Ben Oliver mulls over trains vs ferries

Published: 06 June 2011

Attention massive transport geeks! I’ve had a pretty good few weeks for massive modes of transport. First, I drove Mercedes-Benz’s Actros truck, which makes nearly 2200lb-ft of torque from its astonishingly refined 16-litre V8 diesel, and has a cabin so vast that it offers not just cupholders, but an optional coffee machine mounted above the windscreen. And two beds, a fridge, a flat-screen TV...  it makes a Maybach look miserly.

Then – and this is no scoop, I admit – I finally got to fly on the colossal Airbus A380, all the way from London to Melbourne. Someone else was paying, so I was in the full-length, business-class top deck. But despite a flat bed, birds-eye maple toilet seats and a bar and lounge area, I was still envious of those in first class, with their private cabins and a shower in the nose. On an aircraft. Mad.

But I got most worked up about the biggest of all: P&O’s new Spirit of Britain cross-channel ferry. At nearly 50,000 tonnes she is twice the displacement of the vessel she replaces, and the biggest ship P&O can fit into Dover harbour. Her bow thrusters alone have more power than the Lion, P&O’s first ferry, and allow her to turn in her own 200-metre length. Her four MAN seven-cylinder common-rail diesel main engines make a combined 40,000 horsepower and give her a service speed of 22 knots, or 25mph, burning five tonnes of fuel per crossing.

Built in Finland, she will be joined in September by her sister ship, the Spirit of France. The €360m P&O is investing in the pair proves that predictions of the demise of the cross-channel ferry and the port of Dover after the opening of the Channel Tunnel were wrong, to the delight and relief of residents, workers, and all of us with a sentimental attachment to ferries. The port is set for a controversial privatization, but it plainly has a future: it needs a £400m investment to cope with a predicted 85 per cent increase in traffic by 2030.

The Eurostar and Eurotunnel services have helped Dover by failing on a regular basis, with delays and suspensions caused by fire, snow, breakdowns, strikes and carbon dioxide alarms. But as long as you can get to Dover, not much will stop the ferries. Truckers know this, and P&O needs the new craft to carry more artics. They have 2.3 miles of parking each, and depending on how the three decks are configured can carry up to 180 trucks or over 1000 cars, more than twice the capacity of the old ships.

Onboard, you can forget about the orange-and-brown, vinyl-and-plastic trim of the cross-channel ferries of your childhood; the Spirit of Britain has fragrant toilets and a Club Class lounge that easily beats the Emirates effort in Dubai where I broke my Airbus A380 trip.

We spent most of the voyage out on deck in bright sunshine and under blue skies, watching the white cliffs recede and France come into view. There is, frankly, still a little romance about sea travel that the tunnel just can’t match. And some things don’t change: the fry-up is still first-rate and massive, enough to keep you going for several days if you’re avoiding lethal continental vegetables.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features