The tragic decline of the ferry business

The car safely stowed, you go up on deck, and wait for that dramatic moment of embarkation

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Hearing that P&O are going to cut back their cross-channel ferry services by almost a third, I tried to remember the last time I took a ferry anywhere. A year or two back in Greece; quite recently to get to the northern end of Norway; but across the channel, probably not for 10 years. It just wouldn't occur to me.

Hearing that P&O are going to cut back their cross-channel ferry services by almost a third, I tried to remember the last time I took a ferry anywhere. A year or two back in Greece; quite recently to get to the northern end of Norway; but across the channel, probably not for 10 years. It just wouldn't occur to me.

So it's not surprising to hear that P&O are having to slash their services in the hope of containing the catastrophic decline. Even though the ferry part of the business carried 10 million passengers last year, it still showed a loss of £25m for the first half of this year, and the losses are increasing. In an attempt to improve the situation, 1,200 jobs are to be lost, a third of the fleet is to be sold off, and the number of routes reduced from 11 to 7.

It's hard not to think that even these drastic cuts might not be enough to return the business to a healthy state. The death-knell was rung for cross-channel passenger services as soon as the Channel Tunnel opened. Combined with a decade of free-falling airline fares, and, for many years, the thought of the horrible nightmare of the 1987 Zeebrugge disaster, the ferry business was always going to be in serious difficulties. For many travellers, the prospect of being stranded by well-publicised industrial action, the memory of one or two really nauseous crossings, and the fact that it just took so much longer ruled out taking the ferry.

Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel, it has been kept going to a certain degree by "booze cruises". The substantial differential in taxation on alcohol and tobacco between Britain and France made a quick trip over the Channel an attractive option for many individuals, as well as quite a lot of opportunistic crooks. But anyone could see that, in the European Union, this could not last. The increasing vigilance of the customs authorities, which prosecuted not only the crooks but some optimistic individuals with a liberal notion of personal consumption did something to discourage the activity. More effective has been the immense increase in the duty on tobacco introduced by the French government in the last year or two. Now, it simply isn't worth it.

But however inconvenient and irrational the ferry service now seems, it would be a great shame to lose the possibility. Now, when you go to the continent, you get a cheap ticket on an airline you've never heard of, and resign yourself to a brief, uncomfortable transit, possibly involving Luton Airport, a vulgar dash for an unreserved seat, the worst sandwich you ever ate in your life, and no smoking. Or you go to Waterloo, sit in a strangely seedy train, endure - in my experience - the rudest staff in the business, really terrible food, and, again, no smoking. Both are convenient, but, frankly, lacking somewhat in the romance of travel.

On the other hand, the ferry ... Well, maybe this is the romance which settles over things at a very safe distance, but it does start to seem to me rather a tempting option. The car safely stowed, you go up on deck, and wait for that always dramatic moment of embarkation. Ports are always much more interesting than railway stations or airports, and you're in no particular hurry to depart. Grim as a really rough crossing can be, a mildly brisk one can be a pleasure; and ships always have lots of odd nooks to explore, cheesy bars, bizarre souvenir shops, and the working parts of the ship. Food on board is always a treat even when it is unambitious - nothing nicer than a cooked breakfast on a cross-channel ferry. And then there is the arrival - a proper arrival, a surly French port, everything slightly different, and the dockers wonderfully smoking Gitanes. Bliss.

And somehow, when you travelled by ferry, your whole holiday was much more like an adventure. Long train journeys are fine, but what pleasure to be had out of planning your route once the hatchback was offloaded; heading down to the South, where to spend your first night? There are quite a lot of charming small towns north of Paris which you'd never go to unless you took the ferry; I remember once, years ago, stopping in Soissons at a hotel where we watched, with horrified fascination, a constant stream of ants over the table cloth and basket of bread, unremarked by any of the waiters. Wonderful: we were in France.

You can't doubt, either, that when you cross the Channel in a boat and drive all the way to Italy, you have a very different relationship with your destination. Fly from Gatwick to Pisa, and you get off and have to start laboriously assembling a romantic appreciation of the place. But drive to Dover; get horribly seasick on the ferry; have a night in a gloomy little Belgian town; hurtle down the German motorways, pausing at Nuremberg, through Switzerland, lunch in Mantua - by this time, without trying, you practically feel like an EM Forster heroine, ready for your sexual awakening.

P&O, and the other ferry companies, were always going to lose this one; the imperatives of cost and speed are impossible to argue against. But, on their side, they still possess an inalienable romance of the sort which air travel long ago lost, which the Eurostar is rapidly losing. It isn't always convenient; it isn't, usually, the best idea. But I don't want to see it in sad decline; if nothing else, you must agree, if you were ever going to run away, that's the way you would do it.

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