OBE for Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries

In the first state recognition of a private sector ferry operator, the 2014 New Year’s Honours has seen Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries awarded the OBE for services to ferry services.

It is a signal honour that he and Pentland Ferries have been recognised in this way.

Pentland Ferries runs a vehicle and passenger ferry service from Gills Bay on the Caithness mainland opposite the Isle of Stroma, across the Pentland Firth and into St Margaret’s Hope on the north of South Ronaldsay, in the south east of Scapa Flow.

This is epic territory, in the fast flowing Pentland Firth, in waters that carry so much of Britain’s naval and merchant maritime history and in providing a fast direct service from the mainland to Orkney.

Pentland Ferries also served as the lifeline service to the Orkney Isles when the Scottish Government’s new contractor for the Northern Isles services, the troubled Serco, was unable to meet its contractual obligations for a replacement vessel earlier this year. The MV Hamnavoe, running the much longer route form Scrabster to Stromness in Orkney, broke down and was out of service for over a month with broken gearing.

With ferries vital to the nature and to the lives of communities in Argyll and the Isles, this will be widely seen as an imaginative and well earned award.

It also brings us the awareness that while our council is the bottom feeder in Scottish local government, with – on evidence – no responsible authority willing to do the first thing about it – we are not alone in having a council whose actions and decisions defy rational interpretation.

We have seen Argyll and Bute Council spend a fortune constructing a speculative linkspan ferry terminal in Dunoon for which there were no takers; and which Argyll Ferries was forced to use to its reputational damage, with linkspan embarcation and disembarcation unsuitable for its boats.

Orkney Islands Council [OIC] did the same sort of thing 25 years ago, building a terminal at Burwick in the south of South Ronaldsay, which remains seriously underused. Only the little passenger ferry service over to John O’Groats has been using it.

However, in the case of the Burwick terminal, there was a willing and interested user who was refused access by the council owner – in what can only be the sort of parochial obstructionism all responsible local authorities should rigorously avoid.[Few do - but to be fair, national government is no less insular, with the famous West Coast Rail Line tender fiasco exposing the covert culture within the Transport Department  - 'Anyone But Branson'.]

Pentland Ferries – you guessed – asked OIC to pay to use the terminal when it began in 2000. Its request was refused.

It asked again in 2006 – when it had clearly become a successful operation – and was again refused.

It is now asking yet again – in 2013-14 – to lease or to buy the terminal from the council and, in either case, to develop the facility at its own expense.

As yet, it has been given no answer.

This terminal was built and is maintained by public money. Council’s are charged with the responsibility of applying ‘best value’ criteria in decision taking.

How has it been best value for the taxpayers of the Orkney Isles to have a terminal built with their money underused and underearning for 25 years? How can this cost to the public purse be defended over the past 13 years when it has been wholly avoidable, with Pentland a willing and rejected user of the facility?

We wonder what reasons were given for the continued refusal.

There is a second issue which ought to be improving Orkney Islands Council’s concentration on this matter.

We have noted above that, earlier this year Pentland Ferries became, by default, the lifeline service to the Orkney Isles when Serco’s MV Hamnavoe went out of service for a month or more, with no replacement vessel provided.

This same situation is to happen again – this Monday, 6th November 2o14 – when Pentland Ferries again becomes the lifeline service to these important islands, with the Hamnavoe going out of service for two weeks for her annual refit.

Pentland Ferries wants to be able to use the Burwick terminal in order to provide a faster and more frequent ferry service to the islands. Burwick would take its passage time down to half an hour. That would be such a winner for visitors to the  north coast and isles.

It is in the clearest possible interests of the islanders that Pentland Ferries should operate out of Burwick – and very particularly since it is – and will remain, at least while Serco are the contract holder for the state subsidised Northern Isles services – the default lifeline service provider to the islands.

The better the service Pentland can provide, the better will be that lifeline service when it is called upon to fulfil this role; and Pentland’s lease or purchase would add to council revenues, with all development costs at Burwick met from their private sector pocket.

We are watching this situation with considerable interest, as will be Transport Scotland, knowing that the more satisfied Orcadians can be with the Pentland provision when the state service goes down, the less flak will come their way over the controversial Serco contract.

And congratulations again to Andrew Banks,  who has been surprised by the unexpected honour, for the high level national recognition he has received for the service he and his ferry company provide in the compelling far north.

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31 Responses to OBE for Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries

  1. The railway steamer sails to Stromness, it’s done that since the year dot. Who does this OBE gadgie think he is offering short, fast ferry connections that might end the world as Orcadians know it?

    Look at Google and see the money that’s been spent at Stromness building such a fine harbour. How can they be expected to maintain all that if the steamer stops and all the berthing fees are lost forever?

    It’s obvious that this contagious subsidy-ferry disease has crossed the Pentland Firth to Orkney as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

    • All good and well, MM, but the traditional route is between the harbour for Thurso and ‘downtown’ Stromness; This might count for little if you’ve got a car or commercial vehicle – and particularly if you’re heading for Kirkwall, but if you’re not, then Gill’s Bay isn’t such a convenient mainland terminal, and neither is St Margaret’s Hope.
      Admittedly the Pentland Ferries route is shorter, and less exposed to the Atlantic swell, but the Hamnavoe does use the more sheltered route through Scapa Flow when necessary.
      Having said all that, I wonder at the ability of a council to deny use of a publicly funded landing place to a ferry operator, for a reasonable fee – surely open to legal challenge either here or in Europe?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

      • St. Margaret’s Hope does actually have pretty reasonable bus connections, and isn’t really any much worse for getting to Kirkwall than Stromness is. The connection at Gill’s Bay is a bit of a pain in the backside though, you’re quite right (I’ve done the journey as a foot passenger as I was taking a holiday on South Ronaldsay).

        I do think the situation is a little different for Orkney as it has substantial facilities on Orkney Mainland, so having access to facilities near to the terminal is less important. For a lot of the west coast, the ability to access amenities locally to the terminal is rather more important. Having a shorter route from the closest point on the mainland to Coll and Tiree would leave events like the TMF high and dry as there would be no easy way of getting large numbers of foot passengers to the terminal. At present they can be absorbed by Oban’s normal public transport links. There are arguments for shortening ferry routes where possible but all the impacts have to be considered, and looking at it as a cost cutting exercise is likely to have unfortunate consequences.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

        • Towns and shops and bus services will mushroom around any successful ferry terminal. It’s natural.
          Subsidies are like a drug habit, once you’re hooked you feel you can’t live without them.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

          • No, it’s not necessarily ‘natural’ at all – it’s more like fantasy in this day and age, whether in Caithness or on the west coast.
            If you don’t believe me, look at the ‘development’ of Rosslare.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

          • Kennacraig and Gill’s Bay really support that thesis. Besides, splitting the current traffic that runs through Oban between multiple terminals to serve the different islands will mean each terminal has poorer transport connections, not to mention that most such sites will have no rail connection whatsoever. If you put the terminals away from the transport infrastructure, all you do is make it more likely that people will take vehicles on the ferry, increasing the size of the vessels required and increasing fuel use, counter to your plans. As I keep saying, you have to look at the whole picture.

            Oban has good facilities to support ferry travel because the ferries there serve multiple islands – there are several sailings each day – and Oban has a role as a tourist destination in itself. Break that apart and I doubt very much that the component parts will be as useful or as economically viable. It will never be economically viable to build a hotel the size of the Royal or the Caledonian out at Ardnamurchan, any more than it currently is at Gill’s Bay. Oban works because it has a lot of physical infrastructure, and that infrastructure can’t just up and move.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

          • The whole concept of roll-on roll-off ferries is to make travel simpler for the traveller. Trains, hotels and all the other added costs are optional. People are free to decide where to break their journeys for any required or attractive stops.
            Excellent coach services are available to and from the ferries for those who are travelling without vehicles.

            To me, ferry routes need to be as short and sheltered as possible for the sake of the traveller, the carrier of the isles consumers goods and, not least, to maximise the return on the taxpayers investment by the resulting increase in efficiency.

            The welfare of the established businesses at the old steamer ports should not be adding costs to the shopping bill of the struggling isles housewife.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

          • You’ve still not demonstrated what, if any, savings there will be. You keep stating they will exist but you don’t have any evidence to support that. If you’re trying to reduce subsidy you’re not trying to put money into islanders’ pockets at all (ok, maybe 20 a year as their share of the subsidy). The best you will manage is break even at massive upheavel for a lot of islanders. How much more awkward will these arrangements be for Derek Wilson and MacLennan Motors, for example?

            You’ve already made it clear that any new terminals will have fewer and worse facilities than those that exist currently. I fail to see why any islander would find the prospect of driving an extra 2 hours, or spending an extra 3 hours on a coach, to save 2 hours on the ferry particularly appealing.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

          • You only have to look at the present Pentalina service to St Margaret’s Hope to see what difference a shorter ferry route makes. An adult fare is £14 against a subsidised £18 on the steamer. A car is £33 against a subsidised £52.

            It is easy to work out why there is so much saving. The ferry only has to carry the load for 15.5 nm against 26.7 nm, that’s a 40% fuel saving even if they were the same type of ship.

            If Mr Banks was allowed to use Burwick he would only be carrying the load for 8.6 nm. I can imagine the adult single would be down to almost £10 and a car down to about £25, but that’s quesswork on my part.

            Who would want to wait for the £28,000,000 (2002) Hamnavoe at such a price differential? They can only throw so much subsidy at it.

            This is a classic case of a private operator being squeezed by a subsidised loss maker. There is a history of cases like this. Western Ferries at Islay and Highland Haulage on the Stornoway freight ferry could not compete.

            Western Ferries seem to have won at Dunoon and it looks like Pentland are in a strong position in Orkney but I’m sure the subsidy junkie’s will have even more tricks up their sleeves.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

          • The difference is that Gill’s bay isn’t much harder to get to than Scrabster if you’re coming up from the South, as most travellers are. If you want the shortest route to Coll & Tiree, that means anyone coming from the South, or East (i.e. almost everyone) will have to travel much further to get on the ferry in the first place, so money saved on the ferry will simply go in fuel costs instead. Plus having to actually drive that distance instead of spending the time sleeping as in common on the early ferries. Orkney has particular geographical characteristics that make the Pentland ferries route viable (not to mention high traffic volumes in comparison with any west coast island route except Ullapool-Stornoway), not least that if you’re heading to Kirkwall sailing into Stromness isn’t much of an advance on St. Margaret’s Hope anyway. Then there’s the fact that Orkney is pretty compact – St. Margaret’s Hope to Kirkwall is about the same as one end of Tiree to the other.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

          • Yes, Tiree is a problem route no matter how you approach it and so is Barra which offers no easy short ferry option.

            Have they ever looked at linking Tiree and Coll? Out in Gunna Sound, where the green buoy is, it’s a narrow channel, it looks quite shallow for quite a distance out on both sides.

            Assuming a suitable harbour at Arnamurchan it would be a one hour ferry trip from Coll as against three to Oban.
            From Tiree, stopping at Coll, it would be two hours against four to Oban.
            From Tiree direct to Ardnamurchan would be about an hour and a half.
            This two hour saving in ferry transit time would make a considerable fuel saving.

            The Corran Narrows are only a third as wide again as the crossing at Ballachulish so a bridge or a tunnel is very doable. Improvements to the thirty miles of road to Kilchoan should make this a forty minute journey.

            Drivers coming off the Coll, Tiree, and Barra services and heading south would be passing, or past, Loch Lomond by the time that they would have driven off the present ferry at Oban.

            Cheaper and faster journeys, improved road access to Ardnamurchan, what’s not to like?

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

        • Google maps puts your proposed road route at 3 hrs 48 min to Glasgow, as opposed to 2 hrs 16 from Oban. So your huge change might, assuming good road conditions, save 30 minutes off a car journey. The coach journey at present takes over 6 hours, making your proposed route longer for those travelling by public transport, with little overnight accommodation if public transport is delayed or cancelled, or simply doesn’t match up with the ferry times (not exactly uncommon at the moment).

          As for what’s not to like, the cost of buying fuel on-island or at Ardnamurchan for the journey. Snow blocking the routes to Ardnamurchan even when seas are calm. Nowhere to shelter ferries from storms (barring massive engineering works).

          The idea of bridging Gunna Sound has been raised before, and is not popular. Even less popular, I would imagine, would be driving 15-25 miles to the back end of Coll to catch a ferry and then having to drive 80 miles the other side before you even hit a decent sized town.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  2. Nobody has mentioned Andrew Banks, who took the risk in setting all this up, and like Western Ferries on Islay was not aided by the authorities. Well done Mr Banks on your service, and the recognition for it. Maybe, just maybe, someone will now look at your proposals for ferry services in this area, and reduce the massive subsidy, as you suggested.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. @newsroom- slip of the keyboard! I meant the Pentland Firth area. The book “who pays the ferryman” lists his ideas to improve the services and reduce the subsidy there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  4. So, who has likely to have nominated hin for this award, and are his ideas now going to be looked at again, especially the use of Burwick terminal?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

    • I’m sure Mr Banks has many grateful customers on Orkney who appreciate the difference that his efforts have made to their lives.

      I can imagine that there are others who see him as a threat to the lucrative spin offs that are attached to the old ports. In places like Orkney these types tend to have strong links to the Councils.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. Over the years an huge amount of rubbish has been written about the private and public sector ferry services for Orkney, mainly by people who no idea what they are talking about. The truth is that neither operation could cope with the whole volume of traffic, so both are needed.
    It’s unfortunate that there isn’t’ a replacement vessel for the Hamnavoe – the best solution would to us the Hjaltland, as has happened in previous years, but Transport Scotland have told Northlink this can’t happen. Alternate vessels are simply not available; In the shipping world a small RO-RO like the Hamnavoe is difficult if not impossible to replace.
    It seem the collective memories are short – Mr Banks sends his vessel to Aberdeen every year and there is no replacement, at least Northlink have tried with bring a freight ship in.
    The people who benefit from subsided ferry services in Scotland should be less crititcal of the companies contracted to serve them – if you live in the Isle of Man or Isle of White, you have to pay full commercial rates

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  6. The point of a short crossing is that the ferry operation is much more productive, but the total fuel used for the combined journey is also lower since you burn a lot more fuel by putting a vehicle onto a ferry, and then propelling both, then in driving the vehicle. The average speed is also considerably higher when a good part of the journey is done on wheels. Foot passengers can be supplied with wheels too, it’s called a bus link. As far as rail connections are concerned this argument would be more convincing if the Oban ferry terminal had been built as a combined transport hub, but it wasn’t. A wee plaque inside states that the building is for the convenience of ferry passengers, who may be travelling considerable distances. Well, rail passengers at Oban may also be travelling quite far, but the facilities offered to them are considerably more basic, while intending bus travellers, possibly going to Glasgow or Inverness, wait in the street. Integration schmintegration ! Gourock and Wemyss Bay are not brilliantly integrated either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

    • The ferry, bus and train terminals are better integrated than anywhere else I’ve seen – the very fact that they’re right next to each other rather than at opposite ends of town makes them a big improvement over:
      Thurso
      Wick
      Inverness
      Preston
      Glasgow
      Lancaster

      Shall I go on?

      Usually the fuel load for water propulsion is less than by land, for equal loads, but I don’t know what the under-over point is for increased loads. I also don’t know how much of a detour you need to take cars on before you cancel any benefit out.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Arthur, you’re being very polite about Gourock, where the passenger boat can’t berth close to the trains and seemingly berths at the linkspan, thereby causing conflict with Bute and Arran ferries diverted by bad weather (or, in the case of Ardrossan, relatively mild weather).

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

      • Truly outstanding work by Network Rail, moving the ticket office 50 yards further away from the ferry landing, all of which needs to be redeveloped anyway if Gourock is to remain a terminal for pedestrian ferries only. Regardless of linkspans or otherwise the ‘kilcreggan steps’ need urgent replacement, if CalMac are to be believed, and preferably a lot nearer the railway ticket office(and by dint of that, closer to the bus stops).

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Yes, there needs to be a properly designed landing facility nearer the station. Not sure if the sea opposite the train station is sheltered enough. Does anyone know? Decisions about these facilities, and at Dunoon, will not doubt be made when the results of the discussions with all of the interested parties regarding a new vehicular service are published. The facilities at Helensburgh should also be included, as are there not issues with use of the pier at certain tides? Hopefully 2014 will be the year that the Dunoon to Gourock ferry saga moves on to a better soloution for passengers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Maybe someone has old photos of Gourock station? – the landing stage originally extended round much further, and there’s one photo from the Gourock Museum & Art Gallery set on Google Images that shows the p.s. Windsor Castle close in to the pier head by the station entrance.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • It did extend much further and the pilot boats lurked round there if old photos are to be believed. I think Ritchie’s ferry to Kilcreggan originally ran from round there too. If they plan to install a pontoon for the ferries as has been mooted several times it will need a breakwater if it is to survive beyond the first winter storm, so moving its position a little to the north will make no real difference to the amount of shelter but will make a lot of difference to people with restricted mobility.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • Not only is the area at the present station building well sheltered, so was the pier much further round, right out to Kempock Point. The berth for the hoist loader Dunoon ferries was at the outer end of the pier as you can clearly see the first link, with the old Clansman loading and unloading with its lift shown in the “up” position. You can make out the queue of cars waiting to be loaded on the hoist loader which is just on the edge of the image in the third link.

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/ballasttrust/8166509475/

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/33476733@N04/6862748867/in/pool-767508@N21

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/easylocum/6097164408/

      And today:
      http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/images/l/DP044029/

      As with so much to do with this caper, it seems to have been forgotten why the link span and its dedicated car ferry berth is where it is. The many general purpose berths (all now demolished after decades of neglect and dereliction) were, in the late 60s, still heavily used by the Caley’s large fleet of passenger-only turbine, paddle and motor vessels and by the MacBrayne’s year round daily passenger only service to Cowal, Bute and Loch Fyne. All of these were recognised as needing closer connection to the railway station than did ro-ro vehicle traffic, car passengers … and car ferries.

      How we’ve ended up with what we have now, new station and all, is beyond me other than to blame it on a sort of collective bureaucratic dementia, or perhaps it’s just the inevitable consequence of handing multi million pound budgets to people with nothing to lose and who, judging by the results, couldn’t care less.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • It’s called disintegrated planning (funded by us) but, hopefully, the situation could be rescued (given competent government at both national and local levels).

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

      • Conversely to what I posted above, with a little joined-up thinking NR could have been asked to shift the station a couple of hundred yards to the east so it was beside the existing berths; this could have been a cost-neutral exercise as the existing station site could have been sold on for other use, e.g. Sainsburys might have been glad of a bigger site with fewer restrictions and more car parking space.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

        • This would, however, have maintained the status quo whereby passenger ferry movements apparently conflict with those of Arran and Bute vehicle ferries diverted from Ardrossan and Wemyss Bay by bad weather.
          So, on balance, surely it would be better to develop a new passenger ferry berth, with step-free access, linked directly with the station.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  8. Yes, I recall Richies ferry, and as you say the original pier extended towards the Dunoon side. I’m sure the old car ferries used to berth and load there. The hovercraft also landed on the beach there. Surely it can’t be beyond modern expertise to construct two all weather pontoons and associated breakwaters etc, at Dunoon and Gourock. If the necessary knowledge and skills to do this properly aren’t in Scotland, someone, somewhere in the World must have this expertise. Spending vast amounts of taxpayers money on facilities that are not able to cope during our winters, should not be allowed to happen again. The new Dunoon linkspan and pier fiasco should never be allowed tog be repeated again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

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