Long queues at Calais as British tourists leave France

British holidaymakers again endured long queues at cross-Channel ports over the weekend, this time in Calais as they headed back to the UK ahead of the new school year.

Long queues at Calais as British tourists leave France
Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

The start of the summer holidays in the UK were marked by long queues at the port of Dover, and furious British headlines blaming the French for the chaos.

Now the end of the holidays has seen similar scenes, this time in Calais where British holidaymakers reported long queues to pass through British passport control.

Although schools in France restarted on September 1st, most schools in the UK don’t return until this week, making this weekend the ‘return’ weekend for British holidaymakers, with high volumes of passenger traffic at Calais.

The problems were concentrated at the ferry port, with both P&O Ferries and DFDS advising passengers of queues of up to 90 minutes to get through UK border control.

Both ferry companies waived booking times to allow people to travel on the next sailing if they missed their departure time while waiting in the queue.

BBC journalist Tom Hourigan, caught up the chaos as he returned from a trip to France, reported that on Sunday only half of the UK border force booths were staffed.

Since Brexit, the process of travel in and out of France has become more complicated, with border control forces required to check and stamp passports of travellers.

In addition, there are different rules for people travelling with pets, and restrictions on the items that passengers can bring in to France.

Travel to France: What has changed since Brexit?

At the start of the summer, the UK travel expert Simon Calder estimated that the enhanced checks now take a minimum of 90 seconds for a family of four travelling in the same car at a ferry port, compared to just a couple of second pre-Brexit.

Although this doesn’t sound like a lot, multiplied by many cars it can cause long delays.

The new travel rules have been in place since January 2021, but Covid-related travel bans meant that this summer has been the first time that we have seen the combination of normal passenger numbers and post-Brexit checks. It appears that both Dover and Calais ports have struggled to cope on their busiest weekends.

OPINION: UK-France travel problems will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

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How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The French boss of Eurostar has laid out how the combination of the pandemic, Brexit and ongoing uncertainty over new EU travel rules have left the company in a very precarious position.

How Brexit and Covid have derailed Eurostar services between France and UK

The Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas has laid out the company’s woes in a long letter to British MPs, stating that as things stand “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus on our core routes . . . and to charge higher prices to customers”.

He said that two things have significantly damaged the company – the pandemic (worsened by the fact that the company received no state aid from the UK government) and Brexit which has made travel between France and the UK considerably more complicated with more checks required at stations.

Damas said that peak capacity at both London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord is 30 percent less than it was pre-Brexit, because of the increased infrastructure needed to check and stamp the passports of travellers.

He said: “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour, against 2,200 in 2019.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid to long-term.”

He added that the increased passport checks and stamping needed since Brexit adds at least 15 seconds to each passenger’s processing time, and that automated passport gates are less efficient.

The other factor that has hit the company hard was the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, leading to revenues being cut by 95 percent for 15 months.

The London-based company struggled to access government financial aid due to its ownership structure, with both the British and French governments reluctant to assume sole responsibility for bailing out the company.

It began as a joint venture between the British and French governments, but then the British sold off its share to private investors.

Damas said: “Contrary to the £7 billion in state aid given to our airline competitors, Eurostar did not receive any state-backed loans”. 

By May 2021 the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and was eventually bailed out to the tune of €290 million in loans and shareholder-guaranteed loans and equity – although this saved the company it has now left it with huge debts to be repaid.

The CEO’s letter was responding to questions from British MPs on the Transport Select Committee who wanted to know when trains would again stop at Ashford station – which has been closed since March 2020. Damas said there was no immediate prospect of that, or of reinstating the route to Disneyland Paris, while the company grapples with these financial problems.

He added that there is also “considerable uncertainty” around the new EU travel systems known as the EES and ETIAS, which are due to come into effect in 2023 and which will require extra checking of passports at the EU’s external borders – such as the UK/France border. 

READ ALSO Fears of ‘massive travel disruption’ in 2023

Many Eurostar passengers have commented recently on increased ticket prices, and it seems that there is little immediate prospect of prices going back down to 2019 levels.