Dunoon is on the south east coast of the magnificent Cowal peninsula, on the inner Firth of Clyde. Just across the water is the major conurbation of Inverclyde, virtually a continuation of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by a considerable margin.
This position makes the town and part of the peninsula viable commuting territory; and the town has a history, if not a present, of being a visitor destination for residents of the city of Glasgow.
Dunoon’s transport services
Just over a year ago, the Scottish Government implemented its mishandled decision to replace the underused hourly vehicle and passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon with a passenger only service.
The decision was governed by a European legal ruling that while a passenger service could be subsidised, a vehicular one could not. From the evidence, it was clear that an unsubsidised vehicle service on this route was not financially viable. This was borne out by the fact that no commercial interest in providing such a service emerged from the tendering process.
The winning tender, from newco Argyll Ferries, was for a shuttle service with 60 sailings a day, 30 in each direction – based on the use of the only two suitable passenger ferries on the market. It is not known what boats the competing bidders were proposing to use, so without contradiction of this assertion, one must assume it to be correct.
The Argyll Ferries service starts at 6.45 Monday to Saturday with the last ferry out leaving Dunoon at 23.10 – with an 00.10 and an 01.25 on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays – with 30 sailings a day, 15 in each direction, the first boat out leaves at 08.50 and the last at 22.50.
At the Gourock end, the first boat from Monday to Saturday leaves at 06.20 and the last at 22.50 – with a 23.40 and an 01.00 on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays the first boat our of Gourock leaves at 08.20 and the last at 22.20.
Is there anywhere in Argyll and the Isles that has a 25 minute long bus service running at this frequency?
This town centre to town centre foot passenger service service is complemented by the 20 minute Western Ferries vehicle and passenger shuttle service from the northern edge of Dunoon (Hunter’s Quay) to the southern edge of Gourock (McInroys Point).
Western Ferries provides 86 services a day, 43 in each direction, from Mondays to Thursdays. The first boat out of Hunter’s Quay leaves at 06.10 and the last at 22.00. At McInroyls Point, the first boat leaves at 06.30 and the last at 22.30.
On Fridays, Western runs 102 services, 51 out of Hunter’s Quay, starting at 06.10 and finishing at 23.30; and 51 out of McInroy’s Point, starting at 06.30 and finishing at midnight.
On Saturdays Western runs 94 services, 47 in each direction, The Dunoon end starts at 07.00 and ends at 23.30; Gourock starts at 7.30 with the last boat out at midnight.
On Sundays, this route sees 80 services, 40 in each direction; starting at 07.00 from Dunoon, with the last boat at midnight; with the first boat out of Gourock at 07.30 and the last at midnight.
Thumbnail of Dunoon’s total ferry service provision
Together these two ferry services for Dunoon deliver:
- Mondays to Thursday inclusive: 72 services out of Dunoon daily – earliest out at 06.10, latest out at 23.10; and 72 services into Dunoon daily, earliest in at 06.45, latest in at 23.05.
- Fridays: 81 services out and 81 services out; earliest out at 6.10, latest out at 01.25; earliest in at 06.45, latest in at 01.25.
- Saturdays: 77 services out and 77 services in; earliest out at 06.45, latest out at 02.25; earliest in at 06.45,latest in at 01.25.
- Sundays: 55 services out and 55 services in; earliest out at 07.00, latest out at 23.30; earliest in at 07.50, latest in at 00.20.
These ferry services also keep Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula free of the loss of access and egress that the rest of Argyll suffers when the arterial A83 road is closed with one of its landslides.
Additional access routes
It should be noted that both of these ferry services – the dedicated passenger shuttle from Argyll Ferries and the vehicle with passenger capacity shuttle from Western Ferries – support a town which has a first class road out of the Cowal peninsula, offering alternative access to Glasgow (2 hours) or further into Argyll and north to Oban and the Highlands.
It also has access to a 25 minute vehicle and passenger ferry service across Loch Fyne from Portavadie (in southwest Cowal) to Tarbert in Kintyre, with onward access to the ferry to Islay about 10 minutes away at Kennacraig and road access to Campbeltown and the Mull of Kintyre.
McGill’s bus service run no fewer than 10 returns a day from Dunoon to Glasgow; there is a direct train connection to Glasgow at Gourock for foot passengers using Argyll Ferries; and simple calculation shows that the Western Ferries service with onward connections to Glasgow – a 90 minute journey, is cheaper than driving from Dunoon to Glasgow by road, a journey of 2 hours.
The ‘Poor me’ syndrome
With all of this to support Dunoon, the ferry fantasists daily feel hard done by. There are, as evidenced in comments on articles on this site, endless threats, moans and complaints about Dunoon’s predicament.
In the face of such baselsss whinges, there are also panicking politicians without the spine to say what everyone else – infinitely worse served – sees plainly: ‘Count yourselves damned lucky’.
Is there anywhere else in Argyll and the Isles with this total level of access and transport services?
What the ferry fantasists want
The fantasists want the town centre to town centre ferry to be a second vehicle and passenger service – just because it used to be. They do not want to lose the Western Ferries service. They just want even more, regardless of the lack of need and regardless of the cost to the taxpayer.
This will not happen. There is no economic or environmental case to support it.
And imagine the fury from Campbeltown if the government somehow bought off Dunoon’s pampered ferry moaners while the genuinely remote Kintyre peninsular town cannot even get the A83 section that serves it raised to trunk status (yet).
Cause for complaint
The problem that feeds the continuing complaint from Dunoon’s fantasy faction is that there is a mismatch between the two boats servicing the Argyll Ferries passenger route and the berthing facilities available to them at either destination.
Both boats – the twin-hulled MV Ali Cat and the monohulled Argyll Flyer – were built for side access from pontoons. They have to operate with stern access to linkspans, making for awkward manoeuvering of the ships in berthing, undermining user confidence in the operation.
This is aggravated by the skittish performance of the Ali Cat, whose hull form sees her work on the surface and prone to windage. She is also a particularly ugly boat with side doors unmatched to her superstructure, looking as if they’re out of B&Q, alien in the maritime environment.
All passenger boats today are light, to minimise the financial and environmental load of fuel burning and thereby to reduce running and insurance costs and fare prices.
Both of the boats serving this route have suffered cancellations of sailings in poor weather, particularly in the early days of the service, when technical breakdowns were also a feature. For much of the year cancellations have been few and technical breakdowns almost non-existent.
It is worth remembering that the tender was scored 90% on cost and 10% on quality. This immediately penalised any bid based on the provision of vehicle or larger passenger ferries. Any such bid would almost certainly have lost the contract on cost grounds alone. The tender therefore offered a disincentive to put together and tender a vehicle ferry solution.
This should not be a focus for renewed complaints of ‘We wus done’ from the Dunoon ferry fantasists. The commercial reality remains the imperative – an unsubsidised vehicle ferry between Gourock and Dunoon town centres is financially unsustainable – and business judgment supports that.
The Ali Cat, though, continues to be a focus for complaint. While both safe and suitable for the route, she may have been the only available choice for it but came with unfortunate baggage. She had a known local history of unfortunate incidents of wind-affected gangway access at Dunoon pier, which by luck, did not result in injuries.
She can be an uncomfortable ride in certain conditions. This has become the focus of a convenient scaremongering campaign by those who want to see this service become a second vehicle and passenger service between the town centres.
The major outcome of the scare campaign has been an increase of nervousness in passengers, less familiar than one might expect with the behaviour of water and pre-conditioned now to expect the Ali Cat to be frightening.
No one in responsibility has any doubt that this boat is operated within clear safety guidelines. No public service operator could do otherwise, let alone a company like Argyll Ferries that is owned by the Scottish government.
But the discomfort she can offer, particularly in the heavier winds and livelier wave conditions of winter, lends credence to the scare campaign that has left some passengers genuinely fearful.
This does not mean that the boat is unsafe – but fear is not what most people buy a ticket to experience. The obvious solution in safe but uncomfortable conditions for the Ali Cat – of timing journeys to use the Argyll Flyer – does not seem to occur and it is not in the interests of the fright campaigners to promote it.
And there is always the road, with the level of bus service to which the rest of Argyll is accustomed.
The greatest damage done by the ongoing scaremongering is to undermine the confidence of the uninformed incoming travelling public in all ferry services. In the case of Dunoon, this has the capacity to reduce traffic - and business – to the town; and to drive residents away from Argyll Ferries to Western Ferries.
Dunoon has a formal Ferries Action Group and supporters dedicated to pursuing three objectives:
- to get a second vehicle and passenger service restored to the town centre route;
- to get new boats for the passenger service;
- to get the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme applied to the Gourock-Dunoon route.
Legal and financial realities
The Scottish Government awarded the contract for the subsidised passenger ferry service between Gouock and Dunoon to Argyll Ferries, after a normal competitive tendering process on a common specification.
This has implications, as does the government’s end ownership 0f the David MacBrayne group of companies (to which Argyll Ferries belongs) that provide most west coast ferry services; and CMAL, the company owning most of the infrastructure that supports these services, the boats, piers, harbours etc.
The government awarded the contract to Argyll Ferries for the services on the boats it now provides.
The first issue here is that this contract must run its course. Were the government – even if it were feasible and defensible on financial and environmental grounds – to change this contract midstream to a vehicle and passenger service from Argyll Ferries, it would be open to a legal challenge it could not win under competition law.
Argyll Ferries could pay for one or two replacement boats within the course of the current contract – but would have to do so from its own resources and at its own cost – which it could not afford to do, having already made an investment of more than £2m in the two existing boats..
Were the Scottish Government in any way to assist it to replace its boats, it would again face an unwinnable challenge under competition law, with Argyll Ferries seen to be exclusively privileged over its competitors in being given replacement boats, once the contract was in operation.
The fact is that legal issues on contract and competition render unachievable - from the outset – the first two objectives of the Dunoon Ferries Action Group.
When this contract expires – on 29th June 2017 – it is open to the government to offer for competitive tender whatever new contract for whatever type of service it wishes. The economics of the situation will, though, remain unanswerably resistant to a competing vehicle service running between Dunoon and Gourock town centres.
Until then, the route will have to be served by the Ali Cat and the Argyll Flyer.
The Ferries Action Group would be better advised to campaign for what is achievable, for what would make a better service from the current Argyll Ferries fleet.
The answer to this is pontoon berthing at both Gourock and Dunoon. There is no legal impediment to the government providing these – because any operators would be free to pay dues and make use of these.
However such an improvement is currently unacceptable to the Ferries Action Group – because it would undermine the (non-existent) case for abandoning the passenger services. In failing to campaign for pontoon berthing for this reason, the action group are themselves responsible for the continuing inadequacies of this service as a whole.
The subsidy barrier
At the moment, the town centres passenger ferry route is subsidised to the tune of £2 million per annum.
The provision of two vehicle and passenger boats to a successor service would require a subsidy of around £8 million per annum in loan or leasing costs. Such a service would earn around £1 million per annum in vehicle passage fees. Together these sums would see the annual subsidy required rise from £2 million to £7 million.
The bigger and heavier boats required for vehicle carriage and their far greater loaded weight at sea would increase fuel costs, staffing levels and costs and insurance costs. This would make for higher vehicle fares and heavier state subsidies to cover the increased cost of carrying passengers on such a service. Berthing dues alone, payable to harbour authorities, would increase under this scenario by something approaching £1m.
In the economic circumstances likely to last for at least another decade, what government is going to commit to this, against the unprecedented luxuriance of the service Dunoon already enjoys?
Of immediate impact though, is the fact that a subsidy over and above the current benchmark for a passenger-only service – which would be necessary to provide the vehicle service the fantasists desire – would be prima facie evidence that the Scottish Government was providing subsidy to procure a vehicle service – something it is aware it simply cannot do.
The RET conundrum
The ferry fantasists also have a happy, if naive, belief that all would be well if they could persuade the Scottish government to apply the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme to the vehicle and passenger service they blindly wants for the Dunoon to Gourock town centres route.
This is legally impossible since European Law prevents the government from subsidising a vehicle service on a route not classified as a ‘lifeline’ – as Gourock to Dunoon is not.
Despite this legal obstruction, were the government to attempt to introduce RET and apply it only to an Argyll Ferries vehicle and passenger service, it would immediately fall irretrievably foul of competition law in subsidising a state owned service to the disadvantage of a private sector competitor – as Western Ferries’ service is.
If the Scottish government were to find a way around EU law in applying the RET subsidy to this route, it would have no alternative but to make it available also to the Western service.
In the way that RET is calculated, all that this could achieve would be to make the Western service cheaper than a town centres service and legally beyond undercutting – while in some cases making it more expensive than it is today.
But the woodentops just don’t get this.
Try the maths.
Back in 2008 – so inflation has to be factored in – RET was set at a fixed rate per journey of £5 for a car – plus 60p per nautical mile on the distance of the route in question. For passengers, the RET rate was fixed at £2 per passenger per journey plus 10p per nautical mile on the specific route.
The route distance for Western Ferries is 2.2 nautical miles; and for the town centres route, 3.6 nautical miles. Under RET there is therefore no way that any operator on the town centres route can offer cheaper fares than the Western route.
Look now at the costs under RET for a car and driver.
The 2.2 nautical miles distance on the Western ferries route gives a single journey RET cost (as above) for car and driver of £8.54 at 2008 prices. The Retail Price Index (RPI – a standard measure of inflation) puts this at £9.50 today. A return journey for car and driver on the short route at these rates would cost £17.08 at 2008 prices or £19 today.
But today anyone, resident or visitor, can walk into Western Ferries’ office or one of its agents and buy a return ticket for a car and driver for £16.20; or a book of ten single journeys for £73, which makes one return journey £14.60.
Pier dues, which would be payable on the town centre service, but are not a cost incurred by Western Ferries which owns its own terminals, would swallow up some £6.80 out of each return ticket.
Under RET, multiple ticket discounts are currently not available so in fact the introduction of RET, if based on current principles and even if it were possible, could increase – not decrease – costs for vehicle services, in the case above by just over 34%.
The political shenanigans
Recent days have seen a synthetic frenzy whipped up about Argyll Ferries’ operation of the Ali Cat with loose allegations of disquiet on the part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) about the safety of the boat and of its operation by the company.
This was a mischievous misrepresentation of the facts, relating to the requirement for the MV Ali Cat to have a certificate exempting it from carrying an onboard safety boat.
The need for the exemption is that, on the Scottish Government’s instructions, Argyll Ferries had to register the Ali Cat as a Class 4 boat. Class 4 boats, as opposed to Class 5, must carry an onboard safety boat, unless they have an MCA Exemption Certificate. The MCA draw lines across the Firth of Clyde, one for summer, one for winter purposes. In each case, ferries operating south of the line are, if Class 4, required to carry an onboard safety boat unless they have an Exemption Certificate.
The winter line, further north of course, moves up to between the Cloch Light on the east Clyde coast to the rather non-specific ‘Dunoon Pier’ on the west side. This is taken to mean the old and now unused timber pier, not to the new breakwater/linkspan, which is a modest number of metres to the south and is the one used by the two Argyll Ferries boats.
Having compelled the MV Ali Cat to operate under Class 4, all the Scottish Government had to do was ask the MCA to take the winter line to the new linkspan but it omitted to do so.
Had it either known or bothered to do this, MV Ali Cat could have operated year round as a Class 5 ferry, with no requirement to carry an onboard safety boat – and no need to apply for an Exemption Certificate.
Unusually, Argyll and Bute’s MSP, Michael Russell, has taken to the media in press releases with shrill headlines, condemning Argyll Ferries and CalMac, the senior ferry company in the David MacBrayne group, for unproven allegations.
He has done this in terms that, given the authority of their source, can do nothing but unnecessarily inflame public anxieties on the safety of the Argyll Ferries service.
He has also chosen to personalise the issue, with overt attacks on David MacBrayne Limited’s Group Chief Executive
which, given the direct responsibilities for the situation of the government in which he serves, seems misplaced criticism.
Given that Mr Russell’s stance is implicitly critical of the sequence of actions in this matter by the government in which he is a senior minister, this puts him directly at odds with the transport department.
Is it now a resignation issue for Mr Rissell that Argyll Ferries get new boats – or at least one replacement boat?
Does he understand the legal complexities of this issue?
His stance has been quite extraordinary.
It is the government in which he is a Cabinet Secretary:
- that changed the town centres ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon to a passenger only one;
- that awarded the contract to a new company set up for the purpose and placed in the ownership of Scottish Ministers, of which Mr Russell is of course one – and therefore a shareholder;
- that dictated that the MV Ali Cat be a Class 4 ferry;
- that left the winter line for safety boat exemption at the old Dunoon Pier when the Ali Cat berths a little to the south at the new linkspan.
It is unusual also for a senior Minister, who is one of those legally owning Argyll Ferries, to transmit his questions to its management via the media and in intemperate terms.
The west coast ferries are, in all but name, a public sector service, an in-house government provision. For a senior minster to arouse public anger at and mistrust of a publicly owned company in which he is himself a principal, must be unprecedented.
If, in his internal but publicised criticisms, he is not reined in by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport with the backing of the First Minister, it could look as if the government itself has some strange purpose in wishing to see pilloried a company which it owns and which is its direct servant.
We are quite unable to decode Mr Russell’s actions and can only imagine that he must, as something he perceives as a matter of grave principle, have decided that this is indeed a matter on which he will resign if he cannot be satisfied.
Normally, one would suggest that a high level meeting of the key principals in the dispute – one senior representative each from Transport Scotland, Argyll Ferries, Western Ferries, CalMac, Dunoon Ferries Action Group, Argyll and Bute Council and Argyll and Bute’s MP, might be convened by Argyll and Bute’s MSP, acting as Chair.
In this case, Mr Russell’s partisan stance has disqualified him from acting in such a capacity. He could only be a peer participant in such a meeting, under an independent Chair.
But who has the personal authority and would command the breadth of respect necessary to hold the ring constructively at an event like this?