Ferry firms in new storm

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Folkestone Boulogne Ferries, the fledgling British ferry company that last summer took the giant Sea Containers to the European Commission alleging anti-competitive practices, claims to have new evidence suggesting collusion between Sea Containers and a rival small company, Meridian Ferries. It still awaits the EC's judgment.

The Independent has been shown a letter, purportedly from Kenneth Dulieu, whose family are the ultimate owners of 72 per cent of Meridian, to David Benson, a vice-president of Sea Containers which operates Folkestone port, saying: "The best solution is for the two of us to work in harmony to ensure the stability of the route (Folkestone-Boulogne) and the prevention of a `maverick' entering the short sea route."

Mr Dulieu is also managing director and a large shareholder in Capitol Group, which Sea Containers confirmed undertakes port security work for it. Sea Containers issued a statement saying the papers it had received from FBF "are full of inaccuracies and innuendos".

The statement said it was untrue to say Sea Containers had colluded with Meridian to frustrate FBF. It added that both FBF and Meridian had been offered the number one berth at Folkestone if they wished to operate a passenger service. The statement concluded that the company was happy to co-operate with any European Commission inquiry that might be launched into the allegations.

Mr Tony Bertin, a lawyer who incorporated FBF in early 1993 and is now chief executive, claims he has not been able to get the service up and running through what he claims is Sea Containers' opposition. He said the stretch of quayside being offered had no facilities and it would cost £1m to put in a linkspan. Mr Bertin said of the latest documentation: "This vindicates what we have said all along. We always maintained Meridian had a sweetheart arrangement with Sea Containers because its freight service was of no competition to SeaCon's Hoverspeed catamaran service between Folkestone and Boulogne. Our passenger service would be." FBF has handed its latest evidence to the EC.

Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, confirmed Labour had been attempting to raise the subject of the alleged links between Sea Containers and Meridian this week. It is understood relations soured between Meridian and Sea Containers last year when the former thought SeaCon president James Sherwood reneged on an understanding it would be allowed to carry passengers on the route. Meridian is at the heart of the ongoing French seamans' blockade due to the use of low-paid Polish sailors.