The Dover-Calais Bottleneck:
An Assessment of Alternative Routes to Avoid Post-Brexit Congestion

The Dover-Calais Bottleneck:
An Assessment of Alternative Routes to Avoid Post-Brexit Congestion

Executive Summary

  • In light of growing uncertainty around Brexit, companies have recently stepped up efforts to secure their intracontinental supply chains against potential disruptions
  • The Dover/Folkestone-Calais trade corridor is particularly vulnerable to disruption as it handled 75 percent of roll-on, roll-off freight moving between the UK and the EU in 2017
  • Additional customs and sanitary checks could cause longer shipping times, higher costs, and greater production uncertainty for a wide range of manufacturing industries
  • While there is no single alternative to the Dover-Calais gateway in the short term, a number of other routes exist, albeit with reduced maximum space for accompanied ro-ro units
  • Past Everstream Analytics risk data highlights that these alternative ferry links have varying risk profiles: Routes departing from Belgium and France are prone to disruption from migrant stowaways, while connections to the UK from Rotterdam and Le Havre are vulnerable to strikes and protests
  • Companies in the aerospace, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries have mainly focused on two risk mitigation strategies: stockpiling and finding alternative transportation routes
  • Other potential contingency measures include using air freight capacity for high-value or emergency shipments as well as containerized short sea shipping for larger quantities


After the UK Parliament’s rejection of the Withdrawal Treaty, insecurity about an orderly withdrawal from the European Union (EU) on March 29, 2019, has risen. As a result, companies have stepped up efforts to secure their supply chains and make contingency plans for the possibility of an abrupt and disorderly Brexit.

Whatever may happen before the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, it has become increasingly evident that Brexit has and will continue to significantly alter existing supply chain setups. Contingency planners have largely put the focus on the crucial Dover/Folkestone-Calais trade corridor, which in 2017 handled 75 percent of roll-on, roll-off freight (ro-ro) moving between the UK and the EU. On a busy day, there can be up to 10,000 trucks and trailers passing through the Channel either on ferries or via the Eurotunnel, most of which are accompanied by drivers. Large manufacturers, such as the automotive industry, rely on this seamless commercial connection for just-in-time production lines. A German car manufacturer with significant operations in the UK moves 95 percent of car parts between the UK and the EU via the Dover-Calais route and a large UK engine maker for the aerospace industry usually ships its aircraft engines by truck to customer facilities on the continent. And 80 percent of Irish trade passes through the Dover-Calais route to and from the EU mainland, which is Ireland’s biggest market. Thus, even minor delays due to time-consuming customs and sanitary checks at this gateway will cause considerably longer shipping times, higher costs, and greater production uncertainty for a wide range of manufacturing industries. A recent study by the Imperial College London found that 1-2 minutes of extra checks could add 5 hours of travel times to and from Dover on the M20 highway due to truck congestion. And the stakes are not just high for multinational corporations. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply found that a delay of 10 to 30 minutes at customs could bankrupt 10 percent of UK businesses that have EU suppliers.

Information that is publicly available, as of February 21, indicates that several companies have activated Brexit contingency plans for their supply chains to offset potential delays and production outages. One strategy consists of stockpiling, particularly in time-sensitive sectors such as aerospace and pharmaceutical. A large aerospace company has reportedly started to stock engine components in the UK and asked its key suppliers to ramp up stocks as well.Across the UK, the warehouse vacancy rate has fallen to around 5 percent, the lowest on record. However, from a supply chain perspective, the question is how quickly the stockpile can be replenished. Hence, another strategy is using alternative routes. A French drug manufacturer recently started sending some containers through the Port of Harwich, among the top 6 ports for EU-UK ro-ro traffic, and Newhaven to test alternative ferry routes. Similarly, two UK-based car makers are said to increasingly rely on ports other than Dover. The UK Border Force estimates that handling capacity on the Dover-Calais route could drop to as low as 13-25 percent in the first 6 months after Brexit.

Given that a journey from Calais to Dover takes only 90 minutes and the route offers by far the most frequent sailings per day, there currently is no single alternative route that could handle similar capacities in comparable time and at comparable cost. In addition to emergency air freight bookings, supply chain contingency planners will thus need to consider all existing and possible future alternative ro-ro connections when modifying current inbound and outbound flows in the short and medium term. To increase supply chain resilience, a number of factors need to be taken into account including approximate transit times, the maximum number of ro-ro units ferries are able to carry, and the routes’ exposure to risks such as weather events, labor strikes, and cargo theft.

Using information available as of this writing on February 21, this report will provide an overview of the ferry routes between the EU and the UK, which may serve as alternatives to the Dover-Calais gateway. The first part will cover existing ferry connections and their shipping times, while the second part will look more closely at the current and the possible maximum number of ro-ro units ferries are able to carry in the future on these routes. The third part will then draw upon intelligence provided by Everstream Analytics to highlight the exposure of selected routes to disruptive events such as weather, strikes, and theft.

This report excludes the subject of ECMT permits, which European truck drivers require to transport goods across 43 countries including the EU. As of February 21, it remains unclear how these permits may be allocated among haulage companies in the UK and EU or whether any special arrangements will be agreed upon. In addition, the report does not take into account the potential impact of customs checks that Brexit may have on UK-EU cross-border trade. Many unknowns remain as to whether customs systems, customs officers, and customs facilities will be put in place before March 2019 at UK and EU ports mentioned in this report.  

Overview of UK-EU Ferry Routes and Shipping Times

Legend to change to: Maximum number of ro-ro units ferries are able to carry daily

Besides the Dover-Calais route, companies mainly use ro-ro services from Belgium, the Netherlands, and France to various locations in the UK. On the one hand, ro-ro ferries connect the ports of Zeebrugge, Hoek van Holland, and Rotterdam to either the East of England, including ports such as Harwich, or to ports located in the northeastern Humber estuary such as Hull or Immingham. On the other hand, ro-ro freight is typically shipped across the Western Channel via connections at Portsmouth and Newhaven in the UK or Caen and Dieppe in France. A third corridor connects both Zeebrugge and Rotterdam to Greater London via ro-ro terminals in Tilbury and Purfleet on the River Thames. Less frequent routes crossing the North Sea link Belgium and the Netherlands to Newcastle and Teesport in northern England.

As part of its Brexit contingency plans, the UK government initially planned to revive a former ferry link between the Port of Ramsgate in southeast England and the Belgian Port of Ostend. This included a potential offer of 24 ferry sailings per day. However, it was reported on February 9 that the UK government terminated the contract with the selected shipping company Seaborne Freight amid concerns that the company would not be able to reach its contractual obligations of putting ferry services in place by March 2019.

In terms of shipping times, the shortest connections are currently offered by Brittany Ferries and DFDS Seaways between the UK and France, including a 3-hour trip between Poole and Cherbourg and a 4-hour trip between Newhaven and Dieppe. Sailings to ro-ro terminals near Greater London such as Tilbury take about 8 hours, while connections from Belgium and the Netherlands to Harwich and Felixstowe in eastern England last about 6.5 to 8 hours. For destinations in northern England, sailing times of ro-ro units from Rotterdam, Amsterdam, or Zeebrugge can take about 11-18 hours. To find the most appropriate ferry connection naturally depends on where the suppliers, manufacturing plants, or distribution centers of a company are located across the UK or the EU.

EU-UK Ferry Links: Maximum Number of Ro-ro Units Available on Ferries

Much attention has been paid to the lack of ro-ro capacity on ferries sailing to or from ports other than Dover and Calais. In fact, Dover in 2017 handled more ro-ro units than most of the other UK ports along the Channel and North Sea combined. Northeastern ports in the Humber estuary, including Hull and Immingham, handled about 40 percent of Dover’s ro-ro throughput in 2017 with terminals in London, Portsmouth, and Harwich coming thereafter. Both Southampton and Felixstowe typically handle a minor part of EU-UK ro-ro traffic as they specialize in container traffic from non-EU destinations. This is in contrast to reports suggesting both ports could easily serve as an alternative to Dover, while in fact they are not well equipped to do so. 

Top 5 UK Ports, Ro-ro traffic with the EURo-ro units, thousand
Immingham and Grimsby1877
Source: UK Port Freight Statistics 2017

Substituting the Dover-Calais sea crossing even to a moderate extent is a significant challenge. This is because most of the other ferry routes across the Channel and North Sea offer only limited space for accompanied trucks, i.e. truck, trailer, and driver. A larger part of the ferry space will be used for unaccompanied ro-ro units, e.g. trailers which are dropped off at the port of origin by one driver and picked up at the port of destination by a different one. Shipping times are thus considerably longer for non-accompanied trailers and some sources say it could lead to a 20 percent drop in daily freight handling capacity for some trucking companies because of the extra time involved. The 7-hour ferry link between Hoek van Holland and Harwich in eastern England can accommodate a maximum number of about 1200 truck-trailers per day. In addition, P&O Ferries offers maximum ro-ro space for about 1100 units for its 8-hour long Zeebrugge-Tilbury service. Both services only allocate very limited space for accompanied trailers, though, with the major part being reserved for unaccompanied ro-ro units. Shorter sailings mainly for accompanied units such as between Newhaven and Dieppe or Caen and Portsmouth can accommodate a maximum number of 300-700 units per day, which is considerably lower than the previously mentioned routes. In its effort to ramp up contingency plans, the UK government has recently contracted several ferry operators to provide additional ro-ro space from ports other than Dover to ease potential congestion. These include the UK ports of Immingham, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Poole. It remains, however, unclear how soon this additional ro-ro space can be made available. In addition, only ferry services offered by Britanny Ferries in the Western Channel will provide additional space for accompanied ro-ro units on its Portsmouth-Caen, Portsmouth-Le Havre, Poole-Cherbourg and Plymouth-Roscoff routes.

Overview of Existing and Potential EU-UK Ro-ro Connections. Sorted by Sailing Time. Source: Company websites (DFDS; P&O Ferries; Britanny Ferries; Stena Line; CLdN) 

According to industry experts, out of the 25 percent of EU-UK ro-ro traffic which bypasses the Dover-Calais route, there may currently be less than 5 percent capacity available for accompanied ro-ro units and about 10-15 percent for unaccompanied trailers, making it difficult to switch large volumes from Dover-Calais ferries to alternative services. This may be even further restricted by UK government plans to ration space on ferries in the case of a no-deal Brexit, with food and medicine taking priority over manufacturing parts. As of information available in January 2019, routes with the biggest available capacity in the market included the P&O-operated Zeebrugge-Hull service as well as the Britanny Ferries-operated Portsmouth-Caen service, although the situation may change as March 29 approaches.

As the UK government has recently sought to provide additional shipping space for ro-ro cargo on EU-UK crossings to ease the pressure at Dover, the commissioned ferry operators have begun to announce which services would be able to carry the additional ro-ro units. Danish shipping company DFDS said it would provide more sailings on its Immingham-Rotterdam and Felixstowe-Rotterdam connections, although most of the additional spots will be for unaccompanied trailers. Also, Britanny Ferries, which mostly offers space for accompanied ro-ro units, announced that it would increase the maximum number of ro-ro units it can carry by up to 50 percent on three of its routes to France, including from Portsmouth to Le Havre, from Poole to Cherbourg, and from Plymouth to Roscoff. For the Portsmouth to Le Havre crossing, this would mean an increase to 275-300 trucks per day. If the Ramsgate-Ostend link had materialized as initially planned with Seaborne Freight, reports suggested that there could have been a maximum storage space for 100 trucks per sailing.

Following the UK’s rejection of the EU-UK Withdrawal Treaty on January 15, 2019, the French government announced it would immediately begin to invest EUR 50 million (GBP 43.7 million) into building infrastructure for stricter border customs checks and larger truck parks at its ports, including at Calais and Dunkirk. On the other side of the Channel, Associated British Ports (ABP), which operates 21 ports across the UK, recently said that it has invested EUR 285.7 million (GBP 250 million) since 2016 to upgrade its port facilities on the Humber, particularly at Hull and Immingham, to help businesses bypass disruption at Dover. Ro-ro volumes there have already begun to increase as customers look for alternatives, according to port officials. Similarly, ferry operator P&O expects ports near London to rival Dover-Calais as a gateway to the UK in the coming years. It recently invested EUR 171.4 million (GPB 150 million) into a new river berth in Tilbury on the River Thames and said it achieved record volumes of ro-ro freight on its Zeebrugge-Tilbury service in 2017. 

While there is currently no single solution to the Dover-Calais gateway in the short term, there are a number of existing alternative routes, albeit with reduced maximum storage space for accompanied ro-ro units. While some routes may be able to carry a larger maximum number of ro-ro units per day, it is important to highlight that this does not necessarily mirror the available market capacity as of February 2019, which may change on a daily basis due to the approaching Brexit deadline of March 29. 

To help understand the resilience of any modified supply chain network relying on these alternative gateways, the following section will focus on assessing the exposure of selected routes to disruptive events including weather, strikes, protests, technical issues, migrant stowaways, and cargo theft.

Supply Chain Risks on Selected Routes

The resilience of EU-UK supply chains has recently been threatened by a perceived resurge of migrants attempting to cross the Channel ahead of Brexit. After 139 migrants were arrested en route to the UK in December 2018, the UK government deployed the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to mitigate any impact on cross-border shipping traffic. However, there are multiple other risks that bear the potential to disrupt supply chains relying on EU-UK shipping connections. Below is a qualitative assessment of the top three risks on five selected routes, which can either accommodate a large maximum number of ro-ro units per day or offer rather competitive sailing times with regards to the Dover-Calais corridor. 

Tilbury- Zeebrugge 

First, the Tilbury-Zeebrugge route is particularly exposed to migrant stowaways. Since the closure of a large migrant camp in Calais in October 2016, migrants have sought to travel as stowaways on trucks at other ports, including at Zeebrugge in Belgium. In 2018, a total of 7,000 migrants were arrested by local authorities, demonstrating a 35 percent increase compared to 2017. In one high-profile incident, several migrants boarded a departing P&O-operated ferry in Zeebrugge. Police subsequently searched the ship and forced it to return to Belgium, causing hours of delays. 

A second supply chain risk on this route is cargo theft, in particular from truck trailers in the vicinity of port areas. In the past 12 months, at least 5 cargo theft incidents have been recorded at truck stops or laybys on major highways leading to and from the Port of Tilbury, including on the A2, A13, and M25. 

Finally, a third risk stems from regular strike actions in the maritime sector in Belgium. In the past two years, labor unions representing river and sea pilots have threatened to go on strike at least 5 times, causing continuous uncertainty for companies relying on supply chains through Zeebrugge. On two occasions, the pilots have staged 24-hour strikes in Zeebrugge, disrupting inbound and outbound shipping traffic and causing shipment delays of more than 24 hours due to backlogs.  

Hull/Immingham/Killingholme-Rotterdam/Hoek van Holland 

Due to its exposed location on the estuary of the Nieuwe Maas River, terminal operations at the Port of Rotterdam are frequently disrupted by adverse weather such as strong winds and high swells. In the past two months alone, rainfall, snow, and wind have halted port operations at least 5 times. This frequently leads to lower productivity at the terminals, causing congestion and delays to both import and export shipments.

In addition to weather disruptions, strike actions led by labor union FNV Havens frequently impede operations at the Port of Rotterdam. Most recently, workers at Rotterdam Short Sea Terminals have staged intermittent work stoppages for one week in January 2019. Throughout 2018, all major terminals in Rotterdam have been affected by strike actions, including APM Terminals and ECT Delta. A strike at the Europoort terminal which handles P&O ferry services to Hull in the UK has been called off at the last minute in May 2018. 

Finally, supply chains relying on this route face a heightened risk of cargo theft. At least 4 incidents of stolen cargo have been recorded in 2018 in the Hoek van Holland-Rotterdam area. In one high-profile incident in July 2018, 114 tons of cobalt worth EUR 8.84 million (GBP 7.74 million) was stolen from a secured warehouse in the Port of Rotterdam. At the other end of the route on the Humber estuary, cargo traveling on major roads to and from the ports of Hull, Immingham, and Killingholme has been most exposed to theft, mainly from trucks and trailers. At least 6 incidents have been recorded in 2018 on the A16, A1079, A63, and A18 roads.


Similar to Zeebrugge, migrants have turned to Dieppe in the past two years in their attempts to enter the UK via ferries departing from the port. The UK National Crime Agency has issued multiple warnings since 2016 that criminal gangs were using smaller ports such as Newhaven to smuggle people into the UK. More than 100 stowaways have been arrested in the port area of Dieppe in 2018. In November 2018, 15 migrant children were found hiding in a refrigerated truck on a ferry arriving in Newhaven. The UK Border Force subsequently searched the ferry for other stowaways, causing several hours of delays for trucks waiting to depart from the port. 

Also, the Newhaven-Dieppe route has experienced technical issues in the last 12 months. In July 2018, a broken ramp at the Port of Newhaven forced ferry operator DFDS to cancel all ferry traffic for a day and a half. Trucks scheduled to depart on this route had to rebook and divert to nearby terminals in Calais and Dunkirk for cross-Channel sailings to Dover. 

Finally, the port area around Dieppe has occasionally been targeted by protesters seeking to disrupt movements to and from the port. In November and December 2018, protesters associated with the Yellow Vests movement intermittently blocked the key roundabout in the Eurochannel industrial area. This caused widespread traffic jams in the area and resulted in occasional misses of scheduled sailings for trucks. 

Harwich/Felixstowe-Rotterdam/Hoek van Holland 

Firstly, ro-ro connections between the Rotterdam area and the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe are particularly exposed to weather-related disruptions. As previously mentioned, the Port of Rotterdam frequently experiences partial shutdowns due to adverse weather conditions. Similarly, the Port of Felixstowe was forced to partially halt operations for several hours at least four times between December 2018 and January 2019 alone. This typically leads to lower productivity at ro-ro terminals, causing congestion and shipment delays.

Top 3 Supply Chain Risks per Ro-ro Route

Secondly, technical issues have caused severe delays to supply chains relying on this route since June 2018. This was mainly due to the implementation of a new IT system at the port, which led to lower productivity, congestion, and subsequent shipment delays on ro-ro services. Several container lines temporarily diverted services to other ports such as Southampton and London. Some of those changes have now been made permanent since productivity levels have failed to regain normal levels. 

Besides frequent labor disputes at the Port of Rotterdam, supply chain risks also arise from the continuous threat of cargo theft on this route. At least 4 incidents of cargo losses have been recorded in 2018 in the Hoek van Holland-Rotterdam area. On the other side of the Channel, at least three incidents of stolen cargo have been reported in the port area of Felixstowe and Harwich in 2018. In particular, goods transported by truck on the A12 and A14 roads have been vulnerable to thefts during stopovers.  

Portsmouth-Caen/Le Havre 

On the Portsmouth-Caen/Le Havre route in the western part of the Channel, ro-ro connections are particularly exposed to the threat of disruptive strikes or protests. Over the past two months alone, French dockworkers have staged strike actions on 5 different days, most of them lasting for 24 hours. This has led to shipment delays of several days due to severe congestion, in particular at the Port of Le Havre. Similarly, workers at the Port of Caen-Ouistreham staged a one-day strike in March 2018, with ferry services to and from Portsmouth halted for an entire day. Additionally, protesters associated with the Yellow Vests have blocked access roads to both ports in December 2018 and January 2019, impacting truck movements in and out of Le Havre and Caen. 

Similar to the situation in Dieppe, migrants have increasingly attempted to reach the UK on trucks departing from the Port of Caen-Ouistreham where security measures are believed to be less severe. In 2018, more than a dozen incidents of migrants trying to climb aboard moving trucks outside the ferry terminal in Caen have been reported. This has prompted the UK Home Office in September 2018 to increase security checks at the Port of Portsmouth on ferries arriving from France. 

Finally, ferry services on this route are more frequently disrupted by adverse weather than on other routes. In 2018, terminals at the Port of Le Havre were forced to shut down operations at least 5 times due to strong winds and heavy rainfall. In addition, severe storms including Storm Callum and Storm Diana disrupted cross-Channel ferry schedules at the Port of Portsmouth in October and November 2018. 

In summary, contingency planners should take into account the varying risk profiles of the alternative EU-UK ferry routes. Risk mitigation measures and contingency plans, however, should always be based on the individual supply chain setup which is likely to differ by industry and company.  


With less than 37 days remaining until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, the uncertainty around the final outcome of Brexit adds significant pressure on companies to make contingency plans for their supply chains in the short and medium term. Based on information available as of February 21, countries such as Portugal and France have set in motion plans for a no-deal Brexit, investing into new infrastructure and hiring hundreds of customs officers. In January 2019, the UK National Crime Agency warned of major disruption at ports. Most supply chains of international firms with large operations in the UK or on the European mainland rely to a great extent on the seamless trade corridor between Dover/Folkestone and Calais, which handles up to 10,000 trucks on a busy day. 

To mitigate the forecasted risk of bottlenecks around these ports, pharmaceutical and automotive manufacturers have been considering the use of alternative gateways in the short term, with some shifts likely to be permanent. While there is currently no single route offering the time, cost, and ro-ro handling capacity advantages of the Dover-Calais corridor, alternative routes exist, but can only accommodate a limited maximum number of accompanied ro-ro units. However, the UK government has commissioned ferry operators to create further ro-ro space on selected routes, in particular to ports in the southern and southeastern UK.

Historical Everstream Analytics risk data also highlights the varying risk profiles of alternative EU-UK ferry routes to the Dover-Calais corridor. Routes departing from Zeebrugge, Dieppe, and Caen are considerably more prone to disruption from migrant stowaways, while connections to the UK from Rotterdam and Le Havre are more vulnerable to strike actions and protests. 

While assessing alternative routes may help companies gain more visibility over how shipping times, ro-ro storage space, and associated risks will shape their European supply chains in the short to medium term, the final outcome of Brexit remains unclear as of this writing, and the information provided in this report may soon no longer be valid due to the fluid environment. Furthermore, risk mitigation measures and contingency plans should always be based on the individual supply chain setup which likely differs from industry to industry. Other factors such as customs checks and ECMT permits must also be taken into account in any risk mitigation effort for post-Brexit supply chains.

Irrespective of individual supply chain setup, organizations relying on intracontinental trade between the UK and the EU should create visibility on how the majority of their shipments cross the Channel or the North Sea before initiating risk mitigation options such as acquiring warehousing options or finding alternative routes. In addition to securing the flow of larger quantities, companies may also consider booking ad-hoc air freight capacity for smaller high-value or emergency shipments despite the higher costs involved. In case greater visibility over shipping schedules outweighs the need for fast transit times, customers may further explore containerized short sea shipping as another option. Such services exist between key container ports such as Rotterdam and Felixestowe and often integrate into a larger intermodal network to inland destinations. 

In light of the continuously changing environment, Everstream Analytics customers with an interest in intracontinental supply chains should keep abreast of the latest developments surrounding Brexit and be prepared to adjust their contingency planning as the March 29 deadline approaches.

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