Shortest possible crossings, efficient vessel design, lower emissions: in Mr Pedersen’s scheme, all this translated into lower costs, lower fares, lower subsidies, more frequent travel opportunities, greater capacity (by dint of greater frequency), faster journey times and more sustainable communities. Islay could be a beneficiary of this template, if traffic were to be channelled through a short crossing between Jura and the mainland. But, deterred by the short-term cost of upgrading roads, government officials had dismissed the proposal. As for Mull, Mr Pedersen poured scorn on CalMac’s winter timetable, saying it was “extraordinary” that, for a passage-time of just 45 minutes, the last boat left the mainland as early as 4pm. However, he acknowledged that demand for evening services varied from community to community.
There was an unmistakable ripple of anticipation as members and friends gathered for the Club’s February 2015 meeting at Jurys Inn, Glasgow. The speaker was Roy Pedersen, author of ‘Who Pays the Ferryman?’, a controversial critique of government transport policy for the Scottish islands. The book’s central argument — that short, frequent ferry crossings, using vessels of simple design and modest power, are cheaper and more efficient than traditional routes served by big, fuel-guzzling ships — has earned plaudits in some quarters. In others, it has been dismissed as impractical. By the end of his talk, entitled ‘Ferries — Ardrossan to the Antipodes’, Mr Pedersen had clearly won over many sceptics, even if some aspects of his thesis remained untested.
Roy Pedersen outlines the themes of his talk
The geniality of his style and thoroughness of his research certainly helped, aided by a concise, well-illustrated PowerPoint presentation. But what guaranteed the resounding success of the evening was Mr Pedersen’s gift for ‘thinking the unthinkable’ — a readiness to challenge established practice and back up his case with evidence from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway. A lively question-and-answer session at the end showed how stimulating his ideas had been, and the dialogue continued informally over drinks in the bar until late in the evening.
Mr Pedersen began by reminding us that, although resident in Inverness, he is a longstanding CRSC member and a son of Ayrshire. His father worked for Ardrossan Harbour Board, and even when the family moved to Aberdeen, the young Roy returned every year to the Clyde, his ‘summer playground’. Early memories included a crossing to Belfast on Lairds Isle and trips on the paddle steamer Caledonia, but he also formed an attachment to the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company, his favourite ship being the steam-driven St Magnus, “last of the old-style steamers” on the northern isles run.
Even before the 1970s (when Mr Pedersen found employment at the Highlands and Islands Development Board), he had advocated a charging system for sea crossings roughly equivalent to a journey by road. Referring to what we now know as Road Equivalent Tariff, he said “it took more than 30 years to implement — so long that I’m no longer convinced. Such is the irony of life. RET is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Fares are not the only constraint [on improving access to the isles] — frequency of service and shorter routes do the job just as well. RET was a concept of its time. There are more flexible ways of doing it now.”
Since the early 1970s, he said, he had made a point of studying ferries around the world, looking for ideas that could be applied to Scotland. Casting a backward glance over the evolution of sea crossings in the Hebrides, he cited the early 20th century as the high point for long journeys and multiple calls. Despite advances in ship design from Dunara Castle (traditional coal-fired steamship) to Lochiel (diesel-and-derrick), Arran (hoist) and Sound of Islay (roll-on, roll-off), “Scotland remains far behind Scandinavia”.
He cited two routes in Scotland where a Scandinavian transport model had revolutionised access and driven down costs — Western Ferries’ Hunter’s Quay-McInroy’s Point crossing and Shetland Islands Council’s ferry services, both of which had shown the benefit of short crossings, small crew, low power, low fuel consumption and user-friendly linkspans. The result was a frequency of service that brought huge benefits to the community.
But CalMac, abetted by civil servants in Edinburgh, had clung to long routes, infrequent service, big crews and big costs, thereby driving public subsidy “through the roof”.
Mr Pedersen had statistics to back up his case, demonstrating how the state-subsidised service to Orkney guzzled public money, whereas the privately financed service (on a shorter route, with a vessel needing less fuel and fewer crew) operated without taxpayers’ money. “A ferry is a bridge”, he said. “Why pay £10m for a bridge when you can get it for nothing?”. With examples ranging from British Columbia to South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, he said Norwegian-style linkspans had proved notably cheaper and simpler than the Scottish version. Medium-speed catamarans had “good fuel consumption characteristics”. Increased frequency of service boosted the economy — so much so that, at New Zealand’s Stewart Island, the government no longer needed to subsidise the ferry crossing. Instead of a less-than-daily service under the old subsidised system, a private service now operates three times daily in summer, twice daily in winter. On that basis, travellers wanting to do business on the island or on the mainland could do so in a single day.
Turning to the questions of emissions and public sector procurement, Mr Pedersen produced evidence in support of his claim that the Scottish government was not living up to its policies. For the cost of Finlaggan, the government could have bought three versions of Pentland Ferries’ catamaran Pentalina, each with carrying capacity roughly the same as the CalMac ferry. The £43m spent on Loch Seaforth would have financed three rough-water catamarans, without the additional cost of harbour modifications. The £22m cost of CalMac’s two hybrid ferries could have been better spent on five of the 35-car catamarans designed by Australian-based ferry guru Stuart Ballantyne.
Examples of comparison between Public Sector and potential Private Sector Procurement shown on the night
Isle of Mull
Summing up, Mr Pedersen blamed current inefficiencies on “service specifications set by the public sector”, which meant long sea-routes, large crews, expensive ships, high fuel consumption, high CO2 emissions and low-frequency services. Instead of the current inertia (‘we’ve aye done it this way…’), policymakers should support short, frequent crossings. Thanks to mavericks like Western Ferries, Pentland Ferries and Shetland Islands Council, there were proven examples of how to buck the trend, to the benefit of the community.
Roy and Marie Pedersen in the CRSC’s meeting room at Jurys Inn
In his vote of thanks, CRSC president Angus Ross said he had recently made a non-landing excursion to the Small Isles on Lochnevis and that, enlightened by Mr Pedersen’s disclosure that each passenger on the route was subsidised to the tune of £250, “I’m prompted to do it all over again!” He praised Mr Pedersen’s “breadth of perspective”, which had resulted in a “fantastic and provocative evening that is sure to stimulate a lot of conversation” — a judgement endorsed by a storm of applause from the packed meeting.
CalMac historian Ian McCrorie and CalMac ‘scourge’ Roy Pedersen
bury their differences over a pint after the meeting