Ferries form a lifeline

Ferries in DenmarkIn a small nation comprising the Jutland peninsula and 406 named islands, 75 of which are inhabited, it is little wonder that ferry services have historically played an essential role.

Although many island communities are less dependent on the local ferry than they once were thanks to bridges and tunnels, the network of ferries remains an important element in Denmark’s transport network. This is reflected in the relatively large number of ferry companies for a small population.

There are now some 30 bridges and tunnels connecting landmasses in Denmark. This includes the Øresund rail/road fixed link between Denmark and Sweden, the biggest foreign destination for Danish ferries. A major 19-kilometre bridge is planned to connect Denmark and Germany across the Fehmarn Belt, with construction due to be completed in 2020.

Despite this, Denmark very much remains interconnected with ferries. The maritime history of Denmark is partly based on ferries sailing between the islands.

An interesting example is the ferry route between Assens and Aarøsund. For over 700 years, it formed one of the important postal routes between Hamburg and Copenhagen. It was used by royalty and beggars, tradesmen and soldiers alike. Between 1920 and 1972 ferry company A/S Lillebelts-Overfarten carried thousands of passengers, cars, live pigs and tonnes of vegetables over the stretch of water known as the Little Belt which separates the islands of Funen and Jutland peninsula.

For over half a century, the company operated each way several times a day in the face of adversity: competition from bridges and other ferry operators, mined waters and rising operating costs. Not only was it a means of transport, it also connected local communities.

Ferries mean economic activity
The ferry is more than a means of transport. As users of local ports, they are also contributors to economic activity and growth. They generate employment in and around the ports. According to the Danish Car Ferry Owners’ Association, more than 95 per cent of ship calls in Danish ports have for many years been by ferries. In 2010 this figure rose to 96 per cent as the number of freight vessels calling dipped in line with falling economic activity. In 2010 there were 520,000 vessel calls in the Danish ports to (un)load freight or passengers, but the association reported a 7,000 decline in 2011.

The railways are no longer users of ferries to cross from island to island – much faster bridge/tunnel fixed links have put paid to that.

Ferry travel to Sweden held up well, while to other destinations passenger volumes were unaltered or fell and routes were closed. There are five ferry routes between Denmark and Sweden, with 11 million passengers carried in 2011, an improvement of more than 12 per cent from 2010. With the exception of the Øresund routes – where the fixed link across the Øresund means it now takes a mere 20 minutes or so to travel from central Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden by train – Swedish passengers seem to be returning to ferry travel.

Going south to Germany are four ferry routes, which together carried 7.8 million passengers in 2011, not least on the key Rødby-Puttgarden and Gedser-Rostock routes. There was a 3.7 per cent dip in transport in 2011 from the year before.

Norway is also a destination from Denmark with a total of five routes which carried 3.4 million passengers in 2011, unchanged from 2010.

The Danish Car Ferry Owners’ Association notes that the UK ferry service was affected by strong competition from low price airlines. It is now served only by DFDS’ Esbjerg-Harwich route, where in 2011 passenger numbers were down by 9.6 per cent. Similarly, there is now only one ferry route to Poland from Denmark, and only one route to the Faeroes.

In all, the international ferry routes have seen a slight decline in passenger kilometres. This slipped to 1.48 billion km in 2011 from the 1.5 billion km in 2010. This contrasts with 1.8 billion a few years ago, before the financial crisis set in. Domestic ferry routes remain firm largely by necessity. Around 9.3 million passengers were carried on domestic routes in 2011, a decrease from 10 million in 2010.

Small Danish islands are served by 28 ferry routes and companies that are gathered in an association. The larger islands of Ærø, Samsø, Læsø and Fanø are served by their own ferry company. The Car Ferry Owners’ Association states that financial crisis has had little effect on domestic traffic, which it believes bottomed out in 2010. The local ferry is often a vital lifeline to some islands for the transport of goods as well as people.

There are 174 passenger ferries registered in the domestic or international ship registers, according to the association, and these represent a good 18 per cent of the total number of merchant vessels in the two registers.

The biggest players in the domestic Danish ferry market are Scandlines, Mols-Linien and Danske Færger.

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