Ferry service at Ardyne

The mooted development at Ardyne Point (Dunoon Observer August 11th, front page) mentioned as a minor item the possible resurrection of Western's plans for a ferry service to Bute there. At first sight that would seem unlikely. After all, what demand would there be for a third ferry to Bute, stuck out in the middle of nowhere at Ardyne Point?

You have to look at it from the perspective of what is in Western's commercial interest. I did so in the pages of the Dunoon Observer when this was first proposed in 1998 (Western Ferries presentation to the council then is set out under item 4 here).

Now on the back of road and other infrastructure improvements being explored for other developments, it is now becoming increasingly likely.

Western would deploy two (probably second-hand) ferries on the route which would enable them to run a highly frequent service on this short ten-minute crossing, at least one ferry will run late into the evening.

The first service to be wound up as a consequence would be CalMac Colintraive-Rhubodach. With a standard single fare of £7.50 for a car, even with further CalMac discounts for frequent travellers, Western will be able to undercut the CalMac service and would provide a frequent service longer into the evening. If Calmac do not terminate the Colintraive ferry, Western will have it pulled off by threatening to complain to Brussels that a (supposedly) subsidised service is competing against a commercial private service But that is only the start.

Western would also offer low cost discounted combined tickets for travellers Port Bannatyne - Ardyne Point with Hunters Quay - McInroys Point, using South Cowal as a land bridge (now do you see why Western will need these second linkspans at Hunters Quay and
McInroys Point?). Clearly that would not be attractive to all travellers to and from Bute, such as those going to or from Ayrshire. But for the many travellers going Inverclyde/Glasgow to and from Bute, it would be a highly attractive alternative. It would be cheaper than CalMac Wemyss Bay - Rothesay, much more frequent, with short waiting times, and running longer into the evening.

The result would be that much vehicular traffic to and from Rothesay would switch to Western at Port Bannatyne. The significantly reduced traffic will make CalMac cut back the frequency of its Wemyss Bay - Rothesay service. If it does not do so, Western will ensure it does by threatening to complain to Brussels .... (you know the story by now).

So Calmac will cut its service back to just one ferry running Wemyss Bay - Rothesay, and for just part of the day. The now highly-infrequent Calmac service will be so unattractive that even Ayrshire-Bute traffic will start to use the Western services. Demand for the single Calmac ferry will fall, which means the subsidy has to go up. Western will now threaten to complain to Brussels that they are providing a better and cheaper service than CalMac for all vehicle-based travellers to and from Bute, and that they are facing unfair competition from the subsidised CalMac service. They will threaten that unless the vehicular service is withdrawn ... (fill in the blanks). They will offer a "Users Charter" subject to the withdrawal of the Wemyss Bay - Rothesay service and argue that the appropriate service Wemyss Bay - Rothesay should be solely foot passenger (stop me if you have heard all this before in the case of Gourock-Dunoon).

They will even point out that foot passengers could be bussed to and from their ferries, just as they did with their Ardyne proposal in 1998 and with their proposals for Cowal in 2000. In reality, Western have no real commercial interest in what happens to foot passengers (as the lack of facilities for foot passengers at Hunters Quay and McInroys Point demonstrates). Foot passengers are expensive to cater for and deliver little revenue compared to vehicle traffic.

By now, most (and eventually all) vehicular ferry traffic to and from Bute would be using the South Cowal land bridge, Toward to Kirn. How much extra traffic would that be? In 2004, the two CalMac services to Bute carried about 250,000 cars and 20,000 commercial vehicles, including buses, and the traffic is increasing rapidly, year on year. Diverting this traffic to the (largely residential) coastal strip from Toward to Kirn means it would be turned into a a virtual race track for much of the day and year with vehicles sprinting between the two Western services in what would be at times a near continuous stream.

Meanwhile, after great initial enthusiasm, Bute residents will be finding to their dismay that their travel options are disappearing and they are repeating the Cowal experience. But worse is to follow.

What about Western's (now plural) "Users Charters"?. Circumstances change, and once it has the monopoly of vehicle carrying it will have no incentive to continue or renew its "Users Charters" - after all, they will argue, you cannot expect any contract to last in perpetuity, can you?

And they will argue that increasing costs and increased demand will force them to push up prices by imposing their own version of congestion charging.

Once Western have all the Cowal and Bute vehicular traffic it will be carrying more vehicles a year than is left in the CalMac network. The result? Congestion, pollution, the death of most integrated public transport, and increasing user prices that now reflect the power that comes from being an unregulated monopoly facing no danger of competition. The long term losers will be not just those who live and work on Cowal, but also those who live and work on Bute.

Is all this likely? Once Western get the taxpayer to pay for the infrastructure to Ardyne Point, it is not just likely, it is all but certain. The profit to be made for Western is just too massive for the public interest to be protected here.

But surely the statutory bodies will protect the public interest?

Look at what has happened on Gourock-Dunoon. The Executive has limited the frequency of the CalMac service and failed to invest in modern low cost vessels, explicitly to protect Western's profits. The councils have given Western planning permission for expansion, including these second linkspans at both McInroys Point and Hunters Quay. The enterprise agency AIE (on whose board the council leader sits) has given £400,000 of our money to help with that expansion despite the fact that Western says they would have gone ahead even without that money.

There will be public consultations on Ardyne Point, but we have found out from hard experience that the consultations which will turn out to matter on Gourock-Dunoon will be the six private meetings between Western and the Executive in 2004 and 2005 to discuss their "Users Charter " (and a Western monopoly of vehicle-carrying), these private meetings (which we only found out about through Freedom of Information) taking place at a time when the Executive were assuring us they were going to encourage genuine competition on the route.

All the statutory bodies say they want to encourage integrated transport, public services, and environment-friendly policies here. But don't look at what they say. Look at what they do.

So what can the ordinary person do? Both Cowal residents and Bute residents should be made fully aware of the implications of what Western would do. As for Bute, residents there should be made aware that their long term interests would not be served by what would inevitably turn into a Western monopoly, but by resisting plans that would lead to that and by instead lobbying for a longer daily service and for significant reductions on fare charges on the present Bute ferries which are, like most CalMac ferries - and all Western ferries - grossly overpriced.

Significant fare reductions, especially on the off-peak Bute runs with significant spare capacity, would be largely or entirely self-financing. Transport studies elsewhere indicate that the reduction in fares per user would be largely or entirely compensated by increased in volume of users, with present residents travelling more frequently, and more residents, visitors and businesses attracted into the area by the lower fares.

The oft-repeated lesson here is that private profit making leading to the degradation of the environment and what should be public services has been, and is, only made possible with the active help and support of the statutory authorities. Private firms can only make profit here if public policies (including fares which are amongst the most expensive for any publicly funded domestic ferry services in the world) actually encourage and facilitate such profit making. There is no more reason why ferries should make a profit than there is for bridges, roads and railways to make a profit. They should all be seen as part of the transport infrastructure and treated as means to economic growth, not as barriers to it.

There are national and local elections next May. If there is a way that some protection can be afforded, it is for the residents of Cowal and Bute to start asking present and prospective MSPs and councillors what policies they would pursue for the Bute and Cowal ferries, and then vote according to the answers they get.