‘It is soul-destroying’: lorry drivers face hours stuck in queues at Dover

Emergency traffic controls triggered 20 times this year as extra Brexit controls and freight volumes cause logjams

Last modified on Thu 3 Feb 2022 02.55 EST

His lorry loaded with British Airways aircraft parts, Ivo Hradilik was expecting to drive onto a ferry headed to Calais, before delivering his cargo to the outskirts of Paris.

But there’s a problem with the customs paperwork, and the 26-year-old HGV driver from the Czech Republic will have to park up near the Port of Dover while the haulage company sorts everything out.

“From the new year it has got worse with the paperwork,” Hradilik said, clutching a handful of documents. He usually visits Dover five times a month bringing goods between Britain and the EU.

Hradilik expects to wait for hours before setting sail. On Wednesday, long queues of lorries built up once again on the approach roads to Dover, with as many as 100 vehicles waiting on the A20.

The sheer volume of HGVs meant the town’s emergency traffic management system was activated twice on Wednesday, once at 5am and again at midday. Known as TAP – Operation Travel Access Protocol – it can be triggered by a request from the port authority or the police to the National Highways agency.

Lorries heading for the port are required to stay in the left-hand lane of the A20 dual carriageway. Then small groups are called forward by a police officer stationed at the Aycliffe roundabout, once space becomes available at the port for them to enter the terminal.

According to National Highways, TAP has been activated 20 times so far this year, compared with 69 times for the whole of 2021.

The Port of Dover says the main cause is a spike in freight traffic, rather than Brexit. The drivers see things differently. Many blame the introduction on 1 January of the first controls on imports from the EU, and a new UK government IT system for goods entering and leaving the country.

“Since 1 January, I have queued every time in Dover,” Hradilik said. “From Calais it is better – there is only about two hours waiting.”

Time spent queueing in his cab is time that goes unpaid. Under Hradilik’s contract, he gets paid per kilometre driven, rather than time spent on the road.

When out of their vehicles, HGV drivers are easy to spot in Dover – they walk around holding sheaves of paperwork. Ciaran Donovan, a driver based in the UK who regularly travels back and forth to the continent, said the holdups were due to the extra time needed by staff to check the forms.

He is unable to charge his customers more for extended journey times – including the hours spent queueing to reach the port – as he fears they will find another firm to carry their goods.

“Having to sit there in the queues for free in order to earn money is soul-destroying,” Donovan said.

Donovan has also been caught out on the other side of the Channel when returning to the UK. Last Friday, he was stuck in Calais for 16 hours because he hadn’t received the paperwork required to enter the UK.

“I think the customs agents can’t cope. They’ve got too much work,” he said.

Snaking up the A20 on Wednesday, the vehicles were from a host of countries including Ireland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Serbia.

A spokesperson for the Port of Dover said the new EU import controls were partly to blame. But the main cause, they said, was a 25% increase in freight traffic in January compared with a year earlier, combined with roadworks and ferries being out of service.

“In conjunction with having to manage such increased freight volumes, 25% of the ferry fleet has been away on normal annual refit and there are external highway works impacting the port’s holding capacity.”

One of the 12 ferries that serve Dover has recently returned, but two are still out of service.

Freight traffic usually begins to climb in mid-January, following the Christmas break, but the long tailbacks seen so far this year have taken many drivers who regularly travel to Dover by surprise.

Some point to teething problems for users of a new IT platform – the goods vehicle movement system (GVMS), required when moving cargo into or out of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – which launched on 1 January.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which is responsible for the new portal, admitted it was not available to users for 15 minutes on Monday 31 January, when there was a system outage.

An HMRC spokesperson said: “The goods vehicle movement system (GVMS) and other customs systems are online and working as planned. Traders and hauliers are adapting very well to the new processes.”

This will come as scant consolation for Fernando Naranjo Sanchez, a driver from Seville in Spain, who said he had regularly queued for several hours to reach the port in January. The 35-year-old visits Dover two or three times each month, bringing clothing manufactured in Morocco to the UK.

“Two Mondays ago I was waiting on the A20 for seven and a half hours,” he said. “It is worse than it used to be. There is more paperwork.”

Meanwhile, Vitalii Shulha, a driver from Ukraine, said he had been stuck in an eight-hour queue to reach the port in the final week of January.

Haulage firms warn of further hurdles on the horizon, when physical controls on the import of EU products of animal and plant origin, which have been delayed several times by the UK government, are implemented in July.

For many drivers, haulage firms and customs agents the queues and complications are a new reality, additional frictions that will be a continuing feature of post-Brexit trade.

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