Return from Planet CalMac

I have just returned from Planet CalMac (it's called the "Argyll ferries website", but it is still populated by CalMac), where you can find this gem

It says, "Argyll Ferries Ltd, the operators of the new Gourock-Dunoon passenger service, have hailed their enhanced service for the Cowal Games an outstanding success … The Cowal Games was a major test for the new service and … it passed with flying colours… the time had now come to draw a line under the difficulties of the service's start and look forward to the next six years of the contract … Our vision has always been for a safe, frequent, reliable, world-class passenger service between the two towns … tactical improvements which will resolve a great many of the remaining problems. These include:

  • The installation of electronic information boards on both piers
  • The introduction of a revised timetable to better integrate with rail services
  • Further works to the ships to improve the resilience"

The communication from Planet CalMac also mentions "teething problems" and their "vision of providing a world class ferry service of which everyone can be proud"

"Teething problems" and "world class" vision? Are they serious? As if electronic signage and some other tinkering can solve the problems of totally unsuitable vessels and service. They were saved (as were the passengers) on Cowal games by bringing in a car ferry that could carry over 500 passengers (and was not allowed to carry cars) and unexpectedly benign weather. Just wait until these passenger-only vessels have to face a Clyde winter.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth when I went to pick up my daughter from the "Argyll Flier" yesterday I met a college lecturer I knew coming off it who said he had asked not to have any 9 am lectures for next term scheduled for him in case of ferry cancellations.

Other commuters do not have such discretion over their physical presence at work. Multiply his wishes with those of every commuter who has to be at work by a certain time (say 9am) and you begin to get a feel for the scale of the problem for what was defined in the Deloitte Touche Report as a commuter service. Imagine a job interview in which you say you intend to commute across the Clyde using this service. Imagine just trying keep your job and commuting across the Clyde using this service.
Add in not just the disabled and the elderly but even the able-bodied who say they are reluctant and even fearful about using the service, season this with Mike Russell MSP and Philip Preston (Argyll Ferries MD)s' "use it or lose it" threats and you have the ingredients for the destruction of what was once Calmac's flagship service.

It is, as I and others have warned, designed to fail.

Here below for the record is a letter I had published in the Dunoon Observer 26th August 2011

Neil Kay 30th August 2011

Letter to Dunoon Obsever published 26th August 2011

Dear Editor

Voices in the air

As one with some professional background in the area, my heart tends to sink when I hear a politician quoting economists. Mike Russell builds his defence of the Government's mishandling of the ferries issue (letters 19th August) on a quote from Keynes. But Keynes also said: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back". Keynes himself died more than a few years back in 1946.

Contrary to what Mike Russell says, the key facts have not changed on the ferries issue, only politicians' excuses. For example, he twists the truth to say that "European law…. will not now permit cross subsidy between vehicle and passenger services". There has been no change in the law here that his "now" suggests and the simple fact is that no-one was suggesting what he was implying. First, no responsible authority until the infamous "use it or lose it" advice was suggesting anything other than that a frequent service for foot passengers was needed between the town centres

But if you are going to run such a frequent service, foot passengers deliver little farebox revenue and need subsidy, mostly to pay for the crewing levels needed for safety reasons. Add vehicle-carrying on such a frequent service and you add much more revenues than you do costs and help bring down and possibly even eliminate subsidy. All this is supported by hard economic analysis on this route and elsewhere.

Not only is this permitted under EU law, the European Commission confirmed it in writing it to Alyn Smith SNP MEP in 2007 and again to me this year. And I suggest Mike Russell looks at the contract his Government wrote for the current service because he will see it is referred to and explicitly permitted in that contract. But you have to make sure suitable vessels are available in the first place.

Although he lives locally, Mike Russell's career history as a directly elected politician is just 15 weeks. Before May he was list MSP in the South of Scotland selected from within SNP ranks, and a Minister within the Edinburgh-based SNP government. He did not build the SNP's 8,000 majority here, he owes much of it to the failings of other parties nationally and to his immensely popular and energetic predecessor Jim Mather (who to his credit confessed his own failure here). Can you imagine Jim Mather dismissing critics as "armchair theorists" and the "usual suspects" and advising let them "use it or lose it"? This is more Marie Antoinette than constituency MSP.

But what we have going for us is that the Government's imminent plans for Scotland's ferry network have been hijacked by vested interests who want to break up and cherry pick the network with tendering of selected single routes. That has already been signaled for the Northern Isles and will be followed next year with separate announcements for Argyll and Bute routes that are part of the CalMac network.

As things stand, Gourock-Dunoon will be testimony to the fact that tendering of single routes will be an unmitigated economic and social disaster for the rest of Argyll and Bute and a political disaster for any politicians foolish enough to enact it. And we can give the rest of Argyll and Bute chapter and verse on that. .

Mike Russell is an intelligent and astute politician who has delivered policies in areas as diverse as education and culture. He will not want to go down in history as a one-term elected politician who lost one of Scotland's biggest majorities. He should ask what happened to George Lyon in 2007 (majority 4000 in 2003) and why.

He bemoans those "mired in the past" and finishes by quoting Galbraith. Galbraith also noted (ironically) that "nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory". He would like us to draw a line and move on, and make this all the community's responsibility (and ultimately our fault) with the red herring of a community enterprise and the "use it or lose it" threat. But this mess is directly the fault and responsibility of the Government he represents, and unless they sort it out and soon, he will find the collective memories across Argyll and Bute are longer and broader than that of a politician.

Neil Kay