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Eurotunnel reveals £67m scheme to prevent new EU entry/exit system causing gridlock in Kent

Additional reporting by Simon Finlay, Local Democracy Reporter

Although their introduction has been repeatedly delayed, tighter EU border regulations are now expected to be implemented next year, creating the potential for huge delays at the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel during peak travel periods.

In a bid to reduce the likelihood of “eye-watering delays” at the border, Eurotunnel says it has invested £67 million in new infrastructure and refined processes to manage the impact of the forthcoming Entry/Exit System, as Rhys Griffiths reports from Sangatte in northern France…

Queues at the Port of Dover in July 2022 at the start of the school holidays. Picture: Barry Goodwin.
Queues at the Port of Dover in July 2022 at the start of the school holidays. Picture: Barry Goodwin.

At Kent’s English Channel border crossings, at the Port of Dover and at the Eurotunnel terminal outside Folkestone, efficiency is everything. At peak times around the school holidays, especially, the slightest delay and disruption can soon cause a ripple effect which swiftly leads to chaos on the roads in the south-east corner of the county.

This was dramatically illustrated in the summer of 2022 when hold-ups at the border spiralled into a "critical incident", dominating the national headlines and causing misery for both travellers and local people facing gridlock on major routes leading to the Channel ports.

In the aftermath of the meltdown, brought on by the collision of huge demand for travel at the start of the summer getaway and issues at the frontier, there was a chilling warning from industry insiders: much worse could be yet to come.

The cause for their alarm is the long-awaited introduction of the European Union’s new Entry/Exit System (EES). It has been drawn up to register entry and exit data of non-EU nationals – which, following the Brexit vote, now includes the British – when they cross an external border of the continental bloc.

The EU says it will “replace the current system of manual stamping of passports, which is time-consuming, and does not provide reliable data on border crossings and does not allow a systematic detection for over-stayers”.

Keeping the border operating smoothly is a priority from the cross-Channel industry. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA
Keeping the border operating smoothly is a priority from the cross-Channel industry. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA

The new system requires the gathering of biometric data – fingerprints scanned, photographs taken – in the presence of an officer when crossing the border. A process which may run smoothly at airports, but is ill-suited to Kent’s cross-Channel ports where travellers are moving in vehicles and would have to exit them on foot to provide their details.

Eurotunnel, which operates freight and passenger shuttles through the Channel Tunnel, has – along with the Port of Dover – consistently raised serious concerns about the implications of the new system on its ability to maintain the free flow of traffic across the Channel. It would be reasonable to infer that the ability of the existing infrastructure to handle the new regime is, at least in part, a reason why the introduction of EES has been repeatedly delayed and is now expected on October 6, 2024.

Kent County Council leader Cllr Roger Gough has this week added to the chorus of voices raising the alarm over the new system, warning that the eventual introduction of EES could lead to what he describes as “eye-watering delays” at the ports.

Cllr Gough delivered the grim tidings at the authority’s final, pre-Christmas full members' meeting of 2023, where he told members EES represents “a bigger looming problem”.

Cllr Roger Gough has warned of the impact of EES
Cllr Roger Gough has warned of the impact of EES

“The prospect of eye-watering delays remains a material risk but is one on which we, with local and national partners, are now working at pace to develop a very strong response,” he said.

Political concern over the new border scheme is not limited to local authorities. Last month, parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee launched an inquiry into EES and its potential consequences for the UK.

The committee’s chairman, Sir William Cash MP, said: “The committee had been keeping a watching brief on this issue but the scale of potential disruption became apparent to us on our visits to the Port of Dover and Folkestone earlier this year.

“We quickly realised that this under-appreciated issue was one that deserved detailed scrutiny.

“In July, the committee heard alarming evidence from port operators, who said that the scheme could cause issues for cross-Channel transport. This inquiry will shed light on how the EU’s Entry/Exit System could affect tourists bound for the EU and businesses dealing with the UK border.”

The repeated delays to the imposition of the new system has at least bought time for the Channel ports to prepare their response to the changes that are coming, as Eurotunnel’s £67 million investment in new infrastructure and refined processes illustrates.

Speaking yesterday at an event to celebrate the forthcoming 30th anniversary of the Channel Tunnel, John Keefe, director of public affairs at Eurotunnel operator Getlink, explained to KentOnline why this significant piece of work has been necessary.

“We had to come up with a process that would enable us to go through the capture of data without it leading to queues,” he said.

“The way we've done that is we've created an indoor space, a covered space, where you can park. Next to your parking space there will be two kiosks. You get out and go through the process on screen, facial images captured, your fingerprints captured, and you answer the questions.

“When everybody in the car has been through that, then a green light comes on from the French border authorities and the vehicle is ready to go.”

Cars preparing to board Le Shuttle. Picture: Julien Knaub - Eurotunnel
Cars preparing to board Le Shuttle. Picture: Julien Knaub - Eurotunnel

The key fear has been that the process for clearing the border would significantly increase the time each vehicle requires to pass through the ports. Adding minutes to an individual passenger’s journey may be a minor irritation for them, but when thousands of journeys are being made every day during peak periods, the ripple effect would mean huge queues would soon spill over onto the county’s road network.

Eurotunnel claims its new process will be able to accommodate up to 700 vehicles per hour. That works out at around 2,000 passengers, 80% of whom are likely to be ‘third-country’ nationals subject to the new EES rules. The company hopes its investment in the refined processing of vehicles will mean each passenger journey will take a maximum of seven additional minutes.

This is how the new process at the Channel Tunnel will work. When purchasing a ticket, customers will be invited to complete an online questionnaire to determine their status – whether they are EU nationals exempt from EES, third-country nationals not yet enrolled in EES, or third-country nationals already identified by the database.

On arrival at the Channel Tunnel terminal for their crossing, passengers in the vehicle will then confirm that status. This will determine whether they need to proceed to the zone designated for the collection of data and enrolment in the EES. Those that must submit their data will then park and submit their biometrics at a kiosk, overseen by the border authorities. The process at this stage will vary slightly depending on if this is their first time travelling under EES.

Paul Stafford was among those stuck on the approaches to the Channel Tunnel in July 2022. Picture: Paul Stafford
Paul Stafford was among those stuck on the approaches to the Channel Tunnel in July 2022. Picture: Paul Stafford

Once the registration with the system is complete, travellers will then be able to proceed to the border itself, where their data and passports will be checked before they are able to cross the border successfully.

Mr Keefe said: “When traffic arrives, it will continue to flow through the terminal reasonably closely to the speed it flows through today.

“We reckon with all the modelling we've done, all the testing we've done, a car will take five to seven minutes more on its total journey time from the motorway in Kent to the motorway in Coquelles [in northern France].

“It keeps traffic and congestion off the road in Kent, so our staff, their families, our neighbours and local communities are not disrupted by these new border restraints. It's not cheap, and we will invest about €80 million in doing this, to ensure that we get that double benefit for the local communities and for the traffic flow for our customers going through the border.”

While Eurotunnel has been forced to make significant changes to manage restricted capacity during peak times, the business also used its event in Sangatte yesterday to address the under-utilisation of overall capacity for rail services through the Channel Tunnel.

Eurostar services no longer call at Ashford and Ebbsfleet
Eurostar services no longer call at Ashford and Ebbsfleet

Eurostar, which has come under severe and sustained criticism for its decision to withdraw direct services from Kent stations at Ashford and Ebbsfleet, remains the only high-speed passenger service through the Tunnel. Eurotunnel chief executive Yann Leriche yesterday said how the potential for new direct routes between the UK and Europe could be realised.

He announced a new package of funding – as much as €50 million – to support the introduction of new rail operators into the cross-Channel passenger market, with the eventual ambition of direct services from London to further destinations in France, Germany and Switzerland.

“The Channel Tunnel is the catalyst for the acceleration of high-speed passenger traffic between London and Europe’s major cities,” he said.

“The attractiveness of the open-access model and the impetus driven by Eurotunnel as infrastructure manager to develop new destinations are key factors in the growth of low-carbon mobility between the UK and continental Europe.”

While a greater range of direct destinations from London St Pancras International would represent a realisation of the potential of the Channel Tunnel, which opened in May 1994, politicians and business leaders here in Kent are focused on the battle to reconnect the county to existing routes between the UK and the cities of Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Eurotunnel chief executive officer Yann Leriche. Picture: Julien Knaub - Eurotunnel
Eurotunnel chief executive officer Yann Leriche. Picture: Julien Knaub - Eurotunnel

KCC has this month repeated its call to business and trade leaders to give their views on how international rail services to Europe, not currently stopping in Kent, have affected firms in the county.

In October the county council, supported by Ashford Borough Council and Dartford Borough Council, launched a business survey to understand the impact of Eurostar’s decision to scrap services from Kent. So far more than 500 responses have been received.

Cllr Noel Ovenden, leader of Ashford Borough Council, said: “Rail services at Ashford International Station are not only important for existing businesses and travellers, but they are also important for our future commercial investments.

“Significant investment has been made over the last 25 years in infrastructure to ensure international services are able to operate to support business and leisure travel to Europe, so it is imperative that the benefits of this investment are realised through services returning.

“With the valuable support of local businesses and residents, we will continue our fight to bring Eurostar services back.”

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