Port answers Operation Stack critics

BRITAIN'S biggest container port is in a no-win situation when it comes to wind.It's business is halted by gales - it's too dangerous for quayside cranes to unload ships when wind speed hits 45mph - and there is not enough room on the port to park up the lorries which arrive, causing chaos on the Felixstowe area's roads, making the port unpopular with the public.

BRITAIN'S biggest container port is in a no-win situation when it comes to wind.

It's business is halted by gales - it's too dangerous for quayside cranes to unload ships when wind speed hits 45mph - and there is not enough room on the port to park up the lorries which arrive, causing chaos on the Felixstowe area's roads, making the port unpopular with the public.

Around 4,000 trucks go in and out of the port every day and even a few hundred can quickly cause gridlock on the A14.

This week Operation Stack - the system for dealing with the lorries when the port is closed - was switched to Levington and teething problems caused massive congestion at Seven Hills.

One of the biggest problems is getting the message out to lorry drivers to stay away.

E-mails are sent to all haulage companies, signs put up on the M1, A1 and A14, and on the radio, urging them to park at truckstops or delay their journeys, but still they come.

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There are worries, too, about the future with the port set to expand, creating a deepwater terminal at Landguard which will eventually mean another million lorries a year on the A14 and even more arriving for Operation Stack.

Port head of corporate affairs Paul Davey believes the new vehicle booking system will help.

“In future, drivers will have time slots of an hour when they should arrive and this will help spread the arrival of lorries throughout the day, so we should not have the situation where they all turn up together - it should be more manageable,” he said.

Why has the combination of wind and lorries only caused chaos in recent years?

The success of the Port of Felixstowe has meant its business has grown rapidly in recent years - now handling three million standard-sized boxes a year.

While there may not yet be a pattern of windier weather - the number of stoppages in the past year has been no worse than previous years, when there have been many more - the impact of the extra business means there are more lorries visiting the terminal compared with before.

In the last six months Operation Stack has swung into action six times before this week - November 8, December 7, January 7 and 31, February 1 and March 4.

“Of the ten to 15 times a year we have to use Operation Stack, only about three cause significant problems and most take place without major inconvenience,” said Felixstowe port head of corporate affairs Paul Davey.

“It is still a fairly rare occurrence - it only affects two per cent of the working time at the port and 98pc of the time we are open.”

Who pays for it?

The Port of Felixstowe does contribute towards the cost of extra police officers to help run Operation Stack and is paying for the portable toilet facilities for the new Levington holding area.

The rest of the cost is borne by the taxpayer nationally and locally through the paying for the agencies which are involved with stack - Highways Agency, police, councils.

The port though contends that it is right the bill is picked up nationally because the port is a strategic national facility whose workload is driven by the public's vast consumption of consumer goods which these days all arrive in Britain in containers.

“Operation Stack is needed when the wind blows so strongly it is dangerous for the port to operate and because of the sheer volume of traffic coming into the UK,” said Mr Davey.

“Of course, the port benefits from this business because we are the port that handles all these goods - though when the wind comes it stops the port, too.

“The whole country though benefits from having the port here. The goods that come through here go to shops and businesses all over the UK.

“In this region some 12,500 people's jobs depend on the port, too - and many more indirectly - and their salaries go into the economy.”

Will the situation get worse when the port expands?

At present the port can park 250 lorries and there are 1,200 spaces in haulage yards, plus the 350 at Levington. When the port expands new holding areas will be created as part of the redeveloped and larger Landguard Terminal, providing more space to park the extra lorries visiting.

The changes to Operation Stack have been designed to give truckers an incentive to go back to their yards where they will receive tickets to enter the port when it re-opens. The new vehicle booking system should also spread the load to ensure not all the lorries arrive at once.

Can more spaces be provided on the port?

“The port is a finite area and we don't have spare land which is unused,” said Mr Davey.

“All the land is used for one form of economic activity or another - if we took that land out of commercial use by ourselves or others to hold it in case it was needed for lorries to park on two or three days a year it would make it ultimately economically less attractive and could affect jobs.

“I would contend that is not the best use of land on the port and that land should be used to earn money, not just for us but also other people.”

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