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The Demise of Cherbourg


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Ok, this is a genuine question because it is an issue that both fascinates and bemuses me.

 

Back in the 80s and 90s, Cherbourg was by far the busiest port for France - UK ferry services in the Central and Western Channel. At it's height, there were perhaps anything up to 9 or 10 departures a day from Cherbourg to, variously, Portsmouth, Southampton, Poole and Weymouth. Simultaneously with this, services from Caen and St Malo were not drastically different from what they are today, perhaps one departure less from St Malo now. Le Havre is down to 1 departure a day from the 3 or 4 it used to have.

 

The reasons for the role of Cherbourg as the focal point for Western Channel UK-France ferry services were obvious and the same reasons that Dover-Calais is the focal point in the Dover Straits. The majority of customers (excluding people like us who like being at sea for the sake of it) want to get across and on with their journeys as quickly as possible, and Cherbourg provided the shortest and quickest crossings. For the operators this was a winner too, because they could get an extra daily sailing or two out of their ships compared with on the longer routes (and back in those days the ships were small enough that 1 hour was plenty for turnaround). The extra distance driving down the Cotentin peninsular was not a deterrent to drivers who wanted to cross as quickly as possible because, just like driving to Portsmouth rather than Southampton or driving all the way down from Picardy if landing in Calais, it was seen as quicker covering that distance by road than by sea.

 

Now, as far as I can work out, none of the rationale for Cherbourg's former glory as the Western Channel focal port has ceased to be true today and yet services from Cherbourg to the UK have been decimated to the point where through the year it only offers 1 sailing per day to the UK (with an extra fast-ferry sailing thrown in in the summer).

 

So the issue that intrigues me is, what are the reasons for the extent of the decimation of services from Cherbourg? (The flip-side for Cherbourg is the considerable expansion of its operations to Ireland, from what used to be 2 per week to what is now at least 1 and sometimes 2 sailings per day, but the thread is purely about the UK services). I've listed some possible factors that could be part of the equation below, together with some thoughts on them, but seems to me that none of these really adequately explains the true extent of the demise of Cherbourg:

 

1. Rise of Caen? (Caen certainly seems to have largely replaced both Cherbourg and Le Havre as the landing port of choice in Normandy. However, BF's operation there was pretty much up to full strength for at a good decade before services to Cherbourg began to decline significantly.)

 

2. Channel Tunnel? (Clearly has affected many ports, and has seen the end of Folkestone and Boulogne in its vicinity, but why should that have impacted Cherbourg in particular more strongly than any of the other Western Channel ports? Surely custom that was using Cherbourg prior to the tunnel could have routed via Dover-Calais before if happy to go via Kent and Picardy for a shorter crossing so why would it suddenly go that way just because of a hole in the ground?)

 

3. Demise of Duty Free? (Did Cherbourg carry a disproportionate amount of traffic that was travelling purely for the sake of benefitting from duty free? If not, why would this factor affect one port so much more severely than others?)

 

4. Larger Ships? (Making the 1 hour turnround no longer possible and therefore the 2 round trips per day from each ship model no longer practical?)

 

5. Low Cost Air Travel? (Are the sorts of people who would have chosen a longer crossing, eg to St Malo, back then still choosing longer crossings making those routes viable, whilst the sorts of people who wanted to cross to western France by the quickest routes now choosing destinations further afield for their holidays?)

 

6. Driving Hours Regulations for Freight Drivers? (But in the past I thought Cherbourg was predominantly a tourist route with freight playing only a minor role whereas today you'd think that the regulations governing rest periods for drivers would make it an attractive alternative to Dover).

 

So, in summary, I really don't understand why Cherbourg has suffered such a calamitous demise in terms of its UK ferry services and would welcome thoughts on what people think the reasons might be. I have fond memories of the place as, together with Le Havre, it used to be the gateway to all of my childhood holidays!

 

 

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Ok, this is a genuine question because it is an issue that both fascinates and bemuses me.   Back in the 80s and 90s, Cherbourg was by far the busiest port for France - UK ferry services in the Cen

Could Poole-Cherbourg be too short for the timetable thus making it unattractive? Many travellers need to start their journey during the night or opt for the added expense of local accommodation

Macd..errrrrr, oops, a mountain with a museum on top...😉  Ahhhhh, Barfy, Ed, yes, but more interesting, ship watching in the form of the giant cruise ships that come in, the history of the place that

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Having been crossing the channel with Mrs Lembyscot since 1991 most of our early crossings were to either Cherbourg or Le Harve With Stena and P&O, although our very first crossing was on Duc de Normandie into Caen. My own belief for the demise of Cherbourg is a combination of the Brittany Ferries monopoly, demise of other operators, along with their having a favourable arrangement with Ouistreham, although I have no idea of what the details of that might be. Don't get me wrong I am not criticising the current Brittany Ferries monopoly, they have stepped in give a very good crossing coverage from the South of England to North West France.

 

Personally we enjoyed arriving in Cherbourg as we holiday in either Calvados or Manche and the super dual carriageway South from the town is a great way to leave the ferry port and an easy introduction to driving on the other side of the road. We do miss our trips to Auchan at la Glacerie but I suppose CORA at Carpiquet is adequate compensation.

 

We would quite like to return to sailing into and out of Cherbourg on one of the cruise ferries but I don't think this will be happening any time soon.

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Falmouth was once a great port too - the Falmouth packets carried mail around the world, news of the Battle of Trafalgar came in by fast frigate in there and an officer rode at speed to London with the news. But same reason for decline as Cherbourg - a bit too far away from centres of population.

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I think the principal reason for the decline of Cherbourg is that competes with Ouistreham and services to both are in the hands of the same operator who is thus in a position to manipulate the market in favour of the favoured port. Clearly this isn't Cherbourg. I am of course referring to cross-English Channel services. Such services into Cherbourg are best from ports west of the Isle of Wight which these days means Poole. Unfortunately Poole has always tried to work in close partnership with BF, a relationship which some would argue has benefitted the ferry company rather more than the port. I rather think the Cotentin (2) episode has not done BF's standing at Poole much good at all. After all PHC did carry out a capital dredge of the deep water channel specifically to accommodate this vessel at the request of BF. So now PHC have got to make the best of it. They find the Harbour can now accept vessels of a previously undreamt of length. 200m is just a guideline -- they could be longer. And they could be deeper drafted than 7.5m at high tide when up to 9.5m could be available.

 

All they need are the berths and now they are doing something about this with South Quay. The PHC CEO has said they do get inquiries from other ferry operators from time to time. How serious these inquiries have been in the past I don't know but other ferry operators it would seem are out there.

 

I don't doubt Cherbourg is watching all this with the greatest interest. Maybe South Quay will not only do something for Poole but for Cherbourg as well. We'll have to wait and see.

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I think the principal reason for the decline of Cherbourg is that competes with Ouistreham and services to both are in the hands of the same operator who is thus in a position to manipulate the market in favour of the favoured port. Clearly this isn't Cherbourg. I am of course referring to cross-English Channel services. Such services into Cherbourg are best from ports west of the Isle of Wight which these days means Poole. Unfortunately Poole has always tried to work in close partnership with BF, a relationship which some would argue has benefitted the ferry company rather more than the port. I rather think the Cotentin (2) episode has not done BF's standing at Poole much good at all. After all PHC did carry out a capital dredge of the deep water channel specifically to accommodate this vessel at the request of BF. So now PHC have got to make the best of it. They find the Harbour can now accept vessels of a previously undreamt of length. 200m is just a guideline -- they could be longer. And they could be deeper drafted than 7.5m at high tide when up to 9.5m could be available.

 

All they need are the berths and now they are doing something about this with South Quay. The PHC CEO has said they do get inquiries from other ferry operators from time to time. How serious these inquiries have been in the past I don't know but other ferry operators it would seem are out there.

 

I don't doubt Cherbourg is watching all this with the greatest interest. Maybe South Quay will not only do something for Poole but for Cherbourg as well. We'll have to wait and see.

 

You forget to mention that Cherbourg is further away from the main centres of population or popular destinations in France when compared to Caen, Le Havre and Saint-Malo.

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I think the principal reason for the decline of Cherbourg is that competes with Ouistreham and services to both are in the hands of the same operator who is thus in a position to manipulate the market in favour of the favoured port.

 

The problem with this though is that of the 3 operators who served Cherbourg, the 2 that have completely abondoned Cherbourg didn't have a service to Ouistreham.

(Not counting 1 season of fast ferry from P&O.)

 

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I thought someone might hit on this! I would venture to suggest that the reasons Sealink gave up at Weymouth and P&O at Portsmouth had nothing to do with the merits or demerits of Cherbourg as a port. Lack of suitable ships could well have been one of them. But then there could have been a lack of commercial will to operate the business.

 

As I say geographically Cherbourg is best served from the English south coast from ports west of the Isle of Wight -- which may explain P&O at Portsmouth and Stena at Southampton. Sealink at Weymouth had an excellent ship in the Belgian Prince Philippe in succession to Maid of Kent until a row between Sealink British Ferries and Belgian Marine ruined everything. But with this ship I'd guess the Weymouth-Cherbourg service could have gone on for longer --but it was a summer service only, for holidaymakers. Attempts by Westward Ferries and Weybourg Shipping to start freight services to Cherbourg only served to highlight the shortcomings of Weymouth.

 

I'm not sure being near centres of population makes a lot of difference these days. What would make a difference are competitive fares and a frequent service and people are prepared to travel to get them.

 

What I will say is that I was told by a Westward Ferries executive that they certainly got the impression that the French favoured their own in their negotiations with Cherbourg. Thus it could be the case that Cherbourg scored an own goal in taking this line and they may have to accept that if a rival to BF emerges they won't be French!

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You forget to mention that Cherbourg is further away from the main centres of population or popular destinations in France when compared to Caen, Le Havre and Saint-Malo.

 

I would suggest that this has been exacerbated by the construction of a number of short, but useful, sections of motorway in recent years. If you go back to the 80s/early 90s the French motorway network was like a star, centred on Paris. Therefore whether you arrived in Caen or Cherbourg or Le Havre made minimal difference when heading down south. The extra time on board could not be made up on the roads, so many people opted for the shorter crossing and a leisurely drive south. I recall one family holiday in the Vendée/Charante area where, after arriving on the ferry in Cherbourg, we got as far a Chateaubriant where we spent the night before continuing. Then they built a series of linking roads at around 200km intervals to the west of the capital (creating more of a spider's web layout) allowing people to cut across from motorway to motorway and speed up their journeys. The roads from St Malo-Rennes-Nantes and Caen-Le Mans-Tours now mean that even if you arrive mid-afternoon in one of the ports you can still get to the middle of the west coast for a late dinner. Some intermediate cities have lost out in the process - nobody goes via Chartres any more, Laval and Angers don't get much passing trade etc (the new road currently being upgraded from Rennes to Angers and then the motorways down to the Vendée or across to Tours and onward to Clerment-Ferrand might change this situation). But the biggest loser is Cherbourg as it takes an hour to get onto the real motorway network and the perception is that it is a backwater. The new road between St-Lo and the A84 has helped to speed things up a little so we might see a revival of its fortunes in the future. I would also add that Caen, Le Havre and St Malo offer reasonable rail links which might contribute to the attractiveness of these ports for foot passengers. Ed

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Hasn't Cherbourg got a good rail service to Paris St Lazare? It seemed all right to me when I went on it.

 

It's over three hours by train from Cherbourg to Paris. From Caen, you can get to Paris in under two hours so it's quicker even with the half-hour bus journey from Ouistreham. TGVs go from St-Malo to Paris in under three hours, though that is more expensive. Train connections from Cherbourg or Caen to the south or west are slow and infrequent. From St-Malo, there are good connections via Rennes to the rest of Brittany and Nantes

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I quite agree most people wouldn't want to travel anywhere from Cherbourg by rail -- only eccentrics like me to experience the gas turbine trains.

 

I repeat my view that where Cherbourg could score is by having a frequent service to the English south coast with at least four sailings daily in each direction and with competitive fares. No need for cabins and things like that to keep costs down. I think such a service could attract a significant audience both carpax and freight. Whether such a thing will ever happen we'll just have to wait and see.

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I quite agree most people wouldn't want to travel anywhere from Cherbourg by rail -- only eccentrics like me to experience the gas turbine trains.

 

I repeat my view that where Cherbourg could score is by having a frequent service to the English south coast with at least four sailings daily in each direction and with competitive fares. No need for cabins and things like that to keep costs down. I think such a service could attract a significant audience both carpax and freight. Whether such a thing will ever happen we'll just have to wait and see.

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I quite agree most people wouldn't want to travel anywhere from Cherbourg by rail -- only eccentrics like me to experience the gas turbine trains.

 

I repeat my view that where Cherbourg could score is by having a frequent service to the English south coast with at least four sailings daily in each direction and with competitive fares. No need for cabins and things like that to keep costs down. I think such a service could attract a significant audience both carpax and freight. Whether such a thing will ever happen we'll just have to wait and see.

 

​No cabins means no overnight crossings, could that be one of the problems, such a short crossing that you can't get a decent sleep, people moan enough about Caen. If the night crossings are not suitable it cuts out the frequency, for night crossings you either need short ie Dover or a decent length St Malo.

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​No cabins means no overnight crossings, could that be one of the problems, such a short crossing that you can't get a decent sleep, people moan enough about Caen. If the night crossings are not suitable it cuts out the frequency, for night crossings you either need short ie Dover or a decent length St Malo.

 

I would dispute this. Maid of Kent started by doing two round trips on a Friday in August departing Weymouth at 1000hrs and 2200hrs. By the time M of K left the service there were two rotations a day everyday in August. That's my memory of it. At Dover it was a four hour crossing both to Ostend and Zeebrugge and ferries ran throughout the night. I know I did both -- you tried to get what sleep you could and then spent the rest of the night in the car on arrival. Worth it for a cheap crossing. Poole-Cherbourg would be the same -- similar crossing time, but with the advantage of being the shortest and fastest crossing save the HSC. As far as a cabin is concerned only Ports-St Malo is long enough to justify it.

Edited by Hawser Trunnion
Tidying up.
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I quite agree most people wouldn't want to travel anywhere from Cherbourg by rail -- only eccentrics like me to experience the gas turbine trains.

 

I repeat my view that where Cherbourg could score is by having a frequent service to the English south coast with at least four sailings daily in each direction and with competitive fares. No need for cabins and things like that to keep costs down. I think such a service could attract a significant audience both carpax and freight. Whether such a thing will ever happen we'll just have to wait and see.

 

The turbotrains have been removed from the Paris-Cherbourg line 20 years ago. The train services to Normandy from Paris are notorious for being frequently late and plagued by cancellations.

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Lots of reasons, pretty much all identified. My view is that there are 5 main reasons (none of which I can substantiate):

1. Channel Tunnel - not just the speed but the frequency/convenience - if you miss your time, get the next one a few mins later

2. Caen is a better option as it's not just time but fewer miles/cheaper (assume running an artic is £2 a mile incremental)

3. Fewer traditional car/caravan type holidaymakers to Brittany/West Coast - linked to low-cost airlines from regional airports e.g. Bristol and Bournemouth and wide choice of destinations

4. Cheaper hotels e.g. premier inn, formule 1, making longer crossings overnight less attractive

5. Motorway networks for Poole / Weymouth / Cherbourg inferior to Portsmouth / Caen - also the UK economy has become more south-east centric over the last 20 years and that is the east side of the IOW

 

I would suggest that the Caen route was devised by an accountant - 20 crossings a week per ship with minimal downtime, good road connections at both ends and a good % of freight must make it the most profitable route. Timings won't suit everybody though.

 

I'm going to Le Mans in June via Caen morning crossing and from Reading as it's approx 400 miles further via the tunnel. Caen is nearer than any other port and we're staying in a cheap hotel in France rather than taking the overnight cabin.

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Arrival time in port and the resultant travel time left? So if you arrive in Caen at 6.30 am you can share the driving and push on, similarly arriving in St.Malo around 8.30 you have all day to get somewhere? Many Gites don't want you turning up past 6pm from my experience,... also Portsmouth doesn't allow arrivals much before 6am so the earliest you are going to get a ferry away is 7.30 if it has arrived from somewhere else. With a realistic local arrival time of 14.00 that doesn't leave very long.

If you ran a night boat to Cherbourg what would be the point, you could be that much further on by going to Caen or St?Malo.

I also agree that the super cheap ibis type hotels where you can arrive late have impacted travel ... we often get the 14.45 to Caen on a Friday now and stay in one rather than sailing overnight or Saturday morning...

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Last time we were over there an English couple, who run a bed and breakfast, told us that increases in port fees had deterred operators. Facilities in Cherbourg port are abominable anyway. And I am not sure that there is a 2 level link span?

 

Cherbourg has two quite substantial douledeck linkspans plus a single level facility. Cherbourg also has a large ferry terminal building with the usual amenities. It's well appointed and comfortable. I've spent my time ashore there on a day trip. The only criticism is that it's a long walk to centre ville or to the town centre Carrefour. BF have suggested Cherbourg open the old pax terminal for daytrippers on foot to shorten the walk. I'm not aware Cherbourg does this.

 

Yes, the turbo trains were a long time ago. I arrived on Stena Normandy!

 

I think Cherbourg wants a French operator to run intensive services across La Manche I.e. BF. But BF decline to do so because their interests are elsewhere where they see greater advantage. If Cherbourg has a future they are going to have to look to other operators, not necessarily French ones, as I have previously suggested.

 

The next important development is Poole's South Quay which as I keep banging on about has the potential to radically alter the situation. Maybe it could induce another operator to have a go although Poole are hoping to attract cruise ships and large freighters. Until it's complete and operational we won't know. However what we do know is it's costing PHC £8 millions not allowing for budget overages. I daresay PHC will take any serious business they can get to help pay for it.

Edited by Hawser Trunnion
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Cherbourg has two quite substantial douledeck linkspans plus a single level facility. Cherbourg also has a large ferry terminal building with the usual amenities. It's well appointed and comfortable. I've spent my time ashore there on a day trip. The only criticism is that it's a long walk to centre ville or to the town centre Carrefour. BF have suggested Cherbourg open the old pax terminal for daytrippers on foot to shorten the walk. I'm not aware Cherbourg does this.

They have to port bus which takes us footies as far as the corner of the road by Cite De La Mer. It would be great if they go into the town centre by Carrefour.

 

Regarding the terminal building, itbis a very pleasannt place, I have always said I enjoy sitting in there. You have a cafe, free wifi, plenty of charging points with both English and French plugs in a little room for people to charge up and use their devices. Very warm, good views for shipwatching both indoors and out. The only issue is the distsnce from the town centre.

 

Oh yes, and the English run snack caravan outside the entrance...👍

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I think it has more to do with the demise of UK ports, Weymouth has gone so too has Southampton. We also now have the very successful Ouistreham/Caen route and the upsurge in popularity of Le Havre.

 

Cherbourg knows it's out on a limb, knows it's position adds unnecessary driving time for UK travellers so has looked further afield. I don't think they do too badly...

 

The port is serviced by five ferries during the peak seasons of spring & summer from four ports, 2 UK, 2 Irish and offers a year round four ship service thanks to I.F doubling capacity in recent years, Stena & BF. They are the French port of choice for the Irish, revenues which I'd have thought Roscoff would have wanted more of a slice of.

 

They have also exploited their maritime heritage in terms of what they offer to cruise ship passengers. 2017 is set to be a record year for them with an 'A' list of ships visiting,

 

http://www.calameo.com/read/001079167f03895f621d2

 

I don't think they're too worried in regard to UK Ferries.

 

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Apart from Roscoff I'd have said Cherbourg was the only port of choice in France for the Irish.

 

What I'd guess Cherbourg misses is the trade offered by cross-Channel travellers passing through. This is most likely to come from a reasonably intensive ferry service to the English south coast -- which Cherbourg doesn't have at the present time.

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