As Western Ferries celebrates the 50th anniversary of its unsubsidised service on the Clyde, Andrew Clark asks chairman Lord George Robertson and managing director Gordon Ross why the company has not replicated its profitable operation elsewhere, when island communities are crying out for better transport links.
A steady flow of vehicles lines up on the well ordered marshalling area as another vessel bearing Western Ferries’ distinctive red livery swings into view. The service across the upper Firth of Clyde from Hunter’s Quay to McInroy’s Point is ‘turn up and go’. It is so frequent that, excepting peak weekends, you are unlucky if you don’t get the first available boat.
With one employee directing traffic on land and another on the vehicle deck, it’s a slick operation, running every day of the year from break of dawn to late at night. The company’s ferries are well maintained — two are under 10 years old and one is on permanent standby. Weather disruptions are as few as mechanical breakdowns. Tickets can be bought at retail outlets along the coast: they never lose validity. There are even free out-of-hours sailings for ambulances.
All of which underlines the contrast with CalMac’s Gourock-Dunoon commute. This service caters for the same communities as Western Ferries, but with a longer passage time. Despite not being a lifeline route (you can drive from Dunoon to Glasgow without using a ferry), it receives an estimated £5m subsidy.
It does not carry cars, and disembarkation at Dunoon is not custom-built for foot passengers. It is often subject to disruption — last year it carried fewer than 200,000 people. And yet the state operator recently announced plans to build three new passenger ferries for the route (also linking Kilcreggan), funded by the taxpayer.
While CalMac’s west coast network lurches from crisis to crisis, Western Ferries (Clyde) Ltd oozes efficiency and reliability. Its board comprises people who understand shipping and commerce. Turnover of crew is limited — the sign of a good employer. The company has successfully interwoven itself with the Cowal community. The question is: why does Western Ferries not replicate its operation elsewhere?
When it inaugurated the service between Hunter’s Quay and McInroy’s Point on 3 June 1973, it was very much the underdog, the outsider. It is still regarded as such in official circles — which explains why, as the 50th anniversary looms, plans for expansion are on hold.
Western Ferries’ chairman, Islay-born George Robertson (a former UK defence secretary), says that wherever the company looks — Arran, Islay, Mull, where islanders are demanding a more frequent and reliable service — it is opposed by a powerful lobby. In his view, the forces behind this ‘lobby’, can be traced to the heart of the Scottish Government and its Edinburgh-based quango Transport Scotland, who see lifeline services as the preserve of the state and the existing CalMac network as sacrosanct.
While conceding that some routes will never break even or run at a profit, Robertson believes there is scope for ‘unbundling’ high-volume routes. He maintains that, if these routes were operated more efficiently, the subsidy burden to the taxpayer could be reduced: “CalMac is a mess that has been decades in the making. Why does every route make a loss? They [the government] are wedded to the state monopoly. They continue to build ferries that are much larger than they need to be, ferries that are overmanned and often not compatible with the piers.
“We need fresh thinking. Other countries with islands have ferry services that encourage private enterprise on the more popular routes and provide subsidy for those that are not commercially viable. You’d think this would be a model for Scotland’s west coast, but there’s strong resistance.”
As there was when Western Ferries started a modern ferry service to Islay in 1968. Government bureaucrats in Edinburgh, viewing the commercial upstart as a threat to the MacBrayne monopoly, gave MacBraynes (CalMac from 1973) a massive rise in subsidy — so big that Western Ferries could no longer compete, forcing its withdrawal from Islay in 1981.
But its single-route Clyde operation thrived: traffic volumes and the shortness of the Hunter’s Quay-McInroy’s Point crossing were a near-guarantee of profitability. Crucially, while satisfying its own commercial needs, the company has also met the needs of the Cowal community.
In 2011 CalMac was obliged to axe its Gourock-Dunoon vehicle service — despite the local council’s construction of an expensive linkspan at Dunoon, which has never been used for its intended purpose.
Western Ferries (Clyde) Ltd can afford to sit pretty at Hunter’s Quay, but private enterprise is part of its DNA — and, says Robertson, island communities are demanding change. “By introducing Road Equivalent Tariff, the Scottish Government reduced fares and increased demand — but they didn’t increase supply [in the form of more frequent, more efficient services].”
The risks for a private operator entering a head-to-head competitive battle with CalMac are huge. The Government owns most of the ferry infrastructure. When news spilled out that Western Ferries had held exploratory talks with the Arran community, says Robertson, CalMac introduced a second ferry for the island and claimed the piers were too busy to cope with a rival service.
If Western Ferries were to build its own ferries and terminals for island routes, the capital investment would be huge — such that it would need outside investors, who might compromise its independence.
That is why, when asked about Western Ferries’ mooted Troon to Islay service (to ease the transport problems of the “increasingly desperate” whisky industry), Robertson says “we would need a guarantee from the Scottish Government that they would not undermine it. So far, that has not been forthcoming.”
No — and after news of the Troon-Islay plan entered the public domain, it did not escape observers’ notice that the order for CalMac’s new Islay tonnage went up from one boat to two.
In the meantime, Western Ferries (Clyde) Ltd is guarding its territory. Having renewed two of its four linkspans shortly before the pandemic, and constructed a smart new headquarters at Hunter’s Quay in October 2020, the company is now studying options for replacing its older ferries with an energy-efficient propulsion design — gas, diesel/electric and hydrogen being the likely options.
But it is still “actively” looking for other routes on which it could operate, says managing director Gordon Ross, whose family hold a one-seventh stake in the company. “We’re fleet of foot, we can respond. If we could establish a service to Arran, we would repeat the flexibility and frequency of service we have in the upper firth.”
Ross is sceptical of the Scottish Government’s latest review of ferry services (Project Neptune), tasked with establishing terms of reference for a new ferries contract for all west coast routes. Pointing to numerous CalMac service disruptions in recent weeks and their damaging economic impact, he argues that, if the state-owned ferry company is underrepresenting the needs of west coast communities, opportunities should be made available for others to step in.
“There is a real push from Mull, for example, that would like to see a community-run service. I know the people involved. It remains to be seen whether a community-run service is viable.”
Asked about the proposals for three new passenger vessels on CalMac’s Gourock-Dunoon route (estimated cost: £25m), Ross says it is Transport Scotland’s responsibility to demonstrate that “state intervention on this and other routes is based on need. If Transport Scotland comes out stating that existing provision on the Cowal crossing is excessive, they have a huge problem [in justifying such expenditure]. My job is to ensure Western Ferries continues to provide a safe, robust ferry service.”
Referring to the company’s upcoming anniversary celebration, he says that “what we have achieved is remarkable, especially when you take into account who our competitor is, and their unique funding structure. Our story is a tribute to the efforts of everybody who has been involved in Western Ferries over the past 50 years.”
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A HALF CENTURY IN PICTURES: HOW WESTERN FERRIES BECAME AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE CLYDE SCENE
Published on 11 April 2023