Scottish election: Fears for Dunoon car ferry service

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Dunoon ferry, picture courtesy of David Blackwood from Johnstone
Image caption,
Dunoon has two ferries, but there are fears about future services

For some in the town of Dunoon in Argyll there is a sense of deja vu around the latest Holyrood election campaign.

When they went to the polls in 2007, the future of the town centre passenger car ferry service was at the forefront of many minds and, as I discovered, it remains a burning issue - with campaigners fearing the service could be in jeopardy.

What the ferry link provides to Dunoon on the Cowall penisula is seen by some as vital, as it takes more than two hours to drive from the town to the nearest city, Glasgow.

If you take one of the two car ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon, that road journey is reduced to as little as 40 minutes.

However, there are concerns Dunoon could be about to lose one of its services - with doubts hanging over the car ferry route from the town centre.

The route, currently operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, was put out to tender in 2009 following a European Commission investigation into public support for the service.

Tender documents issued to shortlisted companies in February this year stated the subsidy would only be for the "passenger element" of the service.

This has raised doubts about whether the successful bidder would offer a car ferry service and even if it wanted to, if this could be achieved by the deadline for the tendering process of 30 June this year.

Campaigners fear the end of the car ferry link from the town centre would affect local trade and hand a monopoly to Western Ferries, which operates a non-subsidised route almost two miles outside the town centre.

The Dunoon Observer's Aileen MacNicol said the ferry service had been an issue in the town for more than 30 years.

She explained: "Politicians of all colours have been accused of letting the community down, but most recently they feel that this particular administration has let them down.

"The tender was made at the end of 2009, promises were made that a vehicle service would be delivered and here we are with just a few short months before the new contract has to start and it looks like that might go passenger only, so this is sort of the realisation of everybody's fears."

In the summer of 2007 campaigners thought their calls for a new vehicle service from the town centre would be met.

During the Holyrood election campaign of that year the successful Argyll and Bute SNP candidate Jim Mather pledged to provide new boats. The boats would operate the then newly built linkspan, which was constructed under the Lib-Lab coalition government to replace the old Victorian pier.

But the linkspan is still not in use.

John Cameron Smith, secretary of the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Group, said: "The linkspan can be seen almost as an icon of government, and I'm not selecting any one party here because you had two governments over that period, but it could be described almost as an icon of government incompetence.

"It was provided, the boats weren't.

"I would say that public anger and frustration is intense and there is also a feeling, a very strong feeling, that we've been treacherously betrayed because we voted for a candidate on the basis of pledges to provide this service and that tipped the balance in the Scottish Parliament."

Some in the town are concerned about how the end of the car-ferry service would affect their business.

Phillip Norris, who runs a self-catering holiday service, said: "Yes we are worried. One inevitable consequence if we lost this car ferry service would be much queuing for the western ferry service. Queuing often puts off people.

"From memory, the value I think of day-trip tourism to Cowal is way over a £1m a year."

Charles Black Snr, who runs a local bakery and transport company, said the ongoing row over subsidies for the route has already affected his trade.

He regularly used three different CalMac routes for business at a commercial rate. But when this was stopped he opted to go via road instead.

Mr Black said: "We now have to go by road. Everything has to go by road and this of course requires a journey of two and a quarter hours each way to Glasgow, a five-hour total, against 40 minutes from the other side of the water where we're able to cross.

"We lose five hours out of the day travelling to Glasgow as against 80 minutes."

Big issue

The shortlisted companies for the tender - Caledonian MacBrayne, Western Ferries and Clyde Marine Services - were unable to comment on the tendering process, saying it was at a commercially sensitive stage.

The Brian Souter-owned Highland& Universal Ltd withdrew its bid, citing the short timescale.

Transport Scotland said it would not be commenting further on the tender until the announcement of the preferred bidder later this year.

But it looks like the car-ferry link could be a big issue again in the constituency on 5 May.

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