P&O closes ferry route to Boulogne

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P&O EUROPEAN Ferries yesterday closed the Dover-Boulogne ferry service to concentrate on the more lucrative Dover-Calais route in preparation for the opening of the Channel tunnel in a year's time.

Although the company pledged that there would be no compulsory job losses at either port, the sudden announcement, made only after the last crossing had been completed, shocked officials in Boulogne.

The closure means that the only cross-Channel service now operating to Boulogne is the Seacat, which sails from Folkestone. Sealink Stena closed its Folkestone-Boulogne ferry service a year ago.

P&O denied that the closure of the route was directly linked to its eventual aim of pooling cross- Channel services with those of Sealink to meet the challenge of the tunnel.

But a spokesman made it clear that the timing was designed to strengthen P&O's operations in advance of the tunnel's opening in December. In readiness for the competition, the company has invested pounds 400m in a fleet of superferries, the last of which, the Pride of Burgundy, enters service in April. These boats are too large to dock at Boulogne.

Catherine Boulanger, a spokeswoman for the Boulogne Chamber of Commerce, said P&O only told the port of its decision at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, four hours after the last ferry had left.

Although the company had earlier told Boulogne that it intended to stop services, 'we understood that they would continue until the end of 1993', she said.

P&O said it expected the vast majority of the 1.1 million passengers carried on the route each year to transfer to its Dover-Calais service, which handled 7.4 million passengers in 1992. This summer it will operate 25 return services a day on the 75-minute Dover-Calais route with a fleet of five ships.

The company also said there would be no job losses at Dover or among the permanent crews of the two small ships serving the route, which would be sold. Its 44 staff in Boulogne had been offered jobs in Calais, although all but five had opted to take redundancy.

For Boulogne, which with 47,000 inhabitants is the second fishing port in the EC after Hull and was until 1991 the second French passenger port, the closure of the service means an annual loss of Fr25m ( pounds 3m) in revenue. Ms Boulanger said: 'It is a blow to the Boulogne economy.' While the construction of the Channel tunnel had been expected to hurt ferry traffic, Boulogne had hoped to keep some of its share, she said.