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Trucked off
Brexit Sensemaker

Trucked off

Thursday 31 December 2020

As new paperwork checks begin on 1 January, truck queues could bring yet more chaos to Kent’s roads. Our tool lets you watch traffic build up at the border, as it happens.


At 11pm on 31 December, new paperwork checks will begin for goods travelling to the EU. While Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will enable tariff and quota-free trade, truck drivers carrying everything from fruit to medicines across the border will still need to be equipped with the right customs papers.

With large numbers of exporters still unclear on exactly what documents they need to prepare, and with new rules requiring drivers to provide a negative Covid test, the first few months of the new year could yet again see roads clogged up for miles around UK ports.

Kent, as the entrypoint for the port for both Dover – the busiest port for UK-EU trade – and the Channel Tunnel is likely to bear the brunt of any build-up in truck traffic. 

To see how this plays out, Tortoise will be tracking traffic flows on truck routes around Kent via the map below. The speeds shown represent real-time traffic on the ground according to data from TomTom.

With much of the port-bound traffic expected to be siphoned off onto dedicated lorry lanes, the tracker reflects how traffic for ordinary vehicles is being affected in the area – rather than lorry speeds, which tend to be far slower.

Exactly when and how Brexit disruption will emerge in 2021 is yet to be seen. 

“We probably won’t see a huge amount of disruption right at the start of January because a lot of stockpiling has been going on and at New Year the flow of trucks is usually low anyway,” says Paul Mummery, spokesperson for the Road Haulage Association. “However, in the weeks after that, we do anticipate there will be delays as import and export volumes increase to normal levels.”

The new rules come just as queues are starting to clear following new requirements for drivers to show negative covid tests – a rule which is set to be in place until 6 January. The resulting tailbacks led to anger amongst drivers, with reports that many had to spend up to two nights in their vehicles, with little to no access to food and facilities. Such scenes could quickly reoccur if trucks aren’t processed smoothly at the border.

On an ordinary day, 5,000 trucks cross the Channel from Dover, each processed in about two minutes. That number of trucks placed end-to-end would stretch for over 78 miles, meaning delays can quickly lead to long tailbacks. Dover Port authority estimates that an additional two minutes processing time for each truck would trigger queues going back 17 miles. 

To ensure that drivers have the right documents when they reach the EU, checks will be taking place on this side of the border, with longer waiting times expected if lots of drivers aren’t prepared. 

Official projections by the Department for Transport, which were made before coronavirus caused further complications, state that a “reasonable” worst case scenario could see queues of up to 7,000 trucks building up around Kent, with individual drivers waiting up to two days in the gridlock before being able to cross the border.

From 1 January, drivers should be able to check their paperwork at new “inland border facilities”. Some of these, such as the Sevington site near Ashford, double as large parking areas to hold trucks once roads get clogged up. The Sevington site has room for 1,700 trucks, while nearby Waterbrook site has space for 475. The largest lorry park is Manston, a disused airport with space for 4,000.

Routes likely to be affected are those running through Kent towards the port of Dover and the freight entrance to the Channel Tunnel. The M26, M20 and A20 will be subject to part-closures and disruption from the government’s truck traffic management plan called “Operation Brock”. The plan is made up of four phases, with each designed to deal with more traffic than the last. 

The first stage of the plan has already been triggered, with the past week seeing one side of a stretch of the M20 being cordoned off and dedicated entirely to trucks.