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