On the ground with UK efforts to train drivers for post-Brexit border

The frontline of the battle to get Britain ready for its post-Brexit borders runs through a 20ft portable cabin dropped in front of a cafe at the Ashford international truck stop in Kent. Emblazoned on the outside is the message: “UK’s New Start — Let’s Get Going”. Inside, two cubicles, each with a desk and computer set to the homescreen of the UK government’s transition website, are ready to train willing drivers.

For 16 hours a day revolving pairs of agents working under contract for the UK government’s Department for Transport try to catch the attention of truckers as they wander past, eyes red-rimmed with fatigue, bath towel or box of takeaway food in hand. It is hard going. In the two hours that the Financial Times was watching on Monday afternoon no one could be coaxed inside, despite enthusiastic efforts from the staff.

Agents struggled to persuade drivers to enter the cabin at Ashford (C) Charlie Bibby/FT

What is evident is that the language barrier presents the first major challenge for the UK in trying to communicate how it will manage a new border with the EU requiring some 270m new customs declarations a year from January 1 — the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period.

The vast majority of the vehicles in the 410-space lorry park carry Polish, Czech, Romanian and Hungarian plates. The DfT is producing a “haulier handbook” in multiple languages, but the draft was delayed after industry groups declared the first was “not fit for purpose”. A new version is due out later this week, but has yet to arrive on site at Ashford. “We’re waiting for the translations,” an agent explained.

In the meantime, tablets with a Google translate app must fill the gap. Language issues aside, the drivers have priorities beyond learning about the new paperwork created by the UK’s departure from the EU single market and customs union. “I want to eat my food,” complained 40-year-old Istvan, an owner-operator driver from Budapest. “It will be chaos,” he predicted, when asked how Brexit will impact his business. “That will be not good for me, not good for England.

But if it is chaos I just won’t come to the UK, not for six months anyway, before I can see how it settles down.”

On the ground with UK efforts to train drivers for post-Brexit borderHauliers have warned that long border queues in Kent after the end of the Brexit transition will make it difficult to get EU drivers to deliver in the UK (C) Charlie Bibby/FT

This echoes a warning from haulage experts such as Richard Burnett, head of the Road Haulage Association, who has said long border queues in Kent will make it difficult to get EU hauliers to deliver in the UK. The RHA has welcomed the new information sites — with 45 more due to open this week across the UK — but it is also aware of the huge challenge of converting Whitehall pamphlets and flow-diagrams into behavioural change among drivers. “It’s what in logistics we call the ‘handshake’ — or a series of handshakes, whether real or digital — that takes you to your destination.

In any physical start-up, that’s the biggest process — getting people across it,” said Mr Burnett. A driver from Poland, Janusz, also declined the chance to go inside the DfT cabin. He said: “I want to eat, not hear about Brexit.” As a driver for a trucking company, he expects his employer back in Poland to train him on any changes. “But they haven’t done anything yet,” he admitted.

Which points to a second challenge: border readiness depends not just on the effectiveness of the DfT’s information cabins in the UK, but on EU companies preparing their own drivers.  Both Janusz and Istvan said they had not heard of the UK government’s scheme to require all hauliers to obtain a “Kent Access Permit” before driving towards Dover, with GBP300 fines for drivers caught without one. It is unclear how Kent Police will communicate with drivers who do not speak English if and when they stop them to enforce the permit scheme.

However, not all drivers or companies are unprepared. Pete Wallis, driving for Plymouth-based Armoric Freight International, has just returned from delivering a load of frozen produce to a well-known German supermarket.

On the ground with UK efforts to train drivers for post-Brexit borderDriver Pete Wallis (C) Charlie Bibby/FT

“My boss is all over it. I guess it will depend on how difficult the French want to make it for us,” he said, noting that if everyone had the correct paperwork, it should only be a case of scanning a barcode on entry to the port. “But that’s a big ‘if’,” he conceded.

Armoric’s 69-year-old managing director, Marc Payne, said fears of long queues in Kent are overblown because a lot of companies have stockpiled goods to enable them to stay off the roads, and that the system will soon settle down. “I did this job before we joined the Common Market and this is all going backwards, which is disappointing,” he said. “But the difference between then and now is that it’s all electronic. So if we can get the relevant declarations to the drivers, it should be a smooth operation.”

Back at the cabin, the staff are still diligently trying to snag passing drivers. They say that trade picks up after dark, when drivers are bored and want a chat. Over the past few weeks, during a pilot scheme, several hundred truck drivers have received training.

It is progress, but with 10,000 trucks a day crossing the Channel at peak times and less than 30 working days until the end of the transition period on January 1, hauliers know the challenge is immense.