A bullish Peel Ports believes it can challenge Dover for cross-Channel freight flows with its Sheerness facility and the growth of unaccompanied freight at the port – offering a service accompanied freight cannot.

Peel Port’s chief operating officer David Huck told The Loadstar he was confident Sheerness would see new services operating from the Medway port within the next six months.

“We will challenge Dover, with cargo increasingly moving to unaccompanied facilities,” said Mr Huck.

Indeed, official UK government figures show a shift from accompanied freight, with goods vehicles having made three million trips from the UK to Europe last year, a decline of 6% over 2020 and  down 12% on the 2015-2019 five-year average.

Unaccompanied trips, in contrast, increased 1% to 1.07 million trips last year, 5% more than the 2015-2019 five-year average.

However, the UK’s Office for National Statistics offered a caveat to the statistics, which it said had been “stable” in the five years to 2019, adding: “There has been larger than usual volatility from 2019 to 2021, with the number of trips in 2021 12% below the 2015 to 2019 average.

“This coincides with the end of the transition period for the UK leaving the EU, the Covid-19 pandemic and reported disruption to global supply chains, including shortages of HGV drivers and floods, which affected some container businesses in mainland Europe.

“It is not possible to isolate the potential impact of any of these individual factors,” it added.

Even though the figures are not so easy to read, vessel operator DFDS, which operates an unaccompanied service to Dunkirk from Sheerness, has reported an increase in demand.

According to Filip Hermann, VP for the Channel business unit, there had been “incredible growth” on its unaccompanied service over the past eight weeks.

“Our ship was sailing half-empty, but it is now almost full,” he said, adding that the Danish operator had replaced the 160-trailer capacity Maxine with the smaller, 120-unit Botnia, but was now looking at increasing capacity again.

But he said: “We will probably wait at least until we see how things pan out in Dover after P&O starts operating again.”

DFDS said the EU Mobility package, customs clearance issues and the shortage of truck drivers in both the UK and Europe were all areas in which unaccompanied freight had an advantage over driver-accompanied vehicles.

“With unaccompanied cargo the driver doesn’t have to wait for the cargo. That’s a big difference. It’s not that it’s easy or anything like this, it is the same trailer, but it might be taken out for inspection [by customs] or something like this but nobody is affected because there is no one waiting for it until the driver comes and picks it up. I think that helps our customers a lot,” explained Mr Hermann.

Both Peel Ports and DFDS confirm they are in dialogue over the development of Sheerness for freight. With space at the facility in abundance, the port operator is likely to add a second ro-ro ramp and Mr Huck confirmed that a decision on developments “will be taken within the next 12 months”.

“There are not enough drivers in the UK, and the ones that are operating don’t want to go to Dover or across Europe – cargo at Sheerness is all pre-cleared,which means drivers can drop off cargo and go home to their families:, said Mr Huck, who added that most of Peel Ports’ ro-ro freight at Liverpool, Heysham and Sheerness was unaccompanied.

For DFDS, the success of the Sheerness service has “proved we can be an alternative to other ports, not only Dover, Sheerness is a good option”, said Mr Hermann, adding that DFDS is eyeing other types of freight, including cars, paper and metals.

“We can hopefully work with customers and Peel Ports to do that, and I also think that because they have so much space [at the port], we can maybe create something quite unique there for the drivers.”

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