THE LONG-term future of Cherbourg’s ferry links to the UK is in doubt, with Brittany Ferries hinting at a “review” of its operations following a row with port authorities over cost-cutting measures.
The three main operators serving the Normandy city, Celtic Link, Irish Ferries and Brittany Ferries, are due to hold a crisis meeting with port owner SAS this month to discuss its future.
The terminal is battling to save money after falling into the red and losing a key route to the UK last November, operated by Celtic Link. Passenger numbers have fallen by more than half in recent years, from a peak of 1.8 million to just 700,000 in 2009.
However the ferry firms have argued that any major cutbacks will inconvenience passengers and bring severe disruption to the boarding process.
Irish Ferries said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” about some of the port’s plans. Brittany Ferries business strategy director Christophe Mathieu said that cutbacks might force the firm to “review the deployment of our vessels”.
The row erupted when SAS informed the ferry firms that it would be closing its main loading ramp from August to save money, leaving two smaller ramps in operation.
Port director Didier Aumont said the ramp was no longer needed because passenger numbers are in decline, however it is the preferred ramp for all three operators because it speeds up the boarding process for large vessels.
SAS has now announced a U-turn for the moment, but the closure has not been ruled out for the future.
Normandy port authority development director Bertrand Marsset said that, despite the change of plan, action needed to be taken soon to plug the terminal’s e2m budget deficit.
“The port is losing a lot of money. SAS now has to look at other ways of saving cash,” he said.
The situation is likely to get worse in the coming months. Early figures for the 2010 suggest a 14% year-on-year passenger decline in the first five months of the year.
The CFDT trade union, which represents port workers at Cherbourg, says cutbacks would be disastrous for the port and would encourage ferry operators to take their business elsewhere.
“It would be the end of cross-Channel ferries in Cherbourg. Over the years, many companies have left the port and new initiatives have not been realised,” the union said.
Cherbourg was once the second biggest after Calais, with a busy passenger business and a thriving freight trade, but has been loss-making in recent years after losing a huge Toyota contract in 2000.
The port suffered a further blow last November with the loss of its newest passenger ferry service to Portsmouth operated by Celtic Link Ferries just weeks after it started. It was hoped that the new service to Portsmouth would help it boost passenger numbers.
Brittany Ferries said in May that it was “very much committed to the Port of Cherbourg”. It has operated ferry services at the port for the past quarter of a century.
The firm currently runs three passenger ships from the UK to Cherbourg: the Cap Finistère and Normandie Express from Portsmouth and the Normandie Vitesse from Poole. The freight ship Cotentin carries commercial vehicles between Poole and Cherbourg.