By Richard Lough
DIEPPE, France, Nov 8 (Reuters) - French road haulage boss Bruno Beliard bet on the potential for no-deal Brexit border chaos, hiring UK-based drivers, spending cash on customs clearance training and overhauling his business model. Now he is left nursing higher costs, perhaps for nothing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own gamble to call a December election to "get Brexit done" has left Beliard in the dark over the rules that will govern how he carries goods between Europe and the UK.
"The fact of not knowing whether it's Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal, I tell you, people in my company are stressed out by this," said Beliard as a forklift loaded goods destined for London, Bristol and northern England in a trailer.
Beliard's predicament highlights the uncertainty hanging over an industry which moves the bulk of the 435 billion pounds ($557 billion) of goods moving between Britain and Europe each year.
Like the vast majority of truckers using sea routes between France and Britain, his French drivers used to take their vehicles onto the ferry and continue to their UK destination.
But he feared a return to a hard border would hamper the movement of goods and create financially punitive delays. He switched to unaccompanied freight.
Now his drivers drop their trailers at Dieppe, where they are towed onto a ferry and picked up at Newhaven by one of five British drivers he hired after the June 2016 referendum.
"All that to avoid drivers waiting at the border. A driver costs money whether he's on the move or held up," Beliard said.
More goods were moved between British ports and the EU than between the UK and any other part of the world in 2018 - in total 206.2 million tonnes, or 44% of traffic in and out of British ports. More than half of this was carried by roll on-roll off (Ro-Ro) vessels.
Maritime freight players say a shortage of truck drivers, environmental concerns and Brexit disruption fears are making unaccompanied freight on longer sea routes more attractive.
"We are seeing increased interest from shippers looking for alternatives to the most congested short sea routes for accompanied Ro-Ro traffic but also from shippers looking to switch to unaccompanied Ro-Ro," said a spokesman for Hutchison Ports, which operates Felixstowe, Harwich and London Thamesport.
In September, Calais, which lies northeast of Dieppe and handles 2 million trucks annually, launched its first non-accompanied freight route to London's Tilbury port. P&O expects to carry 50,000 units in year one.
Calais port chief Jean-Marc Puissesseau said the unaccompanied freight route would help Calais win new business after Brexit. Calais would handle up to 200,000 unaccompanied units within three or four years, he said.
Lengthy border delays would put a strain on Beliard's two-decade-old firm, Euro Channel Logistics, which has annual revenue of 5 million euros and counts on the British market for 60 percent of its business.
Beliard has spent about 100,000 euros on customs clearance training and software and Brexit-related trips and meetings. And Dieppe's ferry operator charges more than 300 euros to tow a trailer on and off its vessel, Beliard said, putting pressure on already tight margins.
But he has no regrets.
"We'd pay the price if we waited until we were suffering. Deal or no deal, I'm ready." (Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood)