Strathclyde Passenger Transport (SPT), having dispensed with Helensburgh, commence the operation of their Kilcreggan to Gourock only passenger ferry service tomorrow, Sunday 1st April 2012.
Today is the last sailing of Seabus, the boat serving the route including Helensburgh and operated by Clyde Marine.
Tomorrow, the 16 year old Island Princess, bought and brought up from her familiar haunt in the Solent, goes into service with a licence awarded her by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) minutes before the end of the working day on Friday. However, no passengers will be allowed to travel om her upper deck.
We confess to being surprised that she appears to have made no familiarisation trips today. Using an unfamiliar boat at an unvisited pier without prior getting-to-know-you berthings would not be standard commercial practice.
However, it may be that the new operator, Clydelink, is relying on some immediate experienced assistance its skipper and crew will have.
Clyde Port, the statutory authority for the Clyde harbour, are reported as having some concerns and are putting a pilot on the boat, who will stay with the boat until satisfied with the performance of the in-house team. Established ferries sail with flags indicating that they have staff on board who have passed a pilotage examination for the route in question.
We understand that it will be a particularly experienced 79 year old pilot.
In something of a painful irony, Argyll and Bute Council’s long standing pier head staff will be staying on until mid-May and will be berthing the new ferry until then.
They have been made redundant because the new operator has decided to have the Island Princess crew use boathooks and manage berthing procedures from the boat, with no need for the services of the pierhead staff. They will though, be there to get the new service off to a safe start from the shoreside – although, they too will tomorrow be flying blind with no previous experience of managing this particular boat.
While the responsibility for the operation is SPT’s, Argyll and Bute Council’s Operational Marine Staff and its Corporate Health and Safety staff have pronounced themselves satisfied with the Risk Assessments now provided by Clydelink. This assurance has been acquired, after enquiries, by Councillor George Freeman.
Executive Director Sandy McTaggart has also assured Councillor Freeman that: ‘Provision has been made for Steven Neilson (Harbour Master) to be in attendance on Sunday to witness initial operations and a further review of Health & Safety and additional operational requirements will be undertaken with support from Corporate H&S on Thursday 5 April.’
Councillor Freeman has had to pursue information actively and persistently – for thirteen days – to discover what action was taken after the unanimous adoption at the Council meeting on 15th March of the urgent motion on this matter put forward, as we reported by himself and seconded by Councillor James Robb.
The motion was:
‘Argyll & Bute Council regrets the loss of the ferry services to and from Helensburgh. It also notes with extreme concern the current situation with regards to the renewal of the Gourock – Kilcreggan Ferry Service and the possibility that there could be a break in service between the current contract ending on 31 March 2012 and the new service commencing.
‘Given the impact that any break in this service would have on members of the public, Argyll & Bute Council agrees to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with SPT so as to seek an assurance that they have plans in place that will ensure that there will be no break in service between the current contract ending and the new contract starting even if this means SPT agreeing to extend the current contract.
‘The Council also agrees to pursue the re-instatement of a Helensburgh ferry service with SPT. ‘
Councillor Freeman remains concerned about several ongoing aspects of SPT;s and Argyll and But3e Councikl’s management of this troubled contract.
He has made these clear in his response to Council Transport Spokesperson, Councillor Duncan Macintyre, who is at this late stage today trying to arrange a good showing of councillors on Kilcreggan Pier tomorrow.
Councillor Freeman says:’Unfortunately we will not see tomorrow what the norm will be as pier staff will still be in attendance for the next few weeks. It will be more interesting to see the berthing with no pier staff in “inclement” weather as has been agreed by SPT and the Council.’ …
‘As you will probably be aware, there are still outstanding issues relating to the crew of the “new” 16 year old vessel which have still to be resolved. There are also the issues relating to almost half the passengers having to travel back and forward across the Clyde without any shelter.’ …
‘Even although SPT and the Council have worked on this new contract for 10 months now, there are still many outstanding issues relating to the “misinformation” that has been provided with regards to the new contract that will still have to be addressed. You will be aware that we were told that the maximum number of passengers recorded on any trip was 48. It is clear that this figure certainly does not tally with the figures provided to SPT by Clyde Marine. The average number of passengers on the 17.05 trip from Kilcreggan to Gourock of 28 as quoted by SPT is totally wrong. The various statements on a “new-build” vessel have been wrong and SPT only eventually admitted this when we challenged the proposal to provide the new contractor with a grant of £96,300. As you are aware, that proposal was withdrawn at the last minute. We were told that the Island Princes could carry 94 passengers when MCA have now confirmed a limit of 75. These are just a few of the outstanding issues that require to be addressed.’
The issue highlighted by Councillor Freeman of the Island Princess’s lack of capacity to carry the known maximum of passengers on this commuter route in shelter in the cabin and over the winter months will be a worry to many who will not appreciate the prospect of arriving for work wet and cold; or of setting off on a journey to and through Glasgow in a bedraggled state.
We remain uncertain as to the status of the Irish boat, Cailin Oir, formerly serving the Cape Clear Island route in West Cork. She arrived in the Clyde on Monday 26th March as a reserve boat – also needing certification for the route, in case anything went wrong with Island Princess’s certification to start operating tomorrow. Will Cailin Oir now be returning to the emerald isle?
Every new initiative can be expected to hit the bumps in the run up to starting – and this one has been no exception.
What everyone will delight in tomorrow is the reassurance of a flawless, assured and professional service, with the first working day’s schedule due on Monday.