Port weathers Irish Sea storms

These have been challenging times for trade across the Irish Sea with the twin challenges of Brexit and the pandemic creating choppy waters.

With the stormy issue of the Irish protocol still causing political waves, it has been anything but plain sailing.

However, despite the continuing fallout over the implementing of the trade agreements, freight shipping routes from Heysham to Northern Ireland are seeing rises in traffic levels.

Alistair Eagles, chief executive of ferry operator Seatruck, which operates out of Heysham, points to a 46 per cent increase in traffic on its route to Warrenpoint so far this year.

And despite the overall picture of freight between the Lancashire port and the Republic of Ireland being down, his company’s service to Dublin has also seen a 23 per cent rise.

Alistair says that one of the reasons for the jump in Northern Ireland numbers is that customs checks going into there are slightly easier than in the south.

And he describes the port of Warrenpoint, which sits on the Irish border and is a destination for his Seatruck ships, as a “sweet point” for freight operators.

There are other forces at play. A massive shortage of lorry drivers in the UK has led to hauliers re-assessing their operations and looking to use ports nearer the origin of goods to maximise their resources.

Heysham’s model, which sees trailers dropped off and loaded on ferries for the crossing, is also proving increasingly popular with hauliers as it frees up drivers and reduces road mileage.

Alistair says with the supply chain being slowed down by the rise in paperwork any advantage ports such as Holyhead in North Wales and Cairnryan in Scotland may have had by offering faster crossings, has been nullified.

He points to a “large reduction” in Holyhead’s trade - 39 per cent below the previous year.

Alistair says: “It is hard to separate the impact of Brexit from Covid as both were going on at the same time.

“People think Brexit is over, but it is far from done and that is an important factor people need to get their heads around.”

He points out that several major aspects of the deal have not yet happened – including controls on foodstuffs coming into the UK, which he describes as “a big challenge” when it is implemented.

Alistair says: “You could argue that it won’t be until this time next year that we will really see what the true impact of Brexit has been as we’ve not got full border controls.”

However, he is confident for the future and Heysham’s role in it. He predicts that continuing driver shortages are only going to get worse, and he says: “We believe there is potential for further growth.”

Once challenge Heysham faces is the lack of terminal space which can lead to congestion. Increasing the terminal’s footprint would be a big positive, he says.

Seatruck, which also operates services from Liverpool, has options to run additional crossings from Heysham – at present the company makes 66 sailings a week and is responsible for about 20 per cent of the freight on the Irish Sea. Turnover this year will hit £85m.

The ferry operator is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Alistair says: “We began as a business with no ships, just an idea of a service we could provide.

“From being new kids on the block, today we have six vessels and rent two out to our competitors. We’re a strong, stable business and we’re happy with our progress and confident for the future.”

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