Gourock Dunoon passenger ferry: Transport Scotland responses to For Argyll questions

In brief, the official Scottish Government position is that the two Argyll Ferries boats on this service are safe and meet regulatory requirements for the route – but that if Dunoon doesn’t want them, they’re ‘not fit for purpose’.

On Tuesday 28th August we asked Transport Scotland the following questions:

‘In the hypothetical situation of any specific change being actively considered by SG in relation to the nature of the current passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon or in relation to its mode of provision – eg a specific boat:

  • ‘Would a STAG appraisal be necessary?
  • What are the criteria for carrying out a STAG appraisal?
  • In what circumstances would change to the nature or provisioning of the service on this route NOT require a STAG appraisal?

‘Mr Neil is on the record as having declared that one of the Argyll Ferries boats on this route – the MV Ali Cat – is ‘not fit for purpose’.

  • We are challenging Mr Neil to define precisely the ways in which he has judged this boat to be ‘not fit for purpose’?
  • We are also interested to know how, if Mr Neil believes this to be the case and can legally defend the position, he has not had the MV Ali Cat withdrawn from service? ‘

In the last pair of questions above our purpose – a key one – was to establish Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure Alex Neil’s  interpretation of the factual situation we described as below:

‘Mr Neil, as a Scottish Minister, is a shareholder of Argyll Ferries, the owner of the boat in question.

‘As the Cabinet Secretary ultimately responsible for transport, how does he not have a duty of care for the safety of the travelling public to have withdrawn from service a boat he has declared to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and which is owned and operated by a company owned by the government in which he serves and of which he is himself a shareholder?

‘In what ways is Mr Neil NOT legally responsible for a situation he is attempting to distance himself from in his public criticisms of it?’

Transport Scotland responses

Yesterday, 29th August, Transport Scotland replied (the emphases are ours):

‘The vessels deployed by AFL (Ed: Argyll Ferries Limited) meet the regulatory requirements for the route and are safe. However, feedback from users is that the comfort and weather reliability of MV AliCat are not at the level they want for this service  and Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil announced the search for a short-term replacement which  is continuing.

‘We are also working with the local councils and the Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group to carry out a feasibility study into the viability of a vehicle and passenger ferry service where only the passenger element would be subsidised, in line with the European Commission’s Decision of October 2009.’

‘Background

‘Consideration of any change of vessel would require to be appraised in terms of costs and benefits although it is not considered that a full STAG would be required.

‘Feedback from users  of the MV Ali Cat found that the comfort and weather reliability of MV AliCat are not at the level they want for this service. That is the  context in which the vessel  was described by the Cabinet Secretary as ‘not fit for purpose.’

Analysis

Most of this is self-evidently supportive of the degree of mischief making in which – for whatever reason – the Scottish Government has indulged, to the detriment of the reputation of a company owned by itself and subject to its instructions.

The Argyll Ferries boats are here formally confirmed:

  • to meet the regulatory requirements for the route;
  • to be safe.

The grave and public allegation nevertheless made by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure that one of the two boats, MV Ali Cat, is ‘not fit for purpose’ is here said to have been made solely because it is not what the Dunoon contras ‘want for the route’ in terms of ‘comfort and weather reliability’.

The Scottish Government drew up the tender specification for the service. Did it include ‘comfort and weather reliability’?

Of course not.

They care about cost not comfort and contract accordingly.

Much more importantly, what ferry operator could be held contractually accountable for something vaguely called ‘weather reliability’ when they cannot control the weather?

No boat is wholly ‘weather reliable’ in the loose sense that seems to be enough for a cabinet minister to assault a company’s reputation these days and to undermine public confidence in its service.

In law, this could be a libel case for Argyll Ferries – against its own sole shareholder.

The other day, for example, in severe and forecast wind conditions, Argyll Ferries warned that services could be disrupted or cancelled. In the event, the company lost a very few services while the big vehicle and passenger ferry service from Ardrossan to  Brodick on Arran was out for the whole day.

But the Dunoon-Gourock Ferries Action Group harpies were shrieking damnation on Argyll Ferries again.

You can only declare that something is not fit for purpose where you can show that a stated purpose has not been met.

If the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure feels that what Dunoon ‘wants for the route’ and that (undefined) ‘comfort’ and (undefined) ‘weather reliability’ are essential purposes of this service, then his own department stands condemned by his own mouth for negligence in the tender specification upon which the contract was awarded and the boats to be used by the state owned Argyll Ferries were approved.

We also note that – significantly – the Cabinet Secretary has failed to address the key issue of his legal responsibilties in this matter: ‘We are also interested to know how, if Mr Neil believes this to be the case (Ed: that MV Ali Cat is ‘not fit for purpose’) and can legally defend the position, he has not had the MV Ali Cat withdrawn from service? ‘

Follow up questions

Yesterday we asked two follow up questions of Transport Scotland and have been promised a reply today.

they are:

  • Did the tender specification describing the service that would be appropriate and was to be bid for, specify anything of the order of: ‘comfort and weather reliability’ ?
  • How does ‘comfort and weather reliability’ square with the the regulatory requirements for the route? ‘Weather reliability’ is a phrase that must have regulatory resonance.

We will report on this when we have the responses.

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17 Responses to Gourock Dunoon passenger ferry: Transport Scotland responses to For Argyll questions

  1. “his own department stands condemned by his own mouth for negligence in the tender specification”

    That will be why Transport Scotland are dealing with a complaint for Negligence then won’t it!

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  2. Point of fact, Newsroom:

    “In the event, the company lost a very few services while the big vehicle and passenger ferry service from Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran was out for the whole day.

    It was only the Isle of Arran that didn’t sail. The Caledonian Isles, the main Arran ferry, ran normally on Monday.

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  3. Clyde Marine’s ‘Clyde Clipper’ has been up for sale for some time now according to some boat sales websites , for £3.2M. She is a substantially bigger vessel than the poor old lambasted ‘Ali Cat’. Whilst looking for a suitable car ferry to bring in , if one were to be reinstated of course? , surely the powers-that-be could negotiate some kind of agreement in the meantime to put the ‘Clipper’ on service in some kind of lease agreement until a buyer comes forward for her , she after all , lies idle most of the time in Victoria Harbour. Or maybe the AFL could buy her outright at a reduced price.

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  4. When I lived in Dunoon many years ago, the large car ferries Glen Sannox and the Jupiter experienced days when the weather would halt the service. Sitting in the lounge on a rough day was not a pleasant experience. From what I have seen, it does not appear that the new vessels have any worse a record.

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    • There were times when it was too rough even for the larger vessels and we are talking about ships 11 times the tonnage of the Ali Cat.

      The current bathtubs have to halt in quite moderate weather, they cancel even in summer which was pretty much unheard of with the streakers. In a month the bathtubs can cancel more sailings than the streakers did in a year, and they can be disrupted for several days at a time.

      What is galling though is that the Ali Cat ran along side the streakers for several years. Her inability to operate reliably in the weather was well known. There might be some excuse for ignorance about the Argyll Flyer but I understand she was only used as a summer boat in her previous life and that the owners went bankrupt, so maybe not.

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    • Charles maybe you are falling for Argyll Ferries “reliability” figures. Those EXCLUDE all the failures to sail due to the weather. Under the daft contract written by Transport Scotland any time the bathtubs cannot sail due to the weather then, for reliability, it counts as if they have sailed!

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      • CharlesH’s comments reinforce my view that a tunnel really would be a sensible option, but of course tunnels don’t find favour with the Dunoon ferry campaigners, do they, Ferryman?

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  5. Robert…any idea as to what a tunnel would cost? I think you could buy 10 new car ferries for the money, and just like boats……a tunnel wouldn’t last indefinitely.

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    • George – you’re maybe missing the point, a tunnel would obviously not be cheap, but with the correct maintenance could last, to all intents & purposes, indefinitely – and would provide a reliable route not susceptible to bad weather and not just available at certain times.
      Hence the reason for considering replacing unreliable ferries with a reliable tunnel, where the traffic and social / economic benefits might justify it. I think that a cross-Clyde route at Dunoon could definitely be worthwhile, just as much as the Skye bridge was.

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  6. Fixed links seem to be the way to go in many other countries. It must be a lot more sensible solution in many parts of Argyll, especially for the small islands such as Easdale and Luing. Perhaps Kerrera and even more. Sadly, I think most folk find romance in living in the 18th century but is it sustainable?

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  7. A tunnel? Good lord as we still on that. Have people ever heard of ‘return on investment’ or ‘business case’? This tunnel will provide no benefit, only convenience.

    Why would anyone need a tunnel when Western Ferries operate a top class passenger and vehicle service? Fares are cheaper than Calmac ever were and they are exceptionally reliable. I use it fairly frequently and have never experienced any issues.

    Why, why why is there such a focus on reinstating the Calmac car ferry (or equivilent)? Sure, competition is fine, but in a private basis. It would never be able to compete and never succeed, especially with close scrutiny on cross-subsidisation.

    The focus should be on ensuring that Western do not take advantage of their position and charge accordingly, which to their credit, they have resisted.

    The Scottish Government made a complete balls of this, but as they say, that ship has sailed – literally. And yet from the same terminal, SPT cannot find an extra 200k a year to have a proper operator on the Kilcreggan run.

    It’s time people stood back and looked at the bigger picture. Let sleeping dogs lie – in 4 years time this will come up for retender and with any sense, it’ll be one-an-hour except peak periods – oh, just like it used to be. You cannot get stats, but it’s frightening to see how enpty the off peak sailings are.

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    • Jamie – it’s no good telling people to ‘stand back and look at the bigger picture’ if you can’t understand that a tunnel – a fixed link – would be more reliable than any boat (an intermittent, interruptible link).

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      • The Bigger Picture

        Cowal has:
        A car/passenger ferry that is reliable
        A passenger ferry that is regular, but not reliable in poor weather
        Access via good quality trunk road but that needs serious investment.

        And you want a tunnel?

        Would it not be wise to solve the Glen Croe issue first, benefiting more people and businesses than Cowal alone?

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        • Glen Croe is primarily a separate issue. From your comments anyone would think that mention of a the possibility of a tunnel was like ‘Oliver Twist asking for more’.

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