Ferry operators are exploring rationing the number of coaches that pass through the UK’s busiest port in an effort to avert a repeat of last weekend’s travel chaos, sparking a furious reaction from transport companies.
Some coaches were left waiting for up to 14 hours to board ferries from Dover as the Easter holiday getaway began last Saturday and Sunday, with post-Brexit passport checks being mainly blamed for the delays in processing vehicles.
The Port of Dover reviewed the backlogs with ferry operators on Monday, and two people familiar with the matter said a cap on coach traffic had been discussed as a means of avoiding a repeat of the tailbacks.
“It’s difficult to see any other option,” said a third person familiar with the talks.
But the prospect of limiting coach bookings was met with dismay by coach operators, who said any such move would discriminate against a mode of transport that was greener and more financially accessible than car travel.
Graham Vidler, head of the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), the coach industry trade association, called for crisis talks to resolve the situation.
“The procedures to enter the EU should not have a negative impact on people who don’t want to fly or drive by car to continental Europe. We’re calling on the government, the Port of Dover and ferry companies to get round the table with the coach sector to resolve this mess,” he said.
Dover and ferry operator DFDS said the post-Brexit requirement to individually scan and stamp all passports for passengers entering the EU was creating capacity constraints at the port.
The requirement for coach passengers to disembark for passport control meant that a coachload of 60 people was taking longer to process than the equivalent number of car passengers who remained in their vehicles, one port official said.
Another port industry executive said it took up to one hour to process one coachload of passengers at the French border.
The tourism industry is also concerned that checks will take even longer when the EU introduces a new requirement for biometric data checks, the repeatedly delayed Entry-Exit System, which is scheduled for the end of this year.
The CPT said the increase in coach traffic at Dover was in part because of prices on the Channel Tunnel route almost doubling — from £665 to £1,100 per vehicle — since 2021, forcing more operators to use ferry ports.
The prospect of a cap on coaches will anger the industry and create political tension, since it highlights the difficulties caused by the Brexit-related increase in border paperwork.
Downing Street was on Monday reluctant to admit that Brexit had contributed to the tailbacks, insisting that a “combination of factors” including bad weather and high volumes of coaches were to blame.
But Number 10 acknowledged there were “new procedures in place”, adding that it was in talks with France about how to smooth the flow of traffic ahead of another build-up of passenger volumes over the Easter weekend.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Brexit was partly to blame for the weekend chaos, in spite of claims by home secretary Suella Braverman that it was “not fair” to link the two. “Of course Brexit has had an impact,” Starmer told LBC. “There are more checks to be done.”
Eurostar, which uses the same “juxtaposed” border controls as Dover, has already been forced to cap passenger numbers because of the new border checks.
Dave Parry, managing director of Parrys International, a coach operator based in Walsall in the West Midlands, said last weekend’s delays were causing some customers booked on nine coaches this weekend to cancel.
“The government needs to negotiate with the French government, either to put the controls on the French side or to make sure they have enough staff on duty. We need more staff to stamp passports,” he said.
But officials at Dover said delays had been caused by the number of coaches exceeding capacity rather than insufficient staffing by France’s border authorities, which the port blamed for a backlog in July last year.
DFDS said it expected high volumes over the Easter weekend and that it was “working with coach operators to spread the traffic flow across its two routes from France to Dover to ease the flow of traffic on those busy dates”.