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Kent's roads: Just why is Dover, the M2, M20, A20 and Brenley Corner in such disarray?

There's a phrase often repeated that when the US economy sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. In Kent, that could just as easily be when there's any hold-up at the Channel ports, expect the county's key roads to grind to a halt.

We know it happens every time, but despite all the talk of workable solutions over the years, the current traffic chaos underlines, once again, they still leave a lot to be desired.

So just what is the cause of the latest hold-ups, what measures are in place and, crucially, how long can we expect them to last?

The key cause is down to a company whose tattered reputation must now also take the blame for the current traffic crisis.

P&O Ferries' decision to dock all its cross-Channel vessels on March 17, in order for it to sack almost 800 seafaring staff, was not only hugely controversial, but also damaging to the often fragile flow of traffic through Kent to the Continent.

With its ferries all out of service, all the freight and passenger traffic it carried had to be picked up by its rivals. But, of course, capacity wasn't unlimited and so delays started to develop.

And, just to make matters worse, all this was unfolding as the great Easter getaway began.

Chris Parker, director of capacity at DFDS, talking about how difficult it's been coping with the increased demand and the disruption

One of the first steps was the activation of the Dover Traffic Access Protocol - better known simply as Dover TAP.

Given the additional delays seen so far this year - primarily due to increased time for freight to pass through the port given the new Brexit regulations - it's been called upon frequently in 2022.

The scheme on the A20 at Aycliffe is often brought in when there is a risk of congestion in the town centre because of high volumes of lorries looking to cross the Channel into Europe. It holds freight traffic in one lane of the A20 approaching the town and then releases them in a controlled way to prevent the town itself grinding to a complete halt.

It stretches from Dover to the Roundhill Tunnel in Folkestone, with all traffic having to drop their speed to 40mph while it is in force.

But even this has been stretched over recent days after bad weather saw greater delays to the remaining cross-Channel operators (including the breakdown of a train in the Channel Tunnel).

Lorries queue at the Port of Dover last Friday. Picture: Stuart Brock
Lorries queue at the Port of Dover last Friday. Picture: Stuart Brock

The traffic was so heavy over the weekend, Dover became completely gridlocked with locals unable to travel to shops or work.

In order to ensure HGV drivers don't cut the queues and access the ports from the A2 Jubilee Way, the coastbound road has been closed off - funnelling traffic back to join the queues on the A20.

The Roundhill Tunnel on the A20 - which links traffic from the M20 at Folkestone to Dover - has also been closed in order to prevent queuing traffic inside the tunnel itself and a traffic management system put in place.

But Dover and Folkestone are far from isolated when it comes to the congestion.

On the M20 - traditionally the county's main access route to the ports and Eurotunnel terminal - has seen Operation Brock - the successor to the regular blight of east Kent, Operation Stack - activated.

Lorries queuing for Operation Brock. Picture: Kent Police RPU
Lorries queuing for Operation Brock. Picture: Kent Police RPU

The traffic management plan – and its controversial concrete barrier – is meant to allow traffic to flow in both directions between Junction 8 (for Leeds Castle and Maidstone) and Junction 9 (for Ashford) while lorries can be held as they queue before being released to continue onto the A20 and, finally, Dover itself.

By utilising a contraflow system, it is designed for the free-flow of traffic on one carriageway while the other (coastbound) is used as a make-shift lorry holding zone.

However, due to the scale of the traffic queuing, the 14-mile stretch was closed to all but freight traffic across the weekend and continues to be shut.

Unsurprisingly, this is causing hold-ups and queues as traffic flows off the M20 at Maidstone and Ashford and onto local roads.

The A20, linking Maidstone and Ashford, has, inevitably, seen a huge increase in traffic and travel times as a result.

The M2 coastbound, between Faversham and Sittingbourne has been plagued by heavy traffic, often at a standstill. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The M2 coastbound, between Faversham and Sittingbourne has been plagued by heavy traffic, often at a standstill. Picture: Barry Goodwin

This is set to get far worse for the surrounding roads after Brock Zero was implemented, moving the front of the queue to junction 11.

All cross-Channel passengers heading into the county are urged to use the M2, instead, while freight is directed onto the M20.

However, with such additional traffic now using the mostly two-lane M2, queues, particularly during peak periods, have stretched for many frustrating miles.

The situation is exacerbated at Brenley Corner, near Faversham - where port-bound traffic comes off the M2 in order to join the A2 and head into Dover that way. Any freight traffic which has attempted to jump Operation Brock on the M20 is, at this point, turned around and told to head to the back of the queue.

This is currently one of the biggest pinch-points away from Dover. And, its 25 miles away from the port town.

So when can we expect this to ease?

Brenley Corner roundabout on the junction with the M2 and the A2, coastbound. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Brenley Corner roundabout on the junction with the M2 and the A2, coastbound. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Certainly the rush to the Continent for the Easter holidays has certainly added considerable levels of traffic to an already stressed situation. It seems highly likely we will, this weekend, once again see a huge influx of vehicles looking to reach France.

And while the likes of ferry firm DFDS says it is increasing capacity to try and cope with the added pressures of having to accommodate P&O's stranded customers, it's made it clear it has no spare capacity this weekend.

As for P&O - the key cause of this disruption? Well, the under-fire company yesterday confirmed it expects to resume Dover to Calais ferries to resume next week - although no date has yet been confirmed.

Of course, it would be easy to assume that once its vessels are once again taking their share of traffic the situation will ease. So let's not consider the fact that they will now be manned by new crews unused to the crossing or, indeed, the vessels.

Fingers crossed - but expect this to continue for at least another couple of weeks or so while backlogs are cleared.

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