Simon Calder: Sailing by - our shrinking links with Europe
Saturday 04 September 2010
Tomorrow at midnight, the historic passenger ferry link between Dover and Boulogne will end. Already, one of the two ships that LD Lines uses for the route has been taken out of service: the Norman Bridge is expected to sail west along the length of the English Channel this weekend, then turn sharply to port around the tip of the Breton peninsula to make for the city of Nantes.
By Wednesday, her cross-Channel days will be forgotten, as the Norman Bridge – despite a name that sounds like a CrawleyTown FC midfielder – begins a new life on a trans-Biscay route between France and Spain. These countries, of course, share a long land frontier. The Pyrenees comprise a formidable barrier, yet ever since the Romans there have been highways between the two land masses. Today there are excellent cross-border motorway and rail routes at the Atlantic and Mediterranean ends of the border, as well as some impressive feats of civil engineering to get cars, trucks and trains over the mountains.
Evidently this is not enough, which is why the new link from Nantes to the city of Gijón on the north coast of Spain has been created, while the fine French port of Boulogne loses its ferry.
To make matters worse, one of Britain's few UK ferry links to Spain is about to be axed. The earnings from P&O Ferries' service from Portsmouth to Bilbao have gone so far south that the firm is not prepared to invest in a new vessel for the route. So sailings stop on 27 September.
For several decades up to the end of the 1980s, Boulogne was easy to reach. Sealink ferries seemed to be evenly distributed from both Folkestone and Dover to Calais and Boulogne. And an aeroglisseur (hovercraft) link from Dover to Boulogne provided part of the fastest terrestrial route between London and Paris.
Calais had the best shopping, but anyone whose purpose for crossing the Channel went beyond cheap drink and tobacco would aim for the pretty lanes and superb seafood restaurants in Boulogne's old town. But gradually ferry companies concentrated their efforts on Dover-Calais. For four years to 2008, SpeedFerries made a brave attempt at running high-speed catamarans to Boulogne.
Last year LD Lines launched a conventional ferry, but it too has succumbed to market forces.
The problem is this: all summer long, the British traveller has had too much choice. Capacity on trains, boats and planes has easily outstripped demand. Thomson was selling August departures from Manchester to Crete for £198 for a week, including (basic) accommodation. Thomas Cook even had a 30 August package from Gatwick to Bodrum in Turkey costing £166 for a fortnight, which is less than £12 a night – including flights.
When the peak-season travel market is so soft (the trade's term, which translates as plenty of bargains for you and me), it is difficult for any company to make a sensible return. Marginal routes get cut first – which is why the ferry to Boulogne is, literally, about to go west.
So how can LD Lines and its Italian partner, Grimaldi, be sure that the Nantes-Gijó*ferry will succeed? Because the new operation gets an EU subsidy of £750 per hour, every hour for the next four years, as part of the Motorway of the Seas project that aims to take trucks off Europe's highways. The new route provides a western bypass to the E70 motorway between France and Spain. Less traffic for the lucky residents of the Basque Country, but fewer options and higher fares for us unsubsidised Brits.
Europe ebbs away from Ebbsfleet
As the ferries bid au revoir to Boulogne, the people of Kent and the rest of Britain could switch to Eurostar. Ebbsfleet International is a shiny, expensive station, cunningly chosen to enhance access to travellers from outside London: it is where High Speed One, the rail link to the Channel Tunnel, meets the M25.
When the new station was announced four years ago, the train operator promised: “Nearly half of Eurostar services will call at Ebbsfleet International.” But when the new timetable takes effect on 12 December, the early evening departures from Ebbsfleet to both Paris and Brussels are to be cut.
As a result the last train from the Kent station to Brussels will be at 1.15pm – and to Paris, it is even earlier, at 12.45pm. A spokesman for Eurostar said two more mid-morning departures will be added, “due to customer demand”. Disneyland Paris services will also call at Ebbsfleet.
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