Ferry and logistics company P&O Ferries has confirmed that it will close its Liverpool to Dublin ferry route later this year. The announcement follows months of speculation about the future of the operation.
The ferry company has been unable to secure a lease for its Gladstone Dock terminal in Liverpool after the end of this year. It is understood that negotiations between Liverpool Port owner Peel Ports and P&O Ferries to extend the current lease broke down after Peel received an alternative proposal from a customer willing to show a long-term commitment to the site.
A report by the Liverpool Echo stated that a spokesperson for Peel Ports Group simply confirmed the news with no other comment.
Neighbouring customers include Cargill which has facilities at both Gladstone Dock and neighbouring Seaforth Dock. Efforts by P&O Ferries to secure an alternative facility over the past number of weeks and months have proved fruitless according to a statement issued to staff earlier today.
Consultations to begin
P&O Ferries’ statement also confirmed that the company will begin consultations with affected staff on their future. The company has pledged to help affected employees secure further employment either with P&O Ferries or elsewhere.
A statement from P&O Ferries said
“We are saddened by our forced withdrawal from this route, which will reduce competition and the choice of sailings available to customers on a crossing where there is currently only one alternative operator. The route, served by two P&O Ferries vessels making an overall 24 sailings a week, is principally used to transport freight between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.”
The Unite Union has pledged to support its 30 plus members affected by the announcement to receive the compensation and support they are entitled to from P&O Ferries. Last year the ferry company came under fire after sacking nearly 800 workers without notice or consultation with the unions. The RMT Union has slammed P&O’s announcement and repeated its call for the U.K. Government to terminate any contracts it has with P&O Ferries.
The statement from P&O Ferries said that it intends to redeploy the two ships on the route, NORBAY and NORBANK, elsewhere within its network. It is unclear where there is a vacancy for the ships, with P&O having recently extended the contracts for three chartered ro-ro vessels. Alternatively, the company could potentially launch a new service such as Tilbury to Rotterdam or move the Hull to Zeebrugge route back to ro-pax from the current lolo container operation. The latter ferry route closed at the start of 2021.
The closure of the Liverpool to Dublin route follows a challenging few years for P&O’s only remaining service to the Republic of Ireland. While the route is currently served only by the ro-pax ferries NORBANK and NORBAY, P&O has had up to four ships on the service in recent years.
During Spring 2020, P&O Ferries and Peel Ports had a dispute about the payment of port fees which resulted in NORBAY being detained in Liverpool. As a consequence of this and the temporary suspension of the Liverpool route NORBANK carried out berthing trials at Mostyn. While P&O has previously operated between Dublin and Mostyn it is understood that a suitable berth is no longer available for use at the Welsh port.
As with all Irish Sea ferry services, the route has seen changes in demand following the U.K.’s departure from the EU single market. P&O Ferries has also faced tough competition from Seatruck Ferries in recent years which offers a freight-only service on the route. Last year Seatruck was acquired by the huge CLdN shipping and logistics group.
It remains to be seen how Seatruck Ferries will react to P&O’s closure announcement. As part of the CLdN group, the Heysham-based company should be able to secure larger or additional tonnage for its Liverpool route should it be required.
Swedish ferry company Stena Line has also previously shown interest in the Liverpool to Dublin route, and at one stage had intended to acquire P&O’s operation before the deal was blocked on competition grounds. An all-new Stena operation would not have to clear the same regulatory hurdles, however.
Stena Line, which already has the largest route network on the Irish Sea, is the only ferry company other than Seatruck with access to a ro-ro ferry terminal in the Merseyside area and already has a presence in Dublin. The company signed an agreement with Peel Ports earlier this year to extend its lease on the 12 Quays terminal at Birkenhead until 2100. Stena has also acquired two additional sites adjacent to 12 Quays to increase the amount of vehicle storage space available at the terminal.
P&O Ferries has said that its other Irish Sea route between Larne and Cairnryan will be unaffected by the Liverpool to Dublin closure. The Cairnryan route recently celebrated 50 years of operation, but is now all that remains of a once extensive network of P&O routes linking the Island of Ireland to Great Britain and France.
The P&O ferry network generally has significantly declined over the past 30 years, with around 25 routes having been closed.