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Operation Stack: How a seamen's strike led to the introduction of the M20 'lorry park'

By Sam Lennon

Operation Stack has been back with a vengeance lately but here’s when it all began more than 25 years ago.

This photograph, taken on February 8, 1988, shows lorries queued up on the M20 because of a docks strike in Folkestone.

It was one of the first times the queuing system was introduced and is to this day being used, usually at times of severe weather, industrial action or fire or derailments in the Channel Tunnel.

The first lorry queue on the M20, caused by the docks strike at Folkestone in 1988
The first lorry queue on the M20, caused by the docks strike at Folkestone in 1988

In the last week it has been due to the knock-on effect of a fire at the Channel Tunnel and Phase Two of the emergency system, between Junctions 8 and 9, was introduced yesterday.

The 1988 scene stems from a countrywide seamen’s strike that began that January 31.

The National Union of Seamen had then called for a strike throughout British ports in support of 161 crew sacked by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company for refusing to accept new terms and conditions.

After three days of stoppage the NUS bowed to a High Court order to end the action but individual groups of seamen defied the union’s call to return to work.

With the action continuing, tailbacks of up to 300 lorries built up in roads to ports up and down the country.

Protests shifted to more localised concerns and there was a particularly bitter struggle between P&O seafarers and management at Dover.

Previous delays at the entrance to Eurotunnel have led to Operation Stack on the M20.
Previous delays at the entrance to Eurotunnel have led to Operation Stack on the M20.

Folekstone, which then had a ferry service to Boulogne, also suffered a knock-on effect.

The M20 in 1988 was closed for 14 weeks between Junctions 9 at Ashford and 13 at Folkestone.

Capacity to store lorries was limited because the motorway between Junctions 8 and 9, then locally called the Missing Link, had not yet been built.

In the following years Operation Stack has recurred, causing chaos on east Kent’s roads. Neighbouring main roads are clogged up as drivers search for alternative routes.

“It must be the worst piece of emergency transport planning anywhere in Britain" - Damian Green on Stack

By February 2007 Ashford MP Damian Green told the House of Commons that since 1988 the system had been used 74 times for Phase 1, (between Junctions 11 and 12) and 17 for Phase Two.

He told MPs: “It must be the worst piece of emergency transport planning anywhere in Britain.

“We all accept that motorways can be closed if there is a serious accident or if weather conditions dictate.

“But I am not aware of any other motorway that is regularly closed as a matter of deliberate policy to address a problem that has nothing to do with driving conditions.”

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