Lorries loading on Channel Tunnel

Chris Fletcher, Marketing and Campaigns Director, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce reflects on the slick, well-drilled, runs-like-clockwork system that is the Channel Tunnel and why the frictionless Customs Union is so essential for its smooth running. 

Earlier this week, myself and a group of Chamber colleagues and members spent about an hour or so in France. That doesn’t sound so impressive in this day and age does it? But we didn’t cross or go under any water and we made the journey in a minibus.

How did we do it?  We were on a visit to the Euro Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. What many of us didn’t realise is when you take a trip via the Channel Tunnel in actual fact, you cross the French border north of the white cliffs of Dover, firmly on British soil on our side of the Channel. So much for the only land border with the EU being in Ireland – but, I’ll come back to that later. Technically, all the loading of Channel Tunnel shuttle trains takes place on French soil. The technical term for this is a ‘juxtaposed border’.

"It's a relentless wave of trade and mesmerising to watch"

So, notwithstanding this little nugget of information what else did we find out from what was an enjoyable and I have to admit, ultimately worrying afternoon in the glorious Kent sunshine?

The fact-finding visit was part next phase of our successful Chamber Online Terms of Trade campaign, run with London and Bristol Chambers looking at the reality of Brexit for business.

So here’s some of that reality – in 2017 over £100bn of goods went through the tunnel; 1.6 million trucks made the journey carrying 10 million tonnes of freight. Whilst we were there the rate of trucks per hour was about 250 – or, if bumper to bumper (although this rarely happens as it’s a polished, constantly moving operation), roughly three miles’ worth of traffic – being driven onto the eight freight services an hour. All of this runs, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It was a relentless wave of trade and mesmerising to watch trucks come off the M20 and get loaded onto the shuttles. Maximum time from entry to the terminal to exit the other side – 90 minutes – the journey itself takes 35 minutes. That’s important and a USP. Why? Because it’s the quickest way there is of moving this freight so naturally, the Channel Tunnel has become a must for anyone with fresh produce and reliant on just in time/just in sequence systems.

Having had chance to stand at the side of what is a slick, well-drilled, runs-like-clockwork system and seen what it’s like from the control room with everything running smoothly why should this be worrying?

There still seems no solution to how this can carry on operating this way post Brexit with any of the options currently on the table. Whilst the government may well decide not to do any customs checks on inward goods this is, of course, reliant on the EU doing the same.

There will be a border with the EU about three miles away from Folkestone town centre – I’ve seen it – and if there are to be outbound customs checks then 1) there needs to be a huge infrastructure investment made to make this happen and 2) any delays, any extra time taken,  even just a few minutes would throw a spanner into the slick operation built up over 25 years. Consider the economic damage of any delays to the fresh produce and convenience goods we all have come to rely upon.

I liken what I saw this week as a thin thread of trade. It felt robust. But seeing it for myself there on the front line of international trade really brought home its fragility too. This is serious stuff and despite all the current political debate, those trucks will need to keep on rolling, all 250 of them every hour. They have to for all our futures.