The past few days have once again seen long queues in the UK port of Dover, with reports of coach parties waiting up to 16 hours for a crossing, and queues of cars reported on Thursday ahead of the Easter weekend.
This comes after passengers reported 12-hour waits in Dover over the summer – so is this simply the new reality of travel from the UK to France? And is Brexit to blame?
The most recent travel chaos happened at the start of the Easter holidays.
It began last week when the UK school holidays started and initially mostly affected coach parties travelling from Dover – the Easter break is a popular time for UK school trips to Europe – with groups reporting waits at the ferry port of up to 16 hours, while some schools simply cancelled their trips altogether.
Long queues also began to build on Thursday at the port, ahead of the four-day Easter weekend which is also a popular travel time to France.
Passengers travelling by Eurotunnel, Eurostar and by air saw fewer problems, with the exception of some flights cancelled because of the French air traffic controllers’ strike.
So what caused the delays?
As seems to be an enduring pattern – it depends on who you ask.
🚗🚛🚌 To prepare for Easter traffic, the #PortofDover worked with ferry operators to ensure smooth flow of cars, freight, & coaches. Extra measures in place for coach passengers. Contact operator for info & plan ahead! 🐰🌷🌞 #Easter#TravelTips#PortTrafficpic.twitter.com/NeBIxwcCAp
— Port of Dover Travel (@PoD_travelnews) March 31, 2023
The port of Dover said that it was a combination of a peak travel period with higher than expected volumes of coach parties combined with “the lengthier border checking process that coach parties must now undertake” while Dover’s Conservative MP blamed the French.
Incredibly disappointing to see French border control problems once again adding to traffic mayhem just as families are trying to getaway for the Easter holidays. https://t.co/ceXZle0XT3
— Natalie Elphicke MP (@NatalieElphicke) March 31, 2023
The Port of Dover CEO then gave an interview to UK newspaper The Independent in which he singled out French border police for being “very, very helpful” in assisting in clearing the queues, and explained that passport checks simply take more time since Brexit.
So what is the “lengthier border checking process” that the Port of Dover refers to? This refers to the fact that the border between France and the UK is now an external border of the EU.
Because of the nature of the Brexit deal requested by the UK, all UK citizens entering the EU must now have their passports checked and – if applicable – stamped by French border control agents, a process that takes significantly longer than the pre-Brexit checking process.
Bannister has previously estimated that the new checks mean that it takes 90 seconds for a family of four in a car to pass through French immigration. Previously, the encounter would last just a few seconds.
While that doesn’t sound like a lot, once you multiply it by the tens of thousands of passengers who pass through busy crossing points like the Port of Dover, it can add hours onto crossing times.
It is a particular problem for coaches, when passports for every passenger have to be checked and stamped – scaling up to a 53-seat coach, the time taken represents 20 minutes per vehicle, estimates UK travel journalist Simon Calder.
So is this just a feature of UK travel now?
While problems at Dover are becoming regular, it’s not true to say that there are always problems or even always problems at peak times – the Christmas getaway passed largely without incident.
However, the post-Brexit checking processes undoubtedly takes more time and adds stress onto the system – this combined with a peak travel time and any extra factors such as bad weather or staff shortages can therefore quickly escalate into extremely long waits.
Port authorities over the Easter weekend declared a major incident and ferry companies put on extra sailings before service was able to return to normal.
The British Brexit-supporting MP John Redwood, on the other hand, suggested that people abandon the idea of a holiday in France.
Why not take a holiday break in the UK to avoid the delays into France? Plenty of great places to stay.
— John Redwood (@johnredwood) April 2, 2023
Is it worse at Dover?
Due to the Le Touquet agreement, French border force agents work in the UK ports of Dover and Folkestone and the Eurostar terminal of St Pancras (while British agents work in French ports and Gare du Nord). It is this, combined with the huge volume of traffic between France and the UK, that is the reason behind post-Brexit travel delays being seen largely in British ports.
READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet treaty?
Eurostar staff at London St Pancras face the same issues, but because of limited processing space at the terminal, Eurostar bosses have opted to reduce services between the UK and France. This means that passengers don’t face the same type of queues – but the flip side of this is fewer services and higher prices.
The port of Calais faces the same passport control as Dover, but generally sees fewer problems – this is largely due to the fact that the French government spent €44 million updating the infrastructure of its ports in order to prepare for Brexit.
Will this ever get better?
There might be a glimmer of hope for school trips, as French president Emmanuel Macron and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a ‘simplified’ process for school trips after their summit in March, which could help solve the specific problem that coach parties were having over Easter.
The UK’s former ambassador to France told The Local that this announcement likely relates to reinstating a system similar to the collective travel document – which would mean only once document would be needed for each coach trip. Full details are, however, yet to be announced and the system is not yet in place.
Beyond this, there isn’t much chance of things changing and things might in fact get worse.
This is due to the introduction of the EU’s new EES system which will require enhanced border checks – including biometric data and fingeprinting – something that many travel industry figures have repeatedly warned will make border problems a lot worse.
The start date for the introduction of EES has recently been postponed.
READ ALSO EES and ETIAS: The big changes for travel in Europe
One thing only briefly mentioned in the article is overbooking by the ferry companies. They have said “a higher than expected number of coaches” have added to waiting times. Surely they knew how many were expected and should have planned accordingly?