Left with that sinking feeling over CalMac farce
David McEwan Hill
The Herald, November 18 2006
They said it couldn't be done. Yet the Scottish Executive and Caledonian
MacBrayne have taken Europe's busiest ferry crossing and, over a decade
that has seen a substantial increase in traffic, have, by dogged determination
(or astounding incompetence) turned the Gourock-Dunoon route into a loss-maker.
This ongoing pantomime, which has presented Dunoon with a shiny new £6m
linkspan and no prospect of ferries to use it, is, at long last, being
given the public exposure that it surely deserves.
An editorial in The Herald last Tuesday on the tendering farce may initiate
an investigation into what many believe to have been a relentless conspiracy
against the public interest by those who own CalMac - namely, the Scottish
Executive - and others with interest in this affair.
There are some facts people should be aware of. CalMac, which runs the
car-ferry service between Dunoon pier and Gourock and connects with the
train to Glasgow, receives no subsidy on its vehicle carrying - only on
its foot passengers, most of whom will not use the Western Ferries alternative
that runs from two miles south of Dunoon (and has no rail connection).
The Deloite Touche report commissioned by the executive, CalMac and Western
Ferries on the Dunoon-Gourock crossings, published in 2000, indicated
that a second, unrestricted commercial service would be "suitable
for a standalone grant-free operation" - ie, there would be no need
for subsidy. (Until recently the profit on the vehicle-carrying service
more than paid for the passenger subsidy - a good deal for the taxpayer
who picks up the bills on CalMac's operations.)
Since then, hugely increased traffic on the route and declining interest
rates make this option of genuine competition a very attractive commercial
operation in the public interest. However, this report seems to have been
vigorously suppressed and is now effectively buried. CalMac's Dunoon service
has been deliberately crippled for more than 30 years. What is the preferred
service from town centre to town centre has been limited to one ferry
each hour from morning to early evening, first by the Scottish Office
and latterly the Scottish Executive, and has been allowed no late sailings
over this period of accelerating traffic increase on the route.
Meanwhile, the unrestricted Western Ferries is running up to four sailings
per hour, up to midnight). The reason initially given for the restriction
on CalMac was that the Tories were determined to give the private, fledgling
Western Ferries help 30 years ago. Unbelievably, this help is still in
The truncated CalMac operation was presented at one point as "a CalMac
operational decision". Everybody knows this is nonsense because,
if it were true, CalMac senior management would qualify as probably the
most incompetent body ever to be in charge of any commercial enterprise.
The present subsidy to CalMac on the Dunoon run, estimated at £2.5m
per year, is entirely due to the executive's imposition of a frequency
restriction on the service and in not allowing CalMac to upgrade inefficient
and unsuitable vessels it has on this route. The Dunoon service is at
present being run by "Streakers" which are 15 years past their
In short, the subsidy to CalMac that Western Ferries complains about (and
uses in its campaign to get CalMac off the route) is due to the executive's
continuing efforts to protect Western Ferries from genuine and legitimate
competition. For Western to complain about this subsidy is like a mugger
complaining about his victim's hospital bills - but it is a simple message
for the easily-persuaded. In fact, Western now receives more inappropriate
protection from competition than even the Post Office.
Privately, many of those who have followed this saga insist that the real
agenda was a promise made by the Thatcher regime to Western that it should
have a monopoly on the route. It is widely believed that this still remains
the agenda. Western Ferries has been handed a virtual monopoly. To no-one's
surprise, it is making the best of it with some of Europe's highest ferry
fares contributing to huge annual profits.
One of the consequences, however, of this non-competitive situation is
a huge volume of heavy commercial traffic which now finds the ferries
too expensive and is choosing to travel to Argyll and onwards on inadequate
and deteriorating roads, contributing to Argyll's sorry title as Scotland's
worst area for road traffic accidents.
Well-informed Cowal residents are aware of this conspiracy against their
interests and know who is involved and responsible. They face the prospect
of their premier ferry service being reduced to passenger-only on vessels
that can't berth in swells of 3ft (as is the case at present with one
vessel deployed on the route), the destruction of the rail connection
and the loss of much-needed tourist traffic through Dunoon.
What's being done - by people who framed a tendering process that guaranteed
no applicants for the Dunoon-Gourock service - is replacement of healthy
competition by a potentially very expensive monopoly. What causes concern
is the inability (or unwillingness) of those elected to serve Cowal to
exhibit any interest or provide any coherent position on this matter.
With elections next year and two successive Transport Ministers and the
local MSP being LibDems, there could be significant electoral effect,
especially as Dunoon was promised vessels for its new linkspan.
With SNP and Tory politicians now opening up this matter and Dunoon's
Pier Pressure Group referring the saga to the Office of Fair Trading -
with an option of travelling on to the European Commission with it - the
Dunoon ferry farce isn't going to go away.
David McEwan Hill has run a number of businesses in the Dunoon area.
He has been involved in a campaign to save Dunoon Pier and its ferry services
for more than 10 years.