The front cover of a prospectus presented to the Community Council at Campbeltown announces: ‘Launch of Vehicle and Passenger Ferry Troon-Campbeltown-Ballycastle’.
Before anyone gets over excited, as soon as you move to the inside page, this is modified to ‘Establishment of vehicle and passenger ferry…’
This sums up the proposition.
What is being launched here is a very large kite, to try to attract investors for something that exists only in the imagination.
The proposition is so far astray of reality that it says:
- Troon: ‘sits in the beautiful and under rated Dumfries and Galloway’
- discusses unemployment problems in Dumfries and Galloway, an area it is clearly certain affects Troon
- says Campbeltown and South Kintyre are cut off from supplies when the road closes with landslides;
- describes the leg of the route from Campbeltown to Ballycastle as crossing ‘St George’s Channel’ [between south east Ireland and south Wales] – where it helpfully notes that ‘the weather is unpredictable’
Navigation just might be a bit of a lucky dip here.
These and other rather major flaws in the proposers’ understanding of the operation they themselves are promoting are proof of the hot air below this kite.
An empty vessel
There is no boat – only boats they might buy if they had the money.
There appears to be no upfront money. The ‘project’ is looking for investment of £5 million – on the promise of an operation that will return a profit in only its second year of operation.
Commercially, that would be some trick.
And we have around ten years to go before we start to clear the long depression caused by the banks, with the euro still to play to whatever finale emerges. Where can the markets they claim possibly come from?
If these guys were that good and if the estimated markets on the route were this hot, they’d be household names and Troon, Campbeltown and Ballycastle would already have such a route and booming local economies.
As they say, if it looks too good to be true, it ain’t.
If this kite stayed aloft, the plan is to contract the service to Barry Shipping, an Irish company with no track record and established only a year ago in 2011.
The very repetitive prospectus is riddled with errors of fact and understanding and with omissions. A few examples are:
- There is no mention of security services or costs which are unavoidable.
- Kintyre Express, which has been running a small fast passenger service on the Campbeltown-Ballycastle route for three years, is described as taking 11 hours for the passage. We never knew Redbay Boats were pedal powered.
- ‘This service will be standalone – not part of government nor funded by it…’ – yet it has approached VisitScotland and Argyll and Bute Council for support.
- Kintyre and Campbeltown are described as suffering from ‘distance from public transport’ – yet there are two daily flights between Campbeltown and Glasgow and four return coach services a day between Campbeltown and Glasgow in winter, five in summer.
- Potential investors are to be reassured by the statement that the three year only, late 1990s, previous service from Campbeltown to Ballycastle [operated latterly by Sea Containers] received no public subsidy – yet there were the matters of a deeply depressed vessel purchase price [see below] and the building of shore facilities – terminal buildings, linkspans etc to support the venture.
- The prospectus has knocked off images and logos throughout its presentation, lifted without permission from other companies websites, like P&O - and added (as under the ‘cross sales’ section) in a manner which implies support from these companies.
A one-ship operation
What is proposed is a year round one-ship operation.
A one-ship job creates three immediate problems:
- annual maintenance/refit time out of schedule [which the proposal, unsurprisingly, does not mention];
- no service at all, with no warning – if the one boat hits a technical problem – yet the prospectus makes great play of its certainty to attract a large freight market through ‘frequency and reliabiity’ – neither of which can possibly be promised or delivered by a one-ship operation;
- able only to offer a one-in-one-out service on a route as long as this one – the journey time from Troon to Ballycastle, calling at Campbeltown, being just under 6 hours each way.
This last matter gives the lie to the general claim the prospectus makes for selling the route to a ‘day escapes’ market.
The schedule proposed for this one ship to be based at Troon would see only Troon able to offer day trips out [and not in] – and to Campbeltown, not to Ballycastle, with immediate turnaround at the two ports beyond Troon.
Residents of Campbeltown and Ballycastle would be able to ‘escape’ only if they overnighted and, in the case of Ballycastle to Troon, it would have be two nights. The boat would arrive in Troon at 7.45 in the evening and leave at 7.30 in the morning. So, unless the night life in Troon, year round, is quite something, a ‘day escape’ to the Ayrshire coastal town would cost two nights of time and money for the benefit of one day in Troon. And no harm to Troon, but what has it got that would support that sort of draw?
Would it stay the course?
This proposition has no intention of lasting.
Even if this kite got off the ground, it has, in its own declarations, its eye on fast departure.
Moreover, where it assumes that the operation would be successful, moving into profit in year two, it takes care to talk of the need for an ‘exit strategy’.
Campbeltown has sore experience of ‘exit strategies’ for such operations. The kite that was the Argyll and Antrim Steam Packet Company, which morphed into Sea Containers, had an ‘exit strategy’ to remember. This embraced talking the silly UK Government of the day into selling it the MV Claymore for a peppercorn; running the route - with no care whatsoever for its survival - for the minimum three year contract time – and then closing it down; and selling the Claymore for £1 million.
This outfit say clearly in their pitch to potential investors: ‘Return to investors will come through two area and/or both:
- Dividend generation – commit to maximum dividend within legal framework
- Purchase – the sale or merger of the operation with another operator.
The intention is to try to find a few gulls and get out.
It should be noted that the same team are involved in another and simultaneous kite flying exercise - this time as Norwegian Seaways, where ‘Grants are being sought from the Regional Growth Fund which, if successful, would see the return of the ferry from North Shields to Norway.
They would appear to be targeting their efforts on depressed areas where government bodies and local authorities might be overly keen to throw public money in the direction of anybody who offered to try anything.
This lot thought first of Oban but were directed to Troon-Campbeltown-Ballycastle by no less a maritime industry expert than – VisisScotland.
The newbies at Argyll and Bute Council – who have no more idea than VisitScotland – are also stroking their chins and looking thoughtful. It’s a good look for the cameras but does not imply knowledge or nous.
None of these guys can have read the prospectus.
Is not surprising that VisitScotland accepts that Troon is in Dumfries and Galloway – or that the route will cross the St George;s Channel’ – but it seems reasonable to expect that councillors from Kintyre and more widely from Argyll and Bute would know better.
And neither VisitScotland nor the Council seem to grasp the impossibility of a business plan that touts a one ship service like this on a route like this to go into profit in only its second year.
One has to ask whether VisitScotland and Argyll and Bute Council actually scrutinise and verify anything – or whether they simply listen to sales pitches and are easily impressed? This performance does not engender confidence.
If one single penny of public money goes into a project like this, public sector credibility will sustain even more damage and the row will be stratospheric.
Our investigations are continuing and we will update as necessary. And anyone reading the Project Alba prospectus [attached below in three sections to make downloading quicker] should do so soberly and with brain engaged. They literally do not even know where they are going.
Note: Below is the prospectus, divided into three sections, each with 8-11 pages.