Salmond confirms political will for car ferries – with feasibility study set to get underway
June 22, 2012
A SCOTTISH Government study into the viability of reinstating car ferries between Dunoon and Gourock holds the key to making it happen – after Alex Salmond declared that such a service is his “wish”.
The forthcoming feasibility probe will examine exactly how two purpose-built ships for the route can be provided and financed, while staying within current “legal constraints”.
But the First Minister has made it clear that there is a definite political will to drive forward a plan to provide car ferries on the recognised lifeline link.
In a letter to Susanna Rice, of the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group, Mr Salmond states: “As has been indicated publicly on a number of occasions it is the wish of Scottish Ministers that the ferry service should carry both vehicles and passengers.”
Transport Scotland today confirmed that there are “aspirations” to provide a vehicle and passenger service – but everyone must wait for the feasibility study, which is expected to report before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a three-point plan to first improve the current passenger-only service will continue to be steered by Infrastructure Minister Alex Neil, who will meet again with the Ferry Action Group and Argyll and Bute Council in Dunoon on Monday.
It is understood that the feasibility study will be launched after the conclusion of those talks and any fine-tuning that may be required to its terms of reference.
One dilemma ministers might have would be whether to ‘bind’ an operator to using two new ships provided by the Government – however there is nothing to prevent them being built and offered on equal terms to every prospective bidder.
And campaigners believe it highly unlikely that an operator would want to produce its own ferries when it could lease two brand new purpose-built vessels for the length of any contract.
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Ministers’ policy and aspirations for the Gourock-Dunoon town centre to town centre service is clear, as are the legal constraints under which the Government must work.
“We aim to launch a study into the feasibility of operating a vehicle and passenger ferry on the route, with the vehicle portion unsubsidised in line with European Commission requirements.
“The terms of reference for this study have been developed with the full involvement of the local Ferry Action Group and the two local Councils.
“One issue the study will explore is how vessels could be provided and financed.”
The Ferry Action Group today gave a cautious welcome to the First Minister apparent leaning towards a car ferries outcome.
A spokesman said: “We are pleased that the First Minister has clarified the situation regarding subsidy.
“We also welcome the statement from the First Minister indicating support for both a vehicle and passenger service.
“We will be clarifying with the First Minister his reference to the cost of new boats – and the apparent inability of the Government to make the use of new boats a condition of an operator contract.”
MSP Michael Russell said: “The First Minister clearly confirms the Scottish Government’s support for the three part process now underway.
“It also explains what the constraints are in terms of European legislation and the tendering process.
“It would be best for everyone to let Alex Neil take forward the issue with the other players and I hope the Ferry Group remain focussed on that constructive and inclusive approach. I certainly remain strongly supportive of it.”
Other ferry campaigners remain unconvinced on the issue.
Widely respected transport expert Professor Neil Kay said: “What worries me is not the statement from the First Minister, which is merely a restatement of what they wished for before the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections but did not deliver.
“What is more immediate and significant is the leaked consultant’s report cited on this website and the series of comments from the constituency MSP Mike Russell.
“Mike Russell is unstinting in his praise of Western Ferries and their expansion plans, threatened the community about the bathtub boats “use it or lose it”, and now threatens Argyll Ferries they may have the tender “taken away from them”.
“So what happens if they do get the tender taken away? There are no suitable vessels on the horizon, they would have to be built specially. But the present situation is unsustainable.
“You can expect to see plans for a half-hourly Gouorck-Dunoon bus service from the town centres via Western, replacing the present Argyll Ferries service – perhaps as a so-called ‘temporary measure’.
“Once that happens, you will never get the direct ferry service back.
“And when that happens, you can expect to see the constituency MSP praising Western and the new service to the skies.
“Think it cannot happen? I would not bet against it.”
Dunoon Community Councillor and ferries campaigner for more than 30 years, Ronnie Smith, said the First Minister’s comments were “obviously welcome”.
But he added: “It must be pointed out that he expresses a ‘wish’ as opposed to a firm commitment. Similar comments were made by him and by his Ministers following the 2007 election in which they had pledged to provide such vessels.
“Careful reading of the rest of the letter makes it clear that he is defending the decisions which led to the present situation.
“If the First Minister ‘wishes’ a vehicle service then it would be at least a gesture of goodwill if he immediately ordered the deployment of the Saturn and/or the Coruisk on this route as a temporary measure, until custom-built vessels are provided by the Scottish Government.”
Argyll and Bute MP Alan Reid said: “I’m fed up with the SNP Government saying one thing about our ferry service, and then doing another.
“On a radio phone-in many years ago Alex Salmond told Ronnie Smith that there should be vehicle ferries on the route. Yet his Government deliberately rigged the tender process so that we got the bathtub boats.
“Mr Salmond’s pathetic excuse for the bathtub boats is that no bidder came forward with a bid to include a vehicle service. That’s because the SNP deliberately held the tender process up until they were safely re-elected in May 2011.
“They only gave CalMac 16 days to find suitable vessels. No wonder we ended up with the bathtub boats.
“Dunoon ferry users were sacrificed to help the SNP’s election campaign. The SNP didn’t want people to find out before polling day that they planned to make the service passenger-only.”
Mr Reid added: “Mr Salmond’s claim that the service has improved since the New Year is ridiculous. The only reason that there have been fewer cancellations in 2012 compared to 2011 is that the weather has been less stormy this year than it was in the last few months of 2011.
“Surely Alex isn’t claiming that the SNP should take credit for the weather being less stormy!
“SNP promises are no good to stranded ferry users. What we must have is action now.”
The First Minister’s letter in full:-
Dear Ms Rice,
I am replying to your letter of 7 May following my recent appearance on “Call Kaye”.
The Scottish Government is disappointed not to be able to offer a vehicle and passenger ferry service on the Gourock – Dunoon route. However, delivering the Gourock – Dunoon ferry service had to be carried out in line with the European Commission’s Decision of 28 October 2009 on State aid No C 16/2008 (ex NN 105/2005 and NN 35/2007) in respect of subsidies granted in respect of maritime transport services in Scotland. The European Commission’s Decision set the following parameter for tendering the service – “the subsidy will cover only passenger traffic”. All future Scottish Government support for the Gourock – Dunoon town centre ferry service will continue to require to be compliant with the Commission’s Decision.
The competition for the current contract specified that any bids that included a vehicle service must demonstrate that it did not require a subsidy for the vehicle element. However, no bidder came forward with a bid to include a vehicle service. In respect of the lack of investment in new vessels to which you refer, if the Scottish Government had built car ferries for this route (costing around £15m) it was likely that they would not have been used as bidders were allowed the freedom to choose their own vessels. Spending so much on building vessels that might not have been used was not something that could be reasonably justified.
The Scottish Government is committed to providing a ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon that is fit for purpose and that is why Alex Neil MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, is personally chairing a Steering Group involving all interested parties, including the Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group, to deliver on that commitment.
We are continuing to work with Argyll Ferries on the implementation of their Improvement Plan and note that the reliability, punctuality and weather resilience of the service in the first four months of 2012 has been much better than was experienced in the first six months of the new contract.
As you are aware an independent maritime technical consultant has been commissioned by Transport Scotland to extend the search for an alternative vessel to the MV Ali Cat. That work is nearing completion and a report will be available to the Steering Group chaired by the Cabinet Secretary.
Furthermore, the Scottish Government is currently finalising the terms of reference for a feasibility study into the viability of a vehicle and passenger ferry service with a passenger-only subsidy. The intention remains for this study to be completed by the end of 2012.
I trust that all of this underlines the Government’s commitment to provide a safe, reliable, frequent, commuter ferry service between Dunoon and Gourock town centres. As has been indicated publicly on a number of occasions it is the wish of Scottish Ministers that the ferry service should carry both vehicles and passengers.