Thursday night’s (24th November 2011) public meeting on Dunoon’s ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon was some event.
It was good that the meeting was held – because it is important that the people claim the authority to hold to account those, at all levels, who are elected to manage their affairs and those paid to provide their services. There were some serious problems to be addressed; some practical issues emerging that can be – and must be – quickly resolved; and much simmering stuff to be publicly externalised.
It was good that, on a truly awful night – with winds, no moon and viciously lashing rainstorms, the south end of Dunoon was still jam packed with cars and the hall full. We estimate that there were between 400 and 450 people there – each row held 24, there will have been, with the additional rows added at the back as the hall filled, between 16 and 18 rows and there were a couple of handfuls of people at the back who preferred to stand – officials and some others in pole position with anti-SNP placards.
It was good that Dunoon folk were not inhibited by politeness. The boos, the shouts and the heckling may have made the evening an unsettling and not always rational one, but, like the occasional egg, there is a democracy in expressing anger and making that anger felt by those who live in the thinner air at altitude.
To understand how robust a meeting this was, it should be recorded that one participant, on mic, invited Michael Russell, Argyll and Bute’s MSP, to step outside.
And we saw an entirely new concept of the role of a Chair at such a meeting. After three decades of renowned campaigning on Dunoon ferries, Chair Ronnie Smith was in no mood to take hostages.
Less a chair than a marriage of agent provocateur and leader of a lynch mob, Smith attacked his speakers at will and orchestrated one hilarious sequence of audience responses: ‘Who’s been sick on the boat?’ ‘Who’s had children sick on the boat?’ ‘Who’s been frightened?’ ‘Who’s missed a train?’ Who’s missed a hospital appointment?’ Who’s not got to work?’…
It was pretty reminiscent of the – not unrealistic – parody of the behaviour of media hounds on the scene of a disaster, looking for someone fit to speak to the cameras: ‘Any elderly black women who’ve lost a limb and are willing to speak to us?’
The change revealed
Joking – sort of – apart, this set of exchanges and other comments from the floor were revelatory of a previously unrecognised change in Dunoon. The town, Argyll Ferries and the Scottish Government need now to take this as a starting point to move on to get this service right.
Not one of these Q&As – not one – was about car drivers. Not one complaint from the floor was about a grievance from a vehicle owner deprived of town centre access to Gourock or Dunoon.
This picture does fit with David McBrayne CEO, Archie Robertson’s remark that the use of the new passenger service has been stronger than expected.
What we’re all looking at now is a Dunoon with a real need for a good reliable passenger service into the Gourock rail head – and into Dunoon. What is wrong is that the current service is a very long way short of adequate, never mind first class.
This is what must be addressed and the issues are listed further below.
The lost vehicle ferry service
Western Ferries used to be Dunoon’s bogey man, the public sector service’s privateer competitor against whom the great and the good had to defend Dunoon. The legend was that, if the state owned CalMac vehicle and passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon were to cease operation or to go to a passenger-only service, Western Ferries would have a monopoly on a vehicle service, would be free to hike its fares and would promptly screw Dunoon.
Now the dreaded event has come to pass. Dunoon has one shuttle vehicle and passenger service from Western Ferries and one shuttle passenger-only service from Argyll Ferries, a new subsidiary of David McBrayne Ltd’s. This takes foot passengers – who need easy access to the Glasgow train – right into Gourock rail head, or at any rate within a stout walk to it. Only a madman would think it was a good idea to deliver cars bang into a town centre.
But on Thursday night’s evidence, Dunoon can’t quite get its script right.
Today’s practical problems are serious deficiencies in the new passenger-only service from Argyll Ferries. Today’s emotional problems are centred on the fact that Dunoon didn’t get what Dunoon wanted – but does not need – a second vehicle service from Dunoon to Gourock – but town centre to town centre.
What Dunoon has not quite grasped is that the old bogey deployed to frighten the natives to the barricades in demanding the retention and upgrading of the centre-to-centre vehicle ferry has vanished into the breezes on the Clyde. Western Ferries, as the sole provider of a vehicle service to the southern edge of Gourock, has not screwed Dunoon. Instead it has increased the frequency of its service.
But on Thursday night we were still hearing occasional efforts to fly the unable kite of ‘monopoly’ – against a background of no criticism of Western Ferries whatsoever. As Manuel used to say in Fawlty Towers: ‘Que?’
There was not one single complaint about the multi-boat Western Ferries vehicle and passenger shuttle service from Hunter’s Quay on the northern fringe of Dunoon to McInroy’s point on the southern outskirts of Gourock. In fact one ferry user paid whole hearted tribute to this company.
And the new passenger service, when – and when is a major issue – it resolves its very real problems, is committed to providing 60 – yes 60 – crossings a day. How many west coast islands – needing what is, in their case, a fully lifeline service – would find two ferry services both operating at peak frequency, something of a wet dream? Unlike the Cowal peninsula they have no road access to the mainland, nor are they so conveniently placed close to the markets of Scotland’s largest city.
Dunoon is clearly content with the vehicle service it has. It is though, with very good reason, furious about the sort of passenger service it has been given.
What Dunoon now needs to do is to focus its campaign on that issue, relentlessly insisting on improvement after improvement until this service is working as all sides actually want it to do.
The situation has moved on. There is no point in diffusing energies in still trying to get back an additional vehicle and passenger service between the two town centres.
Michael Russell, Argyll and Bute’s MSP, would, on Thursday night’s performance, be a good man to have on your side in a tight spot. He took the boos and jeers that greeted his entrance, hot engined from Edinburgh; took the shouts and the heckling as he spoke; and declined, by default, the invitation to step outside.
Against this background, Russell resolutely made it clear that, while he will represent to the government whatever Dunoon wishes him to represent, while he will set up a meeting between the Transport Minister and the brand new Dunoon Ferry Users Group – there is simply not going to be a second vehicle and passenger ferry between the two towns. Mr Russell was also open in making it clear that he does not support much of what was done by the government in the lead up to the introduction of this service.
Dunoon and its emergent Ferry Users Group need to recognise the realities and focus their energies on getting what is gettable and in this Dunoon would clearly have a motivated and sympathetic MSP on its side.
The Scottish Government’s role
This is a substantial part of the bad element of the saga reheated on Friday night – but without any redeeming ‘good’ factors to balance its books.
This is singly the worst and most cack-handed performance by the current Scottish government since it became a minority administration in 2007.
It was two-faced – while the government was saying there would be no monopoly, rookie Transport Minster Stewart Stevenson was actually talking to Western Ferries to see if that company would run a vehicle service between Dunoon and Gourock – the service then operated by state owned CalMac.
It was politically manipulated – with the same Stewart Stevenson constantly delaying and re-announcing new dates for the issue of the tender document for the replacement service between Gourock and Dunoon (the CalMac ships running the route were leaving service because of their age).
Strangely enough, Stevenson finally announced that the tender – whose specification would reveal the government’s intention for the future of the service – would not be issued until after the May 2011 Scottish election. No one was in any doubt as to why that was and we, among many others, had and have nothing but contempt for so obvious and old fashioned a piece of political chicanery.
After this little ticking time bomb, Stevenson – an inept minister at the best of times, fell foul of the snows of this time last year – and was forced, slowly, reluctantly and unfairly from office. He should have been fired – but not for snow, for incompetence.
His replacement, former army officer, Keith Brown whose grasp of the issues and of organisational matters is infinitely beyond Stevenson’s, inherited the explosive device and had to detonate it.
The tender document was indeed for a passenger only service – with the daft caveat that any bidder who wished to tender instead for a vehicle and passenger ferry was welcome to do so – provided they could show that there would be no cross subsidisation of the vehicle side from the passenger subsidy that obtains.This would be against EU law which we have adopted.
Unsurprisingly, no such tender bid was received.
But the political management of the tender date left almost no time for the successful bidder to gear up to run the new service.
The winner, a brand new company, Argyll Ferries, a subsidiary of state owned David McBrayne, had sixteen days to GO. How professional an exercise of management of a major service is that? Take the first person off the street, give them a fifteen minute introduction to the issue – and they would find sixteen days risible.
With the profound collateral damage done to the Scottish Government’s credibility in the mishandling of this matter, we ask why Stewart Stevenson has actually been returned to ministerial office and let loose on Environment and Climate Change? As England Rugby Manager, Martin Johnson, has cone to realise, loyalty is fine but not when it enters the realm of laissez faire.
Argyll Ferries was shackled from the off. This was not a case of hitting the ground running. This was staggering for the start line with no wind to fill the sails, having to take a long tack, gathering bits of kit as it went, throwing them all into the operation and twisting the fingers of both hands as the gun fired.
Of course it was a bad start – a very bad start. It was also a toxic inheritance not of his own making for Michael Russell, elected as Argyll and Bute’s MSP in 2011 with a heavyweight majority.
Argyll Ferries on the rack – and a touch of dishonesty from the crowd
The state owned maritime assets company, CMAL, had no suitable boats for this route in its fleet. So it used reserves to buy two boats and Argyll Ferries was set up within the McBrayne group to operate them independently of CalMac. We remain unclear as to whose reserves bought the boats and which company actually now owns them.
Argyll Ferries was given two unable boats – both of which have just been out of service undergoing major refits. One has had both engines replaced and the other its two props – which, after a few months in service for both boats, does raise the question of how on earth they were deemed fit to put on the water in the first place. But it is said that they were all that was available. Certainly boats of that capability don’t sit on shelves waiting for passing trade and the operation had so appallingly little time to get going.
There is no doubt that Argyll Ferries – as the Irish joke goes when someone asks for directions – wouldn’t have chosen to start from there.
There have been service cancellations more often than not – and on Friday night the best that poor Archie Robertson, CEO of parent company, David McBrayne Ltd, could do was say lamely that at least Argyll Ferries has never fallen below the level of service provided by CalMac. This was one crossing per hour and Robertson’s attempt to claw something back on this tack only brought howls of bitter laughter.
The company also inherited a service infrastructure wholly unsuitable to the nature of the boats.
The previous service had been a side-and-stern roro, with linkspan access to the vehicle deck and gangway access to the passenger deck from the quayside.
The two boats new to the route – the Ali Cat and the Argyll Flyer – are both passenger only and designed to berth at pontoons.
In operation at both Gourock and Dunoon, these boats have to turn and reverse in to the linkspans, crossing their own wakes in the process, creating uncomfortable experiences for passengers who must then embark and disembark via the stern – and up or down the linkspan ramp. Being disabled is barely viable.
Dishonesty from the floor
At this point there was inherent dishonesty at the meeting. This very real problem – as described above – is to be addressed at Gourock but not at Dunoon. The inequality of that went utterly unquestioned on Thursday night – because it is the consequence of a problem caused by Argyll and Bute Council and not by the Scottish Government, CalMac or Argyll Ferries, all of whom Dunoon prefers to hammer.
Admitting the problems caused by the mismatch of boats to service infrastructure at both ends of the route, the reasonable Archie Robertson of David McBrayne Ltd, informed the meeting that the company plans to create a pontoon berth for the two boats at Gourock, close to the ticket desk end of the long train platform that runs parallel to the harbourside. This will make for straightforward passenger access at Gourock – but not in Dunoon. One would have expected questions if not howls – but there was no response to this at all from any member of the crowd.
The reason for this is a local desire not to expose an expensive and arrogant misjudgment on the part of Argyll and Bute Council in Dunoon. The town is the fiefdom of Council Leader, Dick Walsh and Dunoon has been taught to understand which side of its bread to look after.
The former Calmac vehicle service between Gourock and Dunoon used a side loading ramp at the beautiful old pier, recently and protectively raised to a Grade A listing by Historic Scotland.
A few years ago, the council, which had neglected maintenance of the pier to the point where it now requires serious reconstruction, planned to demolish it. Certain that the Scottish Government of whatever political persuasion would naturally continue to operate a vehicle and passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon town centres, using a linkspan, the council went ahead on a speculative spend and built a new linkspan at a breakwater erected south of the old pier.
That linkspan has sat unused since 2005 and is now at last in service, used clumsily and inappropriately by passenger boats that were built for pontoon access.
Not a word of criticism came from the meeting for this act of folie de grandeur by the council, which leaves a passenger ferry service condemned to use a wholly inappropriate berthing and passenger access facility – and with no word of any plan from the council, whose responsibility it is, to build pontoon access at that end of the route.
In our eyes, Dunoon ferry users lost serious credibility in the almost studied avoidance of this important issue.
The real issues – on the evidence
The boats bought hurriedly for the route are not up to the job in the weather spectrum the broad Clyde experiences. Nothing anyone can say can counter the evidence on this that the travellers to and from Dunoon have at first hand. If the customers don’t like or trust the boats – with reason – it is pointless and patronising simply to tell them they’re wrong or that others know better. The customer is always right. Change the boats at the earliest opportunity – or change one of them.
The Argyll Flyer – may, possibly, become capable of providing an efficient and acceptable service on the route if, after its recent major refit, its berthing arrangements are radically revised. One member of the audience on Thursday night described the Flyer as ‘tolerable’ and suggested that it become the principal boat on the run. What he said was, unusually for this meeting, not greeted with noisy disagreement. There is the basis for some resolution here.
The second boat, the Ali Cat, should be accepted as collateral damage of the Scottish government’s disastrously incompetent and politically expedient management of the tender process for the passenger ferry service. It is famously weather-nervous, with its high windage and shallow twin hulls skiting about on the wave tops. Dunoon will never accept the Ali Cat as a suitable boat on the run and they are unlikely ever to have reason to change their minds.
It should be sold on at the earliest opportunity and as soon as a stable alternative can be found. If this is entered into with honour, determination and dispatch by Argyll Ferries / CMAL / David MacBrayne Ltd / the Scottish government, we have no doubt that Dunoon will be reasonable – if watchful – on the timeline.
The May elections are clearly a major issue for members of Argyll and Bute’s Alliance of Independent Councillors.
They were there in relative force. They were in campaign mode, with Council Leader Dick Walsh shouty and devoid of reason, like a wild west stump orator in days long gone. Why do voters never seem to realise that politicians of any level who have no power to act on an issue are always the ones who demand for you everything you want. Wise up.
The touting brigade of councillors were, however, caught out on various deceptive moves.
Michael Russell picked up Councillor Duncan MacIntyre – he does crop up rather often on misleading manoeuvres like this – for being ‘disingenuous’ in claiming to have had no connection with the new ferry arrangements that so enrage Dunoon. Russell reminded MacIntyre that, to his personal knowledge, Macintyre, as Chair of Hi-Trans, had been present at key meetings and had been party to the direction of travel they had taken.
Then there was Councillor Bruce Marshall. It has to be said that Marshall, not known as the sharpest tool, does not seem to be Dunoon’s favourite Councillor. Every time he spoke or stood up to speak, there were audible and widespread groans around this most expressive audience.
At one point a member of the audience said that he wanted to put on the record his disapointment that the Dunoon ferry issue was being supported by an Inverclyde councillor, with no input from Cowal Councillors. (The Inverclyde councillor to whom he referred was George White, from Tarbert, who stood as Liberal candidate for Argyll and Bute in the 2011 Scottish Election.)
At this point, up popped (groans) Councillor Marshall. He wanted the meeting to know that he had been to all of the Dunoon Ferry Users Group meetings for the past four years. Puzzlement all round – because the Dunoon Ferry Users Group was only being inaugurated at this very meeting.
Eventually someone sorted things out for the hapless Marshall. What he was talking about was the Clyde Ferry Users group – which includes the Bute ferries, the Arran ferries and the Cumbrae ferries as well as the Dunoon ferries. This was less of a ‘What planet are you on?’ matter than a ‘What meeting have you just been to?’ matter. No wonder Argyll and Bute Council is directionless. Councillor Marshall is Spokesperson for the Environment. (Hang on. Stewart Stevenson – Environment. Bruce Marshall – Environment. Is here a hidden message here?)
One woman complained about a substantial storm that had grounded all the ferries, leaving her and her husband stranded for the night on the Gourock side and having to pay for a hotel. Now this was a “What planet are you on?’ question. Such complaints would better be addressed to a much higher authority than poor Archie Robertson of David McBrayne Ltd. But by now CalMac et all are pretty punch drunk in being liable to be held accountable for everything.
The ‘To do’ list
In order of priority:
- Build pontoon berths at both Gourock and Dunoon. Councillor Walsh should stop shouting about the Scottish Government and do what he can do – give Dunoon pontoon berthing for this service. This would be a fitting revision of the use of Dunoon’s still undeployed CHORD project funding, underpinning the future of the town as opposed to trying to buttress Councillor Walsh’s own position for next May.
- Replace the Ali Cat at the earliest opportunity. Involve the Dunoon Ferry Users Group in the process of selection of the alternative
- See if the Argyll Flyer can cope acceptably with the weather and, if not, replace it too, again involving the Dunoon Ferry Users Group.
- Get shoreside reception facilities fit for human beings at both ends of the route.
- Find out what Gourock thinks and wants. Find out what the primary usage is from each end of the route. If the major usage is from Dunoon, then site the Argyll Ferries HQ at Dunoon, ‘owned’ by that town.
- The Scottish Government, the end owner of all of the companies involved, should prepare to use its ‘Cure Notice’ sanction should Argyll Ferries’ reliability and punctuality not improve as the service matures.
- Route buses through the car park at Dunoon with drop offs and pick ups close to the berth.
- Move the Gourock berth close to the Ticket Office end of the rail platform at Gourock
- Get the information service up to speed – many complained that it is never up to the minute with the reality on the water.
The reality is, of course, that the least central elements – the last three – will be the ones most energetically actioned. It is up to the new Dunoon Ferry Users Grop to keep up the pressure on the rest.
What about the ugly?
We’ve had the good and the bad. What about the ugly?
This was the Queen’s Hall in Dunoon where the meeting was held. Look at the photograph at the top of this article.
You have to worry about a community that can obsess about the minutiae of who said what on the ferries issue 30 years ago while sitting in the town’s major public space which – today – is in a bizarre and quite ridiculous state.
This large hall is tented with suburban semi-opaque nylon-style curtaining, hanging so low that it makes a significant space claustrophobic and very ill lit.
There are some neon lights visible in the ceiling above the netting but the light is absorbed and diffused by the fabric to make the hall hopelessly gloomy.
If there is a ventilation system, it is inadequate. The air quality on Friday night became progressively enervating. And if there is any means of lighting a platform party, it either doesn’t work or no one had the wit to use it. All you could see on the stage was a row of male blurs and you could just about tell when one stood up. Identification? You had to take that from the introduction of each by the Chair. Facial expression? Forget it.
The two imperatives of any public occasion are that everyone has to be able to see clearly and to hear well.
There was a good microphone system on Thursday night, although with a full hall, the hand held mics were inevitably slow to arrive. Many in the audience started without them and most forgot to hold the mics to their mouths – to be met with exasperated shouted instructions from around the hall. Unfair. How many folk have any experience of using a mic?
And a great note
Many who spoke – and on this to unanimous acclaim – repeated how magnificent the Argyll Ferries crews are. From our own experience, we’d echo every syllable of that.