Back to the future for Trans Europe Express?

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The following article was published in the Freight Business Journal, one of the UK’s leading freight publications, in October 2018. In it, Trans Europe Express Managing Director, Vincent McGovern, discusses the origins of the business, and how membership of the European Union played such a vital role in the establishment of the business, and how the Single Market is critical to the seamless flow of trade throughout Europe.

As we approach the end of 2018, there is still a very worrying level of clarity coming from the government as to what the future relationship with Europe will look like, when the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019. The lack of certainty means that businesses do not know what scenario they are planning for, and with time running out, it is undoubtedly an issue of utmost importance to companies throughout the UK and Ireland, and across Europe.

We hope that sorting out the Brexit mess is very high on the Government’s Christmas Wish List or New Year’s Resolutions.

When Vincent McGovern set up groupage specialist Trans Europe Express in the Ulster port town of Warrenpoint in the early 1990s, it was to take advantage of the new rapid transit times for road transport made possible by the European Single Market.
He explains: “Back in those days, everything moved by container, but when the EU customs union came, I saw an opportunity to move things more quickly by trailer.”

The fear now is Brexit could propel the industry back into a pre-1992 situation, although McGovern hopes it won’t come to that. “I set this business up because the UK had joined the EU. I hope we’re not coming full circle.”

The family business specialises in the Nordic countries – Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway – to and from Ireland (north and south) as well as the near European markets such as France, Benelux and Germany. It offers an over-the-weekend service leaving Warrenpoint on Thursday and arriving in Gothenburg, Esbjerg and Brevik on Monday, with Helsinki arrival on Wednesday. Services into the UK are slightly slower owing to the ferry schedules.

With Warrenpoint being so close to the border, its customer base is as much southern Irish as Northern Ireland. It mostly uses the Seatruck Ferries ro ro service that operates from Warrenpoint to Heysham and, for the Nordic countries, landbridges across England to Immingham with its regular DFDS sailings.

Warrenpoint Port, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, which is at the Brexit Frontier, with Omeath, Co. Louth in the Republic Of Ireland in background, on the opposite side of Carlingford Lough. Photo Credit: Peter Benton

Norway, of course, is not an EU member, and it gives some foretaste of what life could be like if the UK should crash out of the Union without a deal in March. Anything coming into Warrenpoint from there and destined for southern Ireland has to wait until the T-form is discharged by Irish customs. This is normally quite a quick process, taking no more than 24 hours, as the volume of trade is quite small, but if everything from Sweden, Finland and Denmark is in future to require clearance – the system could gum up and may make operating across the border into Southern Ireland slow and difficult.

McGovern says: “We are unfortunately no closer to knowing what will happen in March next year than we were two years ago, and it’s a pity that the discussions we’re having now did not happen then. We may have to bring in more staff to process customs, but we don’t know that for certain yet.”

There are ways in which matters could be simplified, McGovern suggests. For example, could the normal commercial invoice be the customs document, rather than having a separate piece of paper with essentially the same information? Duty and VAT could be self-accounted for by the trader, rather as VAT is already handled.

McGovern hopes that the politicians can sort things out soon, because Northern Ireland’s manufacturers are currently doing rather well. Trans Europe Express handles a wide variety of goods – “anything from a needle to an anchor” – with an emphasis on items for the fishing, shipping, mining and quarrying industries. “Northern Ireland still has a good manufacturing base, so there is still a lot of heavy and big cargo.”

The customer base is anywhere from the border area down to Dublin and, says McGovern, he can handle collections and deliveries to and from Dublin city almost as quickly as is possible from Dublin port. If Brexit does make things difficult, it might prompt a rethink of the current trailer-based model, but Trans Europe Express would be reluctant to forego the convenience of the ferry services operating from its doorstep.

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