Mark Rowe finds that the death of the cross-Channel ferry has been greatly exaggerated

It sounded like the death knell for the cross-Channel ferry industry last month when P&O announced it was to cut four of its 13 routes and shed 1,200 jobs. No-frills airline prices remain low, while the price of a Eurostar ticket to Paris is now £59, compared to £95 when the service started in 1994. Cut-throat prices across the travel industry have also affected Eurotunnel, where the number of cars using the tunnel in the three months from June to September fell by 5 per cent to 606,000.

It sounded like the death knell for the cross-Channel ferry industry last month when P&O announced it was to cut four of its 13 routes and shed 1,200 jobs. No-frills airline prices remain low, while the price of a Eurostar ticket to Paris is now £59, compared to £95 when the service started in 1994. Cut-throat prices across the travel industry have also affected Eurotunnel, where the number of cars using the tunnel in the three months from June to September fell by 5 per cent to 606,000.

Does this mean that before long the only way to get to France will by Eurostar or aircraft? Despite the P&O blow, as well as the drop in revenue from duty free in 1999, ferries carried 22 million people to the Continent last year. Between January and June this year, they carried 7.8 million to France, compared with 5.3 million who flew there on all airlines.

The ferry companies are certainly not behaving as if they are in their death throes. In all, there are currently 25 routes linking the UK mainland with France and the Low Countries. This includes three services between Dover and Calais, a total of 18 to France, four to Belgium and three to the Netherlands. While P&O will close its Portsmouth-Cherbourg route this year, Brittany Ferries will expand services on the route next year, using its luxury cruise ferry, Val de Loire. This will be supplemented by a new high-speed service from mid-March.

Others are following suit. SeaFrance's latest superferry, the SeaFrance Berlioz, will complete the Dover-Calais run in 70 minutes when it is launched next March, with day returns from £41 and five-day trips from £69. SpeedFerries, the smallest company operating on the English Channel, has priced fares at £50 return, covering a car and up to six people, for summer Saturday crossings next year. SpeedFrance is one of several companies (Norfolk Line and Transmanche Ferries are others) which have started up business in the 10 years since the Channel Tunnel opened.

And while the Channel Tunnel is clearly the quickest option if you live in the South-east, the ferry companies are only too aware that the picture is more complex for those living further afield. People in the South-west often choose ferry services from Portsmouth and Plymouth, while those in the North-east can take the ferry from Newcastle to the Netherlands and then drive across to France. DFDS Seaways offers daily services from Newcastle to Amsterdam, with fares from £54 for two people in an economy cabin and car. Ferries leave Newcastle at 5.30pm and arrive in Amsterdam next morning.

Ferry companies are also keen to dispel what they perceive as the myth that no-frills airlines are usually cheaper. The Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) recently calculated the complete travel costs to a family of four travelling from Bath to Clermont Ferrand in the Auvergne in August 2004 for a two-week holiday. It found the total all-in cost of travelling by easyJet, including car hire and petrol, was £902. The total cost using Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo was £684.

"Ferry companies wouldn't be investing if they didn't think there was a future," said William Gibbons, director of the PSA. "We've had to rationalise and these are challenging times, but in the long term we are very positive.

"I think people need to rediscover ferry travel. We need to attract younger people. There's a generation of people in their thirties and forties who last travelled on the ferry as children, when the experience was an inferior one. France and ferries must both become fashionable, not just places where your parents went. Who knows, we may even come up with a new trendy brand to replace the word 'ferry'."

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