Putting Brexit to the test: On the road with a trucker from Dublin to Germany

Simon Carswell takes a six-country delivery trip with a trucker to assess the road ahead

It's a Saturday afternoon in Mulhuddart, west Dublin and lorry driver John Carroll is packing up for his two-day, six-country journey to Germany.

Even on a weekend, the DG McArdle Transport yard is busy with drivers coming and going. Engines roar and refrigerated trailers hum constantly. Nothing stops in an export-import nation like Ireland.

Carroll's intended route, delivering about 1,400 kilos of high-value pharmaceuticals to Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, is a well-worn path for Irish lorries. To minimise transit times and maximise the value of time-sensitive products travelling along delicate pan-European supply chains, Carroll is taking the "landbridge".

To the 52-year-old Dundalk man and thousands of other drivers using this route every year, the UK is a bridge to Europe and a lucrative, barrier-free market of 450 million customers for Irish products.


The Irish Times travelled with Carroll on his journey: by ferry from Dublin to Liverpool, driving across England to Dover and onto another ferry to Calais in France, through Belgium and The Netherlands to Germany.

For years, it has all been relatively plain sailing and driving. But now there is Brexit. There is uncertainty around what the UK's scheduled departure from the EU on March 29th, 2019 will mean for key supply routes that keep the cycle of Irish trade, valued at tens of billions of euro, turning every year.

The fear for transport companies is that border checks that vanished when the European Union dropped its economic frontiers a quarter-century ago will reappear along the borders with the UK.

The political storm raging in London this week after British prime minister Theresa May’s cabinet approved the draft divorce agreement has done nothing to reassure transport companies over the future of the vital route they operate that ensures an open export-dependent economy like Ireland’s stays open.

The draft deal contains guarantees to maintain the invisible border on the island of Ireland and includes a paragraph committing the British to protecting ease of passage over the landbridge. The deal, however, still requires UK parliamentary approval and that is far from assured.

“There is absolutely nothing we can do,” says Carroll’s boss David McArdle.

As part of contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, some of McArdle’s customers have asked him to take direct ferries to continental Europe as a test to consider higher costs and longer transit times.

A no-deal Brexit and new customs checks on the UK’s borders would be catastrophic for business.

“The landbridge through the UK is still the fastest route to Europe. It is going to put hours, days onto journeys,” he says. “It is putting us back to the 1980s.”

5.25pm - Saturday, October 27th

A sinking October sun lengthens shadows on the road ahead as Carroll drives along the M50 ring-road around Dublin heading to Port Tunnel.

Carroll is booked on the 9.30pm ferry to Liverpool and needs to be there in plenty of time; the pharmaceuticals he is carrying must remain chilled until they reach their destination in a German factory.

All this means the refrigerated trailer, running on a diesel engine, must be kept running and this can only happen, for safety reasons, on the open top deck of the ferry where spaces are limited and in demand.

The landbridge is a preferred route for transport companies carrying loads like Carroll’s because of the shorter transit times that minimise inventory costs and other working capital requirements.

A study just completed by the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) to understand Brexit's impact on the landbridge valued Irish trade on the route at €21 billion, about 11 per cent of annual merchandise trade in 2016. Two out of every five tonnes of goods exported to the continent are transported via the landbridge. This is conservatively valued at an average of €18 billion a year.

The report found that about 150,000 Irish vehicles use the landbridge each year, carrying about three million tonnes in annual volumes (two million in exports and one million in imports).

Carroll reaches Dublin Port with no delays. There is plenty of space to park here now, but he wonders what will happen if customs checks were to appear causing delays.

“When Brexit comes, where is all the traffic going to go? People don’t realise how bad it is going to be,” he says.


Waiting in an assigned lane for open-deck slots, Carroll is joined in his cab by his friend Pat Murray from Co Cavan who is transporting hanging pork carcasses to continental Europe.

Together, Carroll and Murray lament how drivers are heavily regulated on their hours behind the wheel under EU rules. They believe the average Irish consumer has no idea about pan-European supply chains work or that it takes days of road transport to bring fruit, vegetables and other foods to Irish supermarkets.

“People just think that the stuff falls out of the sky,” says Murray. “I guarantee you if we weren’t on the road for three days, you’d be hungry. That’s all this country would be able to cope with.”

A 30-year veteran of the road, he remembers long delays at borders across Europe in the past, but at least then, he says, drivers could make up time on the road as there were no restrictions on driving times.

“There was no time on you, not like now. From when you roll the wheels in the morning, you are watching that all day,” he says, pointing at the tachograph, a device in the cab that records driving times.

Drivers must take regular 45-minute stops and rest for at least nine hours a day. This is constantly on drivers’ minds as they attempt to make rest stops and meet scheduled ferries along the landbridge journey.

It takes 20 minutes for Carroll's lorry to leave the Port of Liverpool, passing through just one unmanned checkpoint

Carroll’s load of pharmaceuticals has been booked in for a delivery slot between 10am and 11am in Germany on Monday so he has carefully planned his ferry times and rest periods.

“It is a racing match. You are against the clock from the minute you roll the wheels,” says Murray.

Murray describes the M20 London to Dover, a vital artery in the Ireland-to-continental Europe landbridge, as “the main road to Europe”. If Brexit eventually brings border checks, it will be very different.

“The M20 will be a car park if it is a hard border,” he says.


The P&O ferry - a “ro-ro” (roll-on-roll-off) freight vessel – pulls off on time. Over dinner in the ferry’s restaurant, Carroll, Murray and other drivers share concerns about what hold-ups at Dover might mean.

Paddy Neary, a long-time driver from Co Louth, recalls horrendous delays at border checkpoints across Europe before the EU single market rules. "Nobody is equipped" if the customs checks return, he says.

“It is too terrible to comprehend what it would be like if every truck had to do customs,” he says.

Talk turns to alternative routes and whether there are benefits avoiding the UK and taking direct ferries, from Rosslare to Le Havre or Cherbourg. These include using additional capacity on almost exclusively "lo-lo" (lift-on-lift-off) freight routes such as the CLdN Cobelfret ferries from Dublin to Zeebrugge and Rotterdam where containers have to be loaded off and onto lorries.

“You wouldn’t be able to do it time wise. Your fruit would be three to four days old before it gets to Ireland,” says Gerry Nolan, a lorry driver from Co Meath who is hauling goods to Cologne in Germany.

The longer, direct sea routes to continental ports carry much higher costs and have far less capacity than the landbridge ferries, and drivers would still have long hours on the road to get to Benelux countries. Lo-lo ferries can take only a handful of drivers at a time, creating another capacity problem.

“The big factor is the money,” says Nolan. “Who is going to pay for the extra costs?”

The IMDO report says journey times to continental Europe can be less than 20 hours via the landbridge, but up to 40 hours for ro-ro traffic on the direct sea routes and up to 60 hours for lo-lo services.

“All direct sailings are very lengthy in time and heavy in costs, and do not make sense unless the landbridge becomes heinous,” says Verona Murphy, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association.

“However, post-Brexit, the customer will want a definite timeline and then direct sailings may for that reason be the only show in town.”

As the ferry steams towards Liverpool, the lorry drivers discuss politics and the nationalism driving Brexit. Many British people do not appreciate the economic damage Brexit will cause to the UK, the drivers say.

“It is ideological for some of them,” says Neary. “They are not worried about the harm it is going to have – and it is going to cause awful harm on Ireland.”

7am – Sunday, October 28th

It takes just 20 minutes for Carroll's lorry to leave the Port of Liverpool, passing through just one unmanned checkpoint on the Sunday morning before heading out towards the M62 and M6 south to Birmingham and London.

It is not clear whether or where they might face customs checks after Brexit.

“No one knows. They don’t know here themselves,” he says.

12 noon

It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that worries the Co Louth man but the road to Dover.

Carroll encounters minor congestion near Heathrow on the M25 ring-road around London. Joining the M26 motorway connecting the M25 to the M20 to Dover, Carroll says the British authorities are considering using this 16km link road and 21km of the M20 as a temporary lorry park.

A contingency plan called Operation Stack has been in place since 2015 on closed sections of the M20 to allow lorries to park while waiting to cross the English Channel when traffic is disrupted.

A new plan, called Operation Brock, would create up to 2,000 on-road lorry car parking spaces on the M20. Under no-deal Brexit contingency planning, the M26 in Kent was shut down overnight last month and will be closed again this month and next, to assess whether it could be used as a “parking lot” for lorries.

After Brexit, Carroll has no idea whether he could do this trip via the UK landbridge in the same time

Each day, 10,000 lorries pass through Dover, with little or no delay. All that could change with Brexit. As the lorry speeds through the Kent countryside, Carroll points out the obvious lack of preparedness.

“What amenities are there? Bushes and trees. That’s it. No toilets, no showers, no food. When your fridge runs out, it’ll be a disaster,” he says.

One way of guaranteeing Irish trucks fast passage through Dover would be to secure international transit paperwork known as TIR or “Transports Internationaux Routiers”. This would allow approved hauliers traverse non-EU countries, like the UK will be, without stopping repeatedly for customs checks.

Carroll sees tensions flaring as Irish lorry drivers drive by rows of parked-up UK lorries on the M20.

“You’re going to have very agitated drivers that sit and wait maybe a day or two and you’ll come down with your transit document and you are straight through,” he says.

“I don’t know how long before someone will get very annoyed.”

For Irish hauliers using the landbridge, Brexit, he says, has “the makings of a complete disaster”.


Carroll pulls into Dover without much delay. After a tense exchange with a woman at the ferry check-in hut we find ourselves on a later ferry because she says there are no more open-deck spaces on the 2.45pm ferry. Taking the 4pm ferry instead will eat into a valuable hour of Carroll’s driving time.

“Can you imagine having to deal with that after waiting for three days up on the M20?” he says.

Two hours later, the ferry pulls out of Dover and less than two hours after that, it arrives in Calais, France. Ten minutes later, we drive off the ferry towards the French-Belgian border.

There are no delays. By 10pm we reach the overnight stop in Zolder, Belgium for Carroll’s required overnight rest period, after nine hours and 47 minutes of driving, since Liverpool.

7.15am - Monday, October 29th

Carroll pulls out of Zolder for the last leg. We cross the Belgian-Dutch border at 7.50am, crossing briefly into The Netherlands. We reach the Dutch-German border at 8.26am. Again, there are no delays.


Two ferries, six countries and 1,100 kilometres of road since Dublin, Carroll pulls into Wiesbaden and makes his delivery time slot at the pharmaceutical company. Door to door, it has taken just over 41 hours.

After Brexit, Carroll has no idea whether he could do this trip via the UK landbridge in the same time.

“It could be a disaster,” he says. “And if they haven’t got it done right, it will be horrendous.”