THE news that Danish freight and logistics firm DFDS and Glasgow-registered sea and coastal freight transport company Ptarmigan Shipping are investigating the possibility of reopening the freight ferry route between Rosyth and Zeebrugge has potentially involved Scotland in major international logistics industry changes.

The reinstatement of a ferry link between Scotland and Europe, one of the Scottish Green Party’s proposals in 2021, would provide an alternative to the busier ports in south-east England that handle 90% of all UK freight regardless of how much further north that freight has to travel when it reaches British shores.

Martin Reid, the Road Haulage Association’s policy director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, explained: “The crossing would be useful for non-time-critical freight, like machinery or grain, but less so for goods that have to get to market in Europe quickly, like fresh fish, which is one of the reasons why we have fewer international haulage operators’ licences issued in Scotland than is the case in England; we are so far away in terms of time spent on ferries.”

But that could be about to change as the 20-hour sail from Fife to Flanders might play a role that was unnecessary pre-Brexit but is now vital as hauliers transiting the ports on the south-east coast of England struggle with delays, bottlenecks and, in some cases, loads that are no longer fit for delivery.

In 2020, Scotland’s ports sent and transited a total of 25,000 tonnes of EU freight, half of it through Rosyth, 4500 tonnes via Sullom Voe with the remainder through Scotland’s other nine ports.

Why is Zeebrugge so important to Scotland? The Department for International Trade explains that, as of June 2022, Belgium is the UK’s 7th largest trading partner and total trade amounted to £45.5 billion, an increase of 12% year on year, of which, Rosyth sees precious little.

When compared to the volume of freight that transits Dover, the Channel Tunnel and Immingham, not to mention the UK’s western ports, the Scottish component is negligible and this could be about to change with the DFDS-Ptarmigan announcement on Rosyth.

DFDS, the second biggest shipping line serving the UK, recently posted its first quarter operating profit of £95m on the back of increasing freight volumes of 14% year-on-year, with UK and Mediterranean routes driving the increases.

While the firm remains on track to raise earnings by more than 20% in 2022, Torben Carlsen, DFDS CEO, warned that the economics of running cross-channel services as they are currently run is becoming unsustainable as P&O and Irish Ferries both use low-cost labour models and agency staff on cross-channel routes.

Another major freight shipping company, Stena Line, recently announced a £100m, 50-year agreement with Associated British Ports to operate the freight terminal on the Humber at Immingham, Lincolnshire, where freight to and from the EU has been booming while Brexit-related delays impede ports further south.

Similarly, freight specialist Unifeeder has invested in new sailings between Dunkirk and Antwerp to Teesport and Rotterdam to South Shields while another major haulier, Maritime Transport, has also invested in a northern port, taking a 30-year lease at the Port of Liverpool.

A much broader recalibration of UK logistics is advanced by the National Infrastructure Commission which highlights the advantages of creating a dedicated rail freight corridor from Kent, for the Channel Tunnel and Dover, to Scotland, able to carry road freight trailers.

If this plan materialised it would mean hauliers could bypass the M25 from the English Channel ports to north London, the M1 from north London to the Midlands, and the M6 from the Midlands into Scotland.

Long ferry sailings also offer practical answers to previously unencountered problems.

Pre-Brexit, Scottish businesses could get their freight to Europe without paying for a whole trailer by hiring just the space they needed on a trailer that carried freight from various suppliers.

This groupage system means that one trailer carries loads from numerous suppliers as one consignment to be broken down at the destination, but has become hugely complicated, time consuming and expensive because each pallet or load requires its own paperwork.

Large volumes of paperwork, such as those that accompany groupage loads, could conceivably be done more efficiently while the vehicles are onboard a ferry rather than after queuing for days on the M20 while trying to board at Dover.

There’s an environmental impact with ferries too because sea miles use less energy than road miles and, as the COP26: Clydebank Declaration for green shipping corridors is launched and green vessels will be on stream by 2025, Maersk, which has the world’s largest container shipping fleet, became the first to order ships capable of running on carbon-neutral fuel.

The fact that Rosyth is being investigated as part of a new European logistical scenario indicates at the very least its potential for a role that’s much larger than the one it currently plays.

The results of the DFDS-Ptarmigan investigation will interest Scottish hauliers, the UK logistics industry and the associated shipping lines and, if Rosyth-Zeebrugge is economically viable, it will demonstrate a degree of confidence in the Scottish economy and show that the logistics industry can overcome the Brexit barriers placed before it.

Ultimately the significance is much wider because the logistics industry is the one industry on which we all rely. Its success quietly underpins the success of the economy itself.