Inexplicable blame game from MSP on lack of cross-ticketing on Dunoon ferries

Local MSP, Michael Russell, made a very strange statement to the Dunoon Observer, quoted in an online article on Thursday 21st March.

The issue

The issue was the lack of cross-ticketing arrangements between the two ferry operators on the Dunoon-Gourock route: the private sector Western Ferries, running a vehicle and passenger service between the outskirts of the two towns; and the Scottish Government owned Argyll Ferries, running a state subsidised passenger ferry service between the two town centres.

The Western Ferries service is markedly weather-robust and reliable. The Argyll Ferries’ passenger boats, being necessarily lighter craft, are more prone to delay and cancellation in a bit of a blow.

The Dunoon Observer article carried the experiences of some business commuters from Dunoon, with season tickets on the Argyll Ferries service from Dunoon town centre to Gourock, with a five minute walk to the rail head adjoining the pier.

They described attempts to switch to Western Ferries after text warnings from Argyll Ferries that its early service was to be cancelled – a situation meant to result in the provision of replacement buses to and from the two Western Ferries terminals.

Their evidence showed that the commuters:

  • often found no replacement bus from Argyll Ferris to take them to Hunter’s Quay to catch the Western service;
  • meaning that they had to take a taxi to the Western terminal – at a cost of £4.50;
  • and pay the Western fare of £4.10;
  • then finding no replacement bus at the Gourock end either, to deliver them to the train station;
  • and taking another taxi to the rail head – at £4.50.

All this, while holding a valid season ticket for the Argyll Ferries service unable to run in the prevailing conditions.

The hard question was why there was no cross-ticketing arrangement between the two services, to allow for service cancellations.

The MSP’s statement

Mr Russell’s response to the question was to tell the Dunoon Observer, as they quoted, that:

‘I have been in touch with the Transport Minister and the Deputy First Minister about this matter again this weekend.  A number of constituents have raised it with me.

‘It is completely unacceptable for interchangeability not to be in place and it is completely unacceptable that the buses promised are not always being provided.

‘Whatever the blockage is, it needs to be removed immediately particularly as the unusual run of strong Easterly winds has created so many difficulties.

‘Western Ferries and CalMac need to resolve these problems now.  Mr Lawns and others affected deserve much better from both companies.’

The big question

The sentence above – ‘Western Ferries and CalMac need to resolve these problems now.’ – is the focus of our concern.

In laying the blame for inaction on the two ferry operators and in suggesting that this matter was in the power of these companies to resolve, the MSP could only have been:

  • phenomenally ignorant of the very obvious facts of the matter;
  • or knowingly misleading the public to believe the operators were to blame;
  • or careless of the detail in his casual laying of responsibility upon them.

The facts

A cross-ticketing arrangement would almost exclusively be to the benefit of the less reliable, state-owned Argyll Ferries, whose passengers are the most needing of such a facility.

Negotiations simply could not take place without governmental knowledge and support  – because whatever the operators agreed would have to be paid for by the Scottish Government as the owner of Argyll Ferries.

This would most probably have to be managed through a variation of the Argyll Ferries contract – necessary to allow the Scottish Government to increase the contract value to allow the company to bear the expense of Western Ferries transporting the passengers it cannot carry itself when it has to suspend its services.

Argyll Ferries can do nothing it’s state owner does not agree and underwrite.

The private sector Western Ferries does not itself need any such agreement and could only collaborate in it if and when its costs were assuredly covered by the Scottish Government directly – or indirectly through Argyll Ferries.

For a senior government Minister – who surely must be aware of this procedural situation – to choose to blame two companies, neither of which was or is in a position to enact cross-ticketing is really quite an extraordinary action.

This is particularly so since, in his statement to the Dunoon Observer, quoted above, Mr Russell says: ‘I have been in touch with the Transport Minister and the Deputy First Minister about this matter again [Ed: our emphasis] this weekend.’

The weekend to which he refers is the weekend preceding his statement to the newspaper, published on 21st March. His use of the word ‘again’ indicates earlier contact with the Transport Minister and the Deputy First Minister who, as Infrastructure Secretary, is the Transport Minister’s boss.

Even supposing that Mr Russell did not himself know that any decision on cross-ticketing could only be made by the Scottish Government, it is inconceivable that, when he contacted them – not once but at least twice – his ministerial colleagues, whose responsibility it is, would not have explained this to him.

So why did he choose to lay public blame on two utterly blameless ferry operators?

The matter is even stranger since the Deputy First Minister and Transport Scotland [which is within her portfolio] have indeed been considering cross-ticketing proposals for a considerable time without yet having taken the necessary action to make it happen.

It is again inconceivable that they would not have informed Mr Russell of their engagement in the matter when he raised it with them on at least the two occasions he told the Dunoon Observer about.

So he must have been fully aware of the reality – yet still chose to blame the helpless ferry operators. Why?

How can we know that the Scottish Government has been involved for some time, at least in passive support, in a move to cross-ticketing between Argyll Ferries and Western Ferries?

The answer is that Argyll Ferries made a unilateral – possibly premature – public announcement of such an arrangement towards the end of 2012. It could not have done so had its owner not been aware of and supportive of whatever negotiations had clearly been ongoing between the two operators on the practicalities of cross-ticketing.

Whether Mr Russell had some indecipherable motive for wrongly laying public blame for inaction on the two ferry companies or whether he is casually addicted to blame games and scapegoating, cannot be known.

The fact is that, knowing what he simply must have known about the involvement of the Deputy First Minister and the Transport Minister in resolving the issue, he then chose to say – and the emphases are ours:

‘It is completely unacceptable for interchangeability not to be in place …’. and

‘Whatever the blockage is, it needs to be removed immediately …’.

Were these statements a covert prod in the ribs of his ministerial colleagues whose responsibility he knew this to be and who would know he knew of their dilatory involvement?

Was the crude and unjust blaming of the ferry companies then an attempt to cover for the disguised jab at Ms Sturgeon and Mr Brown?

Who knows?

What is certain is that Mr Russell owes both Western Ferries and Argyll Ferries a public apology for tossing them into the jaws of the unhappy commuting community in Dunoon.

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14 Responses to Inexplicable blame game from MSP on lack of cross-ticketing on Dunoon ferries

  1. I take exception to your statement that “The Argyll Ferries’ passenger boats, being necessarily lighter craft, are more prone to delay and cancellation in a bit of a blow”.

    Transport Scotland should have specified vessels able to provide a reliable service. They did not hence the problem.

    Also the gentleman referred to in the article in the Observer concluded by saying he did not want a lot of energy devoted to cross ticketing etc he wanted it devoted to the getting his town centre ferry service taking him to the trains to work.

    That of course makes sense because even if he could transfer totally reliably to and from Western at no cost at all he would still be late for work.

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    • You may take what exception you like, but the physical facts are the physical facts.
      Passenger boats are, by nature, lighter craft because they have lighter loads to carry and, with fuel prices today, no carrier could justify running a heavier and thirstier craft than necessary.

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      • Yes and no; taking Sunny Jim’s suggestion in the Observer’s comments as a (admittedly unorthodox) example, I can’t find an online source for MV Balmoral’s deadweight, but given her size she probably weighs not much less than a Streaker. Given she was recently re-engined and her relatively slippery shape she probably burns no more diesel than the AliCat or Argyll Flyer do; waterline length is very important for non-planing vessels. It would be a nice boost for the cash-strapped WSN too.

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        • Just checked – it’s not April 1st just yet!

          Balmoral is a single screw ship that was built in 1949. Would love to see her berth in strong winds without eventually sustaining serious damage!

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          • Twin screw in fact. And originally designed for precisely this type of year round passenger ferry operation.

            Balmoral is just one of several all weather boats available right now around the UK, but none of them are as “suitable” as Ali Cat or Ms Sturgeon would have instructed her civil servants to get AF to do something about it, wouldn’t she?

            And hey, anything goes. A build date of 1949 is no reason for exclusion. Transport Scotland failed to specify the vessels to be used in their invitation to tender other than that they should be legal, able to keep to the timetable and able to berth at Dunoon and Gourock. In screeds of contractual minutiae, that, literally, was all there was. And contractually, explicitly, cancellations due to weather were not just excluded from penalties, the subsidy was to continue to be awarded day by day whether the boats run or not.

            Ali Cat? Had there been smaller, cheaper and worse vessels available at the time, quite likely they would have been used to win the bid because the selection scoring was overwhelmingly weighted towards the cost of subsidy.

            Take the conditions of invitation to tender to their logical conclusion and the smart business move would have been this: offer the cheapest, smallest boats legally permissible on the route in order to minimise costs (when they run); this allows you to submit the lowest bid, thereby winning the contract. And when your tiny boats don’t run, as is so often the case because the weather is so variable and their capability is so marginal, you have no additional costs but you still pull in the subsidy for those missed sailings (and almost all your revenue is subsidy anyway). Seems pretty close to what’s happened and entirely predictable. But to say this outcome was planned would be to give undue credit to all those responsible for it.

            April 1st? It sure was when that was drawn up.

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          • I fully agree about the contract being appalling – Kilcreggan was the same. What’s worse with Kilcreggan is that Clydelink said on their submission that they would use a New Build 2012 vessel. My eyes tell me they are not using a new build vessel, built in 2012. They made a bid but are blatantly not delivering what they said – who holds them to account? To date, no-one has held them accountable.

            Argyll Ferries are at least operating what they said they would operate. The Scottish Government are fairly and squarely to blame for this, and the onus is on them to resolve. Not Western, not even AF. All eyes are on Ms Sturgeon to come up with the goods.

            But I’m sorry, despite being very nostalgic, and despite thinking it would be great to have Balmoral regularly plying the Clyde, you’re not going to persuade me that having a 64 year old ship on a government subsidised route in 2013 is acceptable, or feasible.

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          • It’s certainly feasible: there was nothing in the invitation to tender to prevent it. And anyway, Kenilworth is much older (77 years old) and until quite recently was on the government subsidised Kilcreggan service, so, rightly or wrongly, that kind of precedent clearly exists. It probably breaches EU and competition rules to exclude bidders offering older in-class vessels. And don’t forget, half of Western Ferries’ fleet is 50 years old.

            But I agree, it won’t happen, not because the suggestion is not feasible. In fact, the suggestion probably has a lot of merit. But it won’t happen because: a) it would emphasise the implicit admission that there has been an almighty political and administrative foul up; and b) nothing is going to happen anyway, apart from the DFM, her civil servants and their PR people keeping their fingers crossed that AF can muddle through, as is, till the contract runs out. To be blunt, I simply do not believe that anyone is seriously looking for more suitable tonnage.

            For what it’s worth, if I were in Ms Sturgeon’s place I’d instruct AF/Calmac/CMAL to reactivate the Saturn as a pro tem emergency measure, covering commuter runs at the very least, until such time as they get this nonsense finally and permanently sorted out. But I’m afraid the lawyer mentality (so prevalent amongst the current batch of Scottish Ministers as well as in previous administrations) which produced this state of affairs also precludes any kind of short term solution.

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      • newsroom, Ali Cat and Argyll Flyer ARE thirsty; your over-simplistic assessment displays a lack of understanding of the relevant engineering physics. It was similar technological naivete on the part of Transport Scotland that led us into this mess.

        The difference in fuel cost between a streaker running this service and what passes for a service just now is barely significant, dwarfed in the overall value of the contract.

        Furthermore, under the old timetable, the single streaker’s annual fuel consumption was a good deal LESS than the consumption of AF’s two boat operation.

        Using standard engineering rules of thumb, I estimated Saturn’s final annual fuel bill as £300,000, and Argyll Ferries’ will currently be about £500,000. (Balmoral, being a bit smaller than a streaker and having a much more efficient hull form, would burn considerably less.)

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      • “no carrier could justify running a heavier and thirstier craft than necessary”

        The “than necessary” is the critical point. If you are specifying a commuter service to get people to and from work, hospital college etc. then it is necessary and perfectly possible to specify vessels able to operate reliably on the Clyde.

        What you do not do is accept vessels which regularly and repeatedly fail to run for days at a time.

        Newsroom wrote “physical facts are the physical facts”, they are indeed and the current bathtubs are far too small for reliable operation. In any case the Ali Cat was operating unreliably on the route already so her current performance is no surprise.

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    • The poison pen of Roger Trebus and the DGFAG.

      Tell us all Roger, why do you use and continue to use a made up name. Why don’t you just attach your name to your opinions?

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  2. Isn’t it nice to know that 1000s of folk read this website and can glean an understanding of what exactly folk on the ground think of their politicians?

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  3. Cross ticketing between AF and Western is not legally possible for the simple reason that AF “tickets” are subsidised by the taxpayer.
    if Western then accepted an AF ticket in effect they would be accepting a tax payer subsidy the amount they would then have to “hand back” or be in breach of EU etc rules and would then mean that Western were carrying AF passengers at a loss to them.

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    • Really, that sounds far fetched, obviously you have taken legal advice on this issue or you are a European state aids specialist. I fear that you are just making this up and just a retired busy body.

      Either show us the evidence or keep your fantasies to yourself.

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      • Should be fantasy, but maybe not – don’t forget that in the last few days our politicians have told us (in all seriousness) that they’d received permission for EU rules on driver’s hours to be suspended where the blizzards had caused life to become chaotic. There do seem to be instances when EU rules were designed by people who are mentally incapable of thinking outside the box.

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