A major French port goes on strike so often that the UK has come up with a procedure called ‘Operation Stack’ for all the trucks that get backed up on the highway

Lorries as far as the eye can see. Rob Stothard/Getty Images
  • French port workers strike so often in England that the British government has had to launch a truck parking scheme called “Operation Stack.”
  • Operation Stack sees lorries queued on British motorways before crossing the Channel to France
  • Brexit will likely intensify the need for Operation Stack as lines will stretch even longer to enter or exit the European Union.
  • A new procedure, devised to address the post-Brexit world, has been christened “Operation Brock.”

The UK economy took a hit of £250 million ($328 million) a day for about 24 days one summer in 2015. British coastguards were sent out in droves with bottles of water and emergency meals. One official called the situation “absolute mayhem.”

The cause: a massive traffic jam in the south-east of England. Trucks carrying goods to continental Europe couldn’t cross over the English Channel to the French port city of Calais, which receives truck-loaded ferries coming from Dover in Kent, England.

Up to 9,000 trucks – or lorries, as the Brits call them – were parked on England’s M20 motorway for 24 days in the summer of 2015.

While the summer of 2015 was a particularly bad back-up in England, strikes that shut down Calais (and thus, the rest of Europe) to England are common. France as a whole has an incredibly robust “strike culture.” Each year, 171 days of work are missed per 1,000 employees in France, the second biggest in Europe. (In Germany, just 12 days per year are missed.)

“It’s part of the character of France to have these big social movements at a national level, that can last a long time,” French historian Stéphane Sirot told English-language French news outlet The Local.

And that tendency to strike is highly evident in Calais. Strikes affecting the port city are so common, in fact, that the south-east English county of Kent, where these truck back-ups happen, has created a parking scheme called “Operation Stack” to accommodate those trucks.

It’s been enacted more than 100 times since 1997, most recently in May 2018. Operation Stack has also been deployed in times of inclement weather, fires, or industrial action on the UK side.

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Operation Stack has a slightly panic-inducing name, but the procedure is simple.

According to the county website, Kent’s police ensure that trucks park on both sides of M20 and line up as they wait for ferry operations at Calais to re-open. The middle lane remains clear for emergency vehicles. Passenger cars are re-routed to other freeways.

Operation stack
Some truckers were stranded for days during the 2015 deployment of Operation Stack. Rob Stothard/Getty Images

When it’s enacted, people who rely on the motorway for daily work and travel get frustrated. A Conservative lawmaker said Operation Stack caused locals to feel “stranded, completely cut off in their own town.”

The disruption at Calais has also posed a serious security risk at times. In 2015 – at the height of the migrant crisis – the British Road Haulage Association’s chief executive Richard Burnett called for the military to be deployed as a security measure amid warnings that demonstrators setting fire to tyres and migrants attempting to enter the UK were putting hauliers’ lives at risk.

Operation Stack meets a post-Brexit world

Operation Stack has typically come as a result of industrial action on the French side. The debacle in the summer of 2015 followed the closure of a French ferry service, which employed some 600 people.

Around 100 port workers protested at the terminal, burning tires and halting traffic entering and exiting France.

But now, the Brexit referendum will only multiply the need for Operation Stack.

Operation stack
Truck drivers wait out Operation Stack in 2015. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

British trucks will not be able to enter Europe if the UK and the EU cannot reach a deal on Brexit, Business Insider’s Thomas Colson reported from London.

At the very least, lorries in post-Brexit Britain would need considerably more time to enter the EU if both sides fail to secure a deal. Rather than two minutes to check a vehicle, the BBC reported it would take five to 45 minutes for customs to process trucks.

That would create, according to a council report, a semi-permanent 13-mile stretch of trucks on one of Britain’s most crucial roads.

In response, the UK’s Department for Transport has created a replacement for Operation Stack: “Operation Brock.” This operation will allow passenger vehicles to drive in certain sections of the freeway, rather than diverting traffic to smaller roads as Operation Stack does.