Norfolkline adds two new ships to fleet

BIGGER MINNOW: Wayne Bullen, Norfolkline general manager, with one of his current ships
BIGGER MINNOW: Wayne Bullen, Norfolkline general manager, with one of his current ships

NORFOLKLINE, the cross-Channel operator, is investing millions of pounds in two new ships to try to grab market share from bigger rivals.

The vessels, being built in Korea, are due to enter service on the Dover-Dunkirk route in 2005.

Like the line's present fleet of three -- Northern Merchant, Midnight Merchant and Dawn Merchant -- the new ships will combine passenger and freight traffic.

But the new ones have been designed to separate lorry drivers and members of the travelling public, to offer better facilities and increased speed. They will each carry 125 trucks, 220 cars and 750 passengers.

General manager Wayne Bullen said the investment would create about 20 new jobs and was part of a careful strategy to turn the line into a "bigger minnow”.

The company is also considering opening a freight consolidation terminal in Northern France in 2006 when European drivers will be taxed when they enter Britain.

At the moment, Norfolkline is a niche operator with four per cent of the cross-Channel passenger market and 19 per cent of the freight business (350,000 trucks in the past year.)

But Mr Bullen expects the two new ships to help the company increase market share.

"We started off small, we've gradually increased and changed our services to suit people's needs," he said.

Norfolkline, a subsidiary of Danish multinational company Maersk, employs around 1,500 people.

It started out as a haulage and freight specialist, but in 2000 decided to open its operation to passengers.

Since then, it has increased the number of sailings and invested heavily in its two terminals at Dover and Dunkirk.

Mr Bullen says that both ports give the line good service. Dunkirk is particularly supportive because Norfolkline is its only daily link with the UK. "We are a serious player, not just here for the short-term," said Mr Bullen.

But despite a steady rise in passenger numbers, and increased promotional activity, Mr Bullen, who lives with his wife and son at Park Farm, Ashford, remains surprised that some of his neighbours have still not heard of Norfolkline.

Born in Great Yarmouth, he joined Norfolkline in 1983. After running the freight ferry operation at Felixstowe, he came to Dover to mastermind the new combined freight/passenger ferry operation.

It could have proved a daunting task launching another passenger service on the already busy cross-Channel route.

But Mr Bullen believes a softly-softly approach has paid dividends.

"So many people said: ‘Are you aware of the competition, do you really think it will be a success?’

"I always believed we could make it a success because of the location of Dover. We had the expertise to make it work and we've had a lot of support for the freight side."

He admits it was challenging coming to terms with public demands so different from those of its freight clients. But the company had learned as it went along.

"If you give people, what they want, the support will come," he said. "If we carry on doing a good job with the right ships, we will get the support.

"The most exciting thing for us is that we will be providing the right tonnage and the right ships that will be faster and better. I honestly think they will be the best on the Channel."

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