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 place today.
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 decommissioning dates.
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.