Title image PRIDE OF RATHLIN off P&O’s Cairnryan port in 1994. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
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Atlantic Steam Navigation can lay claim to establishing the first commercial RoRo ferry service in the world, between Preston and Larne, in 1948. Initially converted former tank landing craft (LST’s or Landing Ship Tank) were used. Prior to this the company had established itself by transporting military vehicles across the North Sea from the UK to the European mainland. Such was the success of the RoRo service linking Northern Ireland with England, a second route between Preston and Belfast was added in 1950. Following nationalisation in 1954 the first of a number of brand-new vessels, BARDIC FERRY, arrived in 1957. Specifically designed to carry a mix of 69 commercial vehicles and 13 cars, BARDIC FERRY was the first purpose-built commercial RoRo freight ferry in the UK. ASN services were usually marketed as “Transport Ferry Service”, however newspaper reports from 1948 refer to the company as “Continental Line” or “The Continental Transport Ferry Service”.
In 1973 the Larne service moved from Preston in North West England to the former military port at Cairnryan in South West Scotland, close to Stranraer. This followed the company being re-privatised and sold to the recently formed European Ferries Group in 1971, which traded under the Townsend Thoresen banner. The Preston to Belfast service closed a couple of years later with the company concentrating on the much shorter Cairnryan route operating under the Townsend Thoresen name. European Ferries tried to improve the service by redeploying tonnage from their channel operations, notably EUROPEAN GATEWAY and FREE ENTERPRISE IV before settling on the mis-matched combination of IONIC FERRY (ii) and the former ASN vessel EUROPIC FERRY, the final vessel built for ASN and a larger and faster version of BARDIC FERRY. In 1987 the European Ferries group was taken over by P&O who set about re-branding all services as P&O European Ferries after the HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE disaster.
(Some of the older images for this section have yet to be scanned and will be added at a later date)
In 1987 the Townsend Thoresen name began to disappear following the full takeover of the European Ferries Group by P&O, a process accelerated following the tragic loss of the HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE. P&O already had a significant presence in the Irish Sea ferry business through its freight subsidiary Pandoro, though the business remained separate with the former Townsend Thoresen operation managed from the former ASN base at Felixstowe and Pandoro from Fleetwood. Initially only the funnel colours changed on the former TT vessels, with the distinctive Townsend Thoresen logo replaced by the P&O house flag on a blue background (this was particularly hard to see on IONIC FERRY (ii) (ex DRAGON). As each vessel was dry docked the full P&O livery of dark blue hull and funnel was applied, while the route itself was managed by the newly renamed P&O European Ferries (Felixstowe).
The first permanent vessels to only ever wear P&O colours on the Cairnryan route were the PRIDE OF RATHLIN and PRIDE OF AILSA, which replaced the EUROPIC FERRY and IONIC FERRY (ii) in 1992, bringing with them a new level of passenger comfort. P&O European Ferries merged the Irish Sea operations with Pandoro to form P&O Irish Sea in 1998, headquartered in Fleetwood. The mono-hull fast-craft JETLINER followed in 1996 boasting a crossing time as short as 60 minutes (while PRIDE OF AILSA was sold), but was later replaced by first SUPERSTAR EXPRESS then EXPRESS. Cairnryan’s first truly purpose-built vessel EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY arrived in 2000 (replacing PRIDE OF RATHLIN), with a near sister EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER arriving in 2002. At present the company trade as P&O Ferries, though the route between Larne and Cairnryan with the two aforementioned purpose-built vessels is all that is left of what was once a network of routes serving both Larne and Belfast. The former Pandoro route between Larne and Fleetwood was sold to Stena Line along with its vessels in 2004 (and management of P&O Irish Sea transferred to Dover). In 2010 P&O Irish Sea ceased to exist as a separate entity and became part of P&O Ferries. Stena closed down the Larne to Fleetwood route in 2011 following the acquisition of the DFDS Irish Sea ferry business.
The former Coast Lines routes (including the Belfast Steamship Company Belfast – Liverpool route, but excluding those sold to the Irish Government to form B&I Line) were branded as P&O from 1975, however these routes have now all closed, with the Liverpool route only surviving until 1981. The Belfast to Ardrossan route moved to Larne in 1992, with the Scottish port switching to Troon in 2001. EXPRESS closed the Larne to Troon service in 2015.
The above article is Copyright © Steven Tarbox, all rights reserved. Unauthorised reproduction or distribution is strictly prohibited.
With thanks to the all of the contributors for the use of their images.
Original articles published: June 2015
Rebuilt, articles merged, updated, and moved to new location: 12 October 2017 – 9th June 2018
last updated: 11/06/18