A fact-finding visit to the Channel Tunnel highlights the risk for government is how to manage a flow of 1.6m trucks without stopping them post-Brexit. The introduction of customs checks will have a significant impact not only on this crucial border, but on industry across the UK.
In the UK, as businesses transport just in time or just in sequence goods, there’s a fair chance those goods are coming through the Channel Tunnel. These are high value items, car parts, often fresh produce - meat, fish, plant products and flowers - typically meeting the needs of express, internet deliveries across Europe.
Up to one million parcels a day are handled through the Tunnel and it’s clear to see why as compared to ferries, the Channel Tunnel offers the shortest crossing time at just 35 minutes from Folkestone to Calais. There’s up to eight shuttles per hour (four in each direction) so the network is always flowing, which helps support the precise demands of just in time supply chains.
Unlike ferry crossings, the Tunnel is not impacted by the weather and with a finely tuned operation, the lorries continue to roll on and off the shuttles round the clock.
"Juxtaposed borders (meaning you pass into France just before lorries board shuttles in Folkestone) means there is virtually no delay - very little to slow down the free flow of this vital goods traffic in and out of the UK."
For distributors and logistics firms, speed and frequency of departure are critical and it’s these priorities that make the Channel Tunnel the ‘world leader in rolling motorway transport’, as its Director of Public Affairs, John Keefe explains:
“The Channel Tunnel is a critical artery for trade and tourism with a £120bn trade value at what is a key crossroads in Europe.”
Juxtaposed borders (meaning you pass into France just before lorries board shuttles in Folkestone) means there is virtually no delay - very little to slow down the free flow of this vital goods traffic in and out of the UK.
Opened in 1994, the Channel Tunnel was imagined in an age when there was no need for customs checks so there are no temporary storage facilities or refrigerated inspection sheds on-site. Like the port at Dover, there is no existing Border Inspection Post for animal or plant products. The capacity to handle any kind of customs checks is simply not there and as John explains, this should be a cause for great concern to businesses both sides of the Channel:
“The risk for government is how to manage this flow of 1.6m trucks without stopping them post-Brexit. Any pause in this operation directly impacts industry across the UK - if goods are stopped and not getting to factories, production lines don’t work, goods aren’t being sold and consumers won’t get the fresh produce in the supermarkets.
“Building a new border inspection post could be a five to ten-year project and the customs options being considered by the government now have a crucial impact on what this could look like, both here and at ports across the UK.”
If goods can’t get out of the UK, they’ll be stuck, with the goods we need for the economy backing up on the motorway. With up to 250 trucks per hour that equates to three miles of traffic every hour. Stopping and inspecting at the border would develop a queue very quickly. It wouldn’t take very long for the economy to grind to a halt.
The Channel Tunnel has been exploring these issues for several years as it considers its growing operations. Brexit and the realities of customs friction bring these issues into sharp focus. For the Channel Tunnel team, all of the technology is on the table but it’s a question of how this should be deployed and just how quickly this can happen.
Government needs to decide on its preferred option for a future relationship with the EU so that companies can start to develop systems, recruit staff and introduce technology to ensure that our frictionless border continues to function with minimum disruption to our vital trade routes.