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Channel Tunnel vs Ferries

Things are definitely changing in the cross-Channel travel marketplace as competition reaches new levels and travellers become aware of their power when it comes to choosing their methods of transport to the continent and beyond. Things used to be very easy, if you wanted to get to France you simply got on and off a ferry. Those days are firmly in the past. Travellers now have the option to travel by sea (ferries), under the sea (tunnels) or over the sea (aircraft). Following closely in the footsteps of Eurotunnel are the low cost airlines. They are the latest to make major inroads into this particular travel market. As a result of all this, ferry companies have now got major competition, which in turn drives down prices which can only benefit the traveller.

About the Ferry and Channel Tunnel Market

During 2004 the total cross Channel trips fell by around 5% compared to 2003, with the ferries and Eurotunnel reporting disappointing figures. Passenger traffic on the ferries was 3% down in 2004, while passenger traffic through the Channel Tunnel increased by 12%. This decrease in the number of trips taken by United Kingdom consumers during 2004, is expected to continue in the short term at least. The Euro currency has made the price of goods in Europe more expensive for the British. And a sharp rise in French tobacco taxes and aggressive United Kingdom high street prices has also made travellers reconsider the benefits of making that shopping trip across the Channel.

The History of Ferries, Ferry Ports and the Channel Tunnel

Paddle Steamers

19th century paddle-steamers were a huge advance, they suddenly appeared at a time when travel was slow, very expensive and nearly always dangerous. Only the very rich could take holidays and when ordinary people travelled abroad it was mostly soldiers, sailors or pilgrims.

Crossing the English Channel by Sailing Ship

Ships crossing the channel were usually at the mercy of tides and weather and until the late 19th century, landing on shore was a big problem - harbours on both sides of the channel were shallow and not protected against storms. Ships usually had to wait offshore at the ports until the tide was high enough to enter or else they had to cross to the beach in small rowing boats. Sometimes this small boat trip would cost more than the channel crossing!

Paddle-Steamers and Steamships

During 1820 the French government bought a Glasgow-built paddle-steamer called the "Rob Roy", to carry post from Calais to Dover. It proved extremely fast and reliable and in 1822, a Dover company purchased two paddle steamers to carry Post Office mail and passengers across the English channel. These were very small boats by today's ferries. These paddle steamers had wooden hulls, around 30hp engines, weighed about 100tons, were 15ft wide and over 80ft long. Because these ships were very small they rolled about in the waves making passengers very seasick, there was also very little shelter onboard these vessels too.

Boulogne versus Calais

During the 1840s long distance railways were built and brought more passengers to the channel ports. This is when Boulogne began rivalry with Calais to develop their ferry trade. The English South Eastern Railway company preferred the Boulogne-Folkestone route as an alternative to Calais-Dover mainly because of problems with Dover harbour. They were able to purchase and develop the port of Folkestone (only a few miles from Dover), from where they operated a fleet of steamships with connecting train services between London and Paris. This service was initially aimed at the more wealthy traveller.

Better Ships

Around the1850s most ships were powered by sail. Paddle steamers still kept masts and sails in case their engines broke down. Small steam ferries could usually make a fast crossing whatever the direction of the wind.

Better Harbours

Towards the end of the 19th century, better deep-water harbours were built on both sides of the channel. The Admiralty Pier was Dover's first deep-water berth. After 1850 ferries could land their passengers at any state of the tide without having to pass the shallow inner harbour entrance.

Dover Naval Harbour

During 1895 the Admiralty decided to build a large deep-water anchorage and naval base at Dover in order to help defend the South east coast. The harbour was completed in 1909 by which time torpedoes and longer range guns had been developed. This hugely expensive outer harbour became a bonus to the ferry companies at the Royal Navy's expense.

Car Ferries

Traditional cross channel travellers had always been foot passengers. They would arrive at the port by horse-drawn stage-coach, then steam-train and then embark on the ferry with their luggage. Due to the growing popularity of motoring, Captain Townsend purchased and converted an old minesweeper for people who wanted to take their car with them on a motoring holiday. Like other cross-channel travel, most of the demand was from the United Kingdom side. Cars were initially loaded onto the Dover-Calais car ferry by crane. 6,000 cars were transported in the first year and that figure rose to 31,000 in 1939, before the outbreak of the Second World War which obviously interrupted all services. After the war "drive on" ferry terminals were built both in Dover and Calais. They were opened in 1953 and had moveable loading bridges, so that cars could drive on whatever the state of the tide in the English Channel.

The Train Ferry

Sometime in 1936, the Southern Railway company and the SNCF French train service invested in train ferry docks at Dover and Dunkerque. These ships had rails on the cargo deck to carry railway carriages and wagons. The ship ran into a dock where the water level could be adjusted so that the trains could run off the ship onto the tracks. The "Night Ferry" train had through coaches between London and Paris, while the famous "Golden Arrow" used the Dover-Calais route, with separate trains either side of the channel. These rich passengers had a small walk on and off the SS Canterbury (later called the SS Invicta), which was specially furnished for their benefit.

About Hovercraft

During 1959 a hovercraft successfully navigated the channel, landing on the beach inside Dover harbour. This British invention promised to revolutionise cross-channel travel. It offered a fast crossing without the initial investment in building a tunnel which would be needed for high-speed trains. Hovercraft were successfully made bigger so that they could carry hundreds of passengers and cars, but these vessels could not cope with rough weather. "Hoverpads" were then built at Calais, Boulogne, Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate, and in Dover harbour. British Rail, SNCF, and Hoverspeed all competed to develop the hovercraft. Unfortunately hovercraft were made uneconomic by the rise in fuel prices in the 1970's. They used fuel heavily just to stay up as well as to move. The last hovercraft service was withdrawn in 2000.

Channel Tunnel

Tunnel schemes were talked about even in the 18th century, and serious construction work started on both sides in 1881 which was only halted by political rather than engineering problems. Work then re-commenced a century later in the 1980s, and the Channel Tunnel was at last opened in 1994. The train ferry was discontinued at this time.

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