A maritime end to France's motorway misery?
NANTES, France, June 8, 2006 (AFP) - This summer hundreds thousands of holidaymakers in France will once again spend a considerable chunk of their well earned breaks sitting in traffic jams on the country's motorways.
Like most of the developed world, France's motorway network suffers from serious traffic congestion and one of the main culprits is the ubiquitous heavy goods vehicle, or truck in every day parlance.
Almost everyone -- many truck drivers included -- agrees that there are too many lorries on today's motorways. Heavy trucks cause pollution, traffic jams and seriously increase wear and tear on already overloaded road networks.
But for users of at least part of the French motorway network, salvation could be at hand.
Port authorities in Nantes on France's Atlantic coast are putting the finishing touches to an ambitious plan they hope would see over a 1,000 lorries a day transferred from motorways to ships.
The project, called a "maritime motorway" or "seaway", would link the port of Montoir near Nantes with Bilbao on Spain's northern coast using a fleet of tailor made "truck ferries".
And if it gets the go-ahead from both the French and the European Union (EU) authorities, the link could be in operation as early as mid-2008.
"The idea is that the link should have all the characteristics of a terrestrial motorway," said Michel Quimbert, president of the Nantes-Saint-Nazaire port authority, which also runs the Montoir facility.
Under the scheme, truck drivers would turn up at a toll booth similar to those on normal motorways and pay a fee to use the seaway that was equivalent -- factoring in costs including toll fees, fuel and driver time lost through compulsory rest breaks -- to using the current highly congested route that links western France with Spain.
"No truck would have to wait more than six hours for a ferry and getting onto or off of a ship would be no more complicated than going through a motorway toll booth," said Quimbert.
The port official is convinced his seaway plan offers a credible, economically competitive alternative to truckers using the motorways running along France's Atlantic coast.
"The journey would take around 10 hours, which is comparable with the road journey. And during that time the drivers are resting, their trucks are not burning fuel, their trailers are not being worn out. It really is an attractive offer," he said.
Quimbert also argues his scheme, which would be mostly funded by private investors with some start-up help from the EU, presents major economic and environmental advantages for France.
The project is cheap compared to building more motorways, an ecologically unpopular solution sometimes cited as a means of reducing traffic congestion, although 1,000 trucks is only a fraction of the number plying the route daily.
Quimbert estimates his scheme would cost around 400 million euros (518 million dollars), essentially the price of building the tailor-made ships and upgrading port facilities in Montoir and Bilbao.
"That's about the same price as it costs to build one motorway tunnel and a few kilometres of road," he said. The Montoir-Bilbao link would replace a road journey of over 700 kilometres (450 miles).
"Road transport causes seven times more air pollution than shipping, so this option is good news for the environment," he insisted.
But some environmental experts are less convinced about the seaway's green credentials.
"It could be an environmentally friendly option, but only if a number of other issues are dealt with at the same time," argued Marcus Liechti, an expert on maritime transport with the Brussels-based lobby group Transport and Environment.
Liechti points out for example that marine diesel is currently exempted from EU fuel quality standards and is considerably more dirty than truck fuel.
He also says the seaway could cause environmental problems for the areas around the ports of Montoir and Bilbao.
"You'd need to upgrade roads in the hinterland around the ports to motorway standards in order to allow the trucks to get to the ships easily and that could cause problems for local residents," Liechti added.
On the question of road safety though, most experts seem to agree with Quimbert's view that the seaway would be good news for motorists.
"Anything that helps to reduce congestion on the roads certainly makes things easier, so we'd obviously be in favour of this kind of plan," a spokeswoman for French road safety campaigners 'Securite Routiere' told AFP.
If the Montoir seaway project gets the go-ahead, it will of course be Europe's truckers who finally decide if the scheme succeeds or fails.
Quimbert says trucking industry representatives are in principle in favour of the plan. "Congestion is also a huge problem for haulage firms. They do seem to understand that if the situation doesn't improve, it's their businesses on the line.
"What will make this project work is the realisation is that either you use the seaway or you go bust," he said.