A history of Sealink

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Sealink was a major ferry operator between Jersey, Guernsey and the English south coast. This brief on line history does not specifically refer to the Channel Island services but outlines the progression of the company from British Rail in 1948 to the 1990s

Railway services

Britain’s railway services originally developed as private ventures. During the 1920s they were consolidated into four main regional services, and on 1 January 1948 LMS, LNER, SR and GWR were nationalised and became part of the British Transport Commission (British Railways). The railways had ferries as an extension of their transport lines across the English Channel and the Irish Sea, in order to provide integrated through services to Europe and Ireland. Most of these ferry services were nationalized along with the parent railway companies.

British Rail

British Railways Board was rebranded in 1965 as British Rail, with new corporate colours and logo. In 1968, before air travel became widely affordable, an Act of Parliament was passed separating the shipping interests of British Rail from its land operations, with a new division, the British Rail Shipping and International Services division, formed in 1969.

Sealink

In 1970 the marketing name Sealink was adopted for the organisation. For the most part the new company simply took over the operations of the existing ferries and routes of the former railway operators, but Sealink also ran services to France, Belgium and the Netherlands, using ferries owned by French national railways, the SNCF; the Belgian Maritime Transport Authority; and the Dutch Zeeland Steamship Company.

By the end of the 1970s the tradition of passengers and freight arriving at the ferry ports by rail was declining rapidly and was being replaced by air travel and vehicle movements that required ships with roll on – roll off characteristics. There was no longer a strong business reason for the ferry services to be owned by the railways, and in 1979 they were moved to a new company – Sealink UK Ltd, in preparation for privatisation.

The ships retained the livery of black and red funnel with white opposing arrows, and the black hull was repainted blue with the word ‘Sealink’ in white lettering.

Sealink British Ferries

In what was described as the “Sale of the Century” the company, comprising 37 (reputedly largely obsolete) ships, 10 harbours and 24 routes, was sold on 27 July 1984 to US Virgin Island-based Sea Containers for the just £66 million.

In 1985 the trading name of the company was altered to “Sealink British Ferries”, with white hulls replacing blue ones and the funnel design changing to blue with an irreverently termed ‘galloping maggot’ logo in gold replacing the white arrows.

Substantial investment, which was much needed, was promised by the company president. In February 1985 the new Sealink British Ferries entered into an agreement with rivals British and Irish Line to rationalise sailings on the Irish Sea. The agreement provided for co-operation between the two companies and the elimination of sailing duplication on the Holyhead and Fishguard routes to Ireland, as well as the deputising of B+I ships while Sealink vessels were being overhauled.

The move was generally unpopular, especially with crews, and the January 1986 overhaul relief programme fell apart because of industrial unrest and the strike action that followed. The relationship between the two companies was further strained in April 1987 when Sealink introduced the freight ship Stena Sailer to supplement sailings of its ship, instead of using a B+I vessel, and by the end of the year the partnership was at an end.

Sealink Stena Lines

In 1990, after a lengthy battle, Sealink British Ferries was acquired in a hostile take-over by the Swedish Stena shipping line. The service was run as Sealink Stena Line until 1995, when the Sealink name was finally dropped.

Following Sealink’s acquisition by Stena Line a massive fleetwide investment programme was announced, which was carried through with the refitting of some ships and the introduction of new multi-purpose ferries and later the High Speed Sea-services catamarans.

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