Wheels of diplomacy grind too slowly

28 March 2002
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28 March 2002

The problem of refugees trying to stow away on trains bound for the UK is causing havoc for the British freight industry. David Arminas looks at what can be done to address it

All but the most hard-hearted would surely feel some sympathy for those Kurdish or Afghan refugees we've seen on our TV screens, crouching in a muddy field in northern France in the dead of a winter night waiting to jump on a train bound for the UK.

The prospect of work, a decent living and renewed self-respect awaits. Just get on to that train, no matter how dangerous it may be, and there is at least the chance of eventually being granted political asylum in the UK.

But the unfortunate asylum seeker probably has no idea of the havoc he or she is creating for the UK freight industry and the companies that rely on a consistent Channel Tunnel service.

Since November, the French rail company SNCF has been struggling with increased attacks on its workers as they attempt to apprehend the refugees before they jump trains.

The situation has got worse and there have been instances of 100 or more refugees storming the rail yard, located in isolated countryside next to the village of Frethun, outside Calais.

French rail authorities have belatedly beefed up their security at their end of the tunnel, including more guards and the completion last month of a high fence around the perimeter.

But the increased security has also meant that fewer trains now operate, as more searches are undertaken for refugees. Normally 30 freight trains a day move through the tunnel, but at present only a third are running and sometimes none at all.

Whether there is sympathy for the refugees, the root of their problem lies not in Europe, but in the countries from where they came.

However, the solution to the immediate rail problem lies in the UK and France, especially between the governments. They are aware of the human tragedy and the refugee problem and are attempting to find solutions.

But the wheels of diplomacy grind slowly. A greater sense of urgency is now required on both sides of the Channel.

Blair in demand

The wheels of the freight trains have literally ground to a halt, so Tony Blair, the British prime minister, must take a personal interest in the freight issue, according to the Rail Freight Group (RFG), an organisation representing the transport supply chain.

English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS), the rail freight company that uses the Channel Tunnel, has lost only a small part of its overall rail service, but it is an important part, it says.

In fact, Channel Tunnel business is only around 5 per cent of its annual turnover. The majority comes from handling freight within the UK, mostly from docks.

At best, EWS handles only three million tonnes a year through the tunnel. This could be four times that amount, around 12 million tonnes a year, if the tunnel were running to capacity.

But the recent problems across the Channel mean that, as a supply chain partner, EWS simply cannot meet its contracted performance targets.

This worry is reflected in the firms that rely on the Chunnel, such as the road-to-rail terminal operators and the suppliers of equipment and services to these companies.

EWS and these companies have built their businesses on the back of government assurances that it wants to get more freight off the roads and on to the rails.

Some companies, such as Ford UK and Peugeot in France, have the ability to switch from relying on tunnel freight movements to using ferry terminals.

The situation is most grave for smaller companies that may not have that option.

In January, the Strategic Rail Authority's 10-year plan for freight targeted an 80 per cent increase in the amount carried by rail in the UK.

The Channel Tunnel is to handle only 6 per cent of this, but it is an integral part of creating the network that can deliver the rail authority's target.

So the present crisis is an inauspicious start to delivering the target which, until the current problems are sorted out, seems certain to remain wishful thinking.


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