrawal from Newhaven, once the lucrative Christmas period is over.

It looks as if the post-Tunnel rationalisation of the Channel crossings is now in full swing. Competition with Le Shuttle has already forced Sally Line off its Ramsgate-Ostend crossing. Luckily for Ramsgate, Thanet District Council has now set up a consortium to run freight services to Ostend, with, they hope, passenger services resuming in the New Year.

Lewes Council in East Sussex has no such easy solution. Newhaven's port is in private hands, owned by Sea Containers. "Sea Containers is interested only in Sea Containers", claims Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, which includes Newhaven. "Its strategy over the past 10 years has been minimum expenditure - just enough to deal with maintenance of statutory obligations - while bleeding as much money as it can out of the port.

"We would not be in this situation if the port and the ferry were in public hands. That may sound old Labour, or old Liberal, but it is difficult not to draw that conclusion."

Steve Lawrence at Sea Containers thinks that's just an old argument. The company has invested pounds 2m in port infrastructure this decade, he says, but was unwilling to go ahead with the far more expensive deepening of the port without the long-term commitment to Newhaven from P&O Stena.

"As port owners, we were unable to agree commercial terms with P&O Stena," says Mr Lawrence. "They were unable to commit to long-term agreement. But that is an old problem. At the moment, we have submitted plans for the development of Newhaven's West Quay. As regards the ferry link, we have given commitment in principle to operate a fast ferry link from next Easter should P&O pull out. If that's not doing something for Newhaven, then what is?"

So it seems that a potentially lucrative and popular ferry crossing is going begging - or will be when and if P&O Stena, as expected, pulls out of the route. If the EU suspends July's abolition of duty free, there will be added incentive for an independent operator to enter the fray. Newhaven is the closest passenger port to France from London, and likewise Dieppe is the closest port to Paris. Sitting in his stylish post-modernist office in Dieppe, the town's Communist mayor, Christian Cuvillez, is adamant about the French commitment to the crossing.

"We will not let the line die," he says firmly. The port is already preparing a stop-gap freight-only service should P&O Stena pull out. He is sceptical about the ferry company's losses, claiming that about pounds 3m of the pounds 8m deficit is due to P&O Stena diverting freight traffic to its Dover-Calais crossing.

The investment that has been pumped into the French side of the crossing dwarves anything in East Sussex. Dieppe has borrowed heavily to dredge an outer port (to berth the new generation of superferries) and to build a state-of-the-art ferry terminal. The regional council for Upper Normandy has also upgraded the main road between Dieppe and Rouen so that it is virtually now a motorway. A severing of the cross-Channel link with England would put in jeopardy the last plank in this alternative London-Paris route - an upgrading of the Dieppe-Rouen railway that could link the port with France's TGV network.

Monsieur Cuvillez and a 70-strong delegation from Dieppe were in Westminster recently, lobbying Glenda Jackson, the Transport Minister. Their ferry from Dieppe left at 3.45am and was an hour late docking - symptoms of a run-down service that is putting more and more people off the route.

"But despite problems with the boats, despite poor timekeeping," says Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, "700,000 passengers were carried last year. They used the line in spite of P&O Stena, rather than because of it."