Note from Neil Kay: interestingly the headline on the article below does not quite fit the content. Perhaps it is because Herald sub-editors were used to Western Ferries synthetic "anger" and automatically presumed the content would follow the usual pattern

Well, now at last we have an MSP who is prepared to tell it like it is.

Anger at ferry route’s ‘subsidy of £52 a head’

Kevin Schofield, Herald July 19th 2007

A Scottish Executive minister yesterday reacted angrily to claims that the public purse was subsidising a ferry route to the tune of £52 per passenger.

Jim Mather, who is the Enterprise Minister as well as the MSP for Argyll and Bute, accused Western Ferries of trying to obtain a "total monopoly" of the Gourock-Dunoon route by attacking the level of state funding given to rival ferry operator Caledonian Macbrayne.

Gordon Ross, managing director of Western Ferries, yesterday claimed that passenger numbers on the route were too small to justify the £2.5m subsidy that CalMac receives from the executive.

But Mr Mather, whose constituency takes in the ferry route, and CalMac both accused Mr Ross of making "selective" use of the passenger statistics contained in a recent report by the Highlands and Islands Strategic Transport Partnership (Hitrans).

The SNP MSP said: "Their interpretation of Hitrans data is neither helpful nor even-handed.

"It conveniently ignores the fact that Western Ferries are on the receiving end of what is effectively a very material subsidy in that the CalMac route is only permitted to offer an hourly service and is restricted in its time of operation.

"As a result, Western Ferries at present has a virtual monopoly vehicle service between Gourock and Dunoon. It now appears to want a total monopoly."

Mr Mather added: "The public interest of the people of Dunoon and Cowal has been made very clear to me and to my predecessor and that is the need for a ferry service that will help to grow the local economy, average local incomes and correct a growing demographic imbalance.

"To subordinate the needs of the community to give a further boost to the profits of Western Ferries is not an acceptable option."

A spokesman for CalMac said: "We dispute the figures used and the conclusions which have been drawn."

Mr Ross claimed the Hitrans report showed that around 95,500 passengers used the CalMac ferry every year to connect with the train service at Gourock.

He said that worked out at £52 of state subsidy per person. "This seems like an awful lot of taxpayers' money to be spent on just a few passengers," said Mr Ross.

"We accept that passengers need and want to use the train at Gourock but perhaps there is a more cost-efficient way of getting them to the railhead.

"We believe that given this level of usage, the executive could operate a fleet of taxis between our terminals and the train station in Gourock and the town centre in Dunoon and thereby save the taxpayer almost £1.5m annually."

Western Ferries has operated a service between Gourock and Dunoon since 1972 and last month announced that it was looking at possible new services to Arran, Islay and Mull as well as a new link between the Cowal peninsula and Bute.

A Scottish Executive spokesman said that the figures quoted by Mr Ross were not "entirely consistent" and that the actual number of foot passengers who use the CalMac ferry route was more than 500,000.