No end in sight to Arran’s ferry fiasco

The Arran Ferry Action Group are seeking the upgrading of Gourock so it can be reinstated as the port of refuge.

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Standfirst

With the recent spate of ferry cancellations the Arran Ferry Action Group thought it would be a good time to provide a potted history of Arran’s ferry problems. Some old, some new and some possibly still to come. All in all they add up to a rather large mess which is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Main story


The Arran run is the busiest on the network and also the most unreliable. This is due to the vulnerability of Ardrossan to westerly gales and an inexplicable reluctance to use the port of refuge, Gourock. However, this has now been compounded by the unreliability of the ageing fleet and the hopelessly compromised new harbour at Brodick .

So for a greater understanding of what is going wrong let’s look at the various problems individually.

Gourock

For many years the ferry plied the waters between Ardrossan and Brodick with frequent diversions to Gourock as Ardrossan is vulnerable to westerly storms. For it not to sail at all was highly unusual. The service wasn’t perfect but you knew you would get at least one sailing a day.


Then, approximately 15 years ago it stopped going to Gourock. No explanation was given, the boat merely remained tied up in harbour ‘due to adverse weather conditions’.

Written enquiries to CalMac (same boat, same harbour, what’s the problem?) were answered with platitudes such as ‘we will use Gourock where it is appropriate to do so taking into account the conditions at the time’.

What had actually happened, although never admitted, was that with the vehicle service to Dunoon being discontinued there were no longer any ticket sellers or pier hands at Gourock and the link-span had been repurposed for the passenger service to the Cowal peninsula.

It wasn’t that our ferry couldn’t go to Gourock it was just a logistical problem which CalMac didn’t want to solve (and which never occurred to it until it was too late). In fact it did very occasionally make the voyage up the firth but only when there was no other excuse such as the day another vessel broke down in the berth at Ardrossan.

Taking Gourock out of the equation was disastrous for the Arran service. Ardrossan is widely regarded as the most difficult harbour in the network. Entering the berth requires making a sharp right hand turn in the mouth of the harbour on a rolling sea with the stabilisers retracted.

With no readily available port of refuge, unsurprisingly, the boat tied up on a regular basis.

People start having to leave in advance for important appointments. In the event of an uncertain forecast several days in advance. For an island that is heavily reliant on tourism and with an ageing population who need to get to hospital this is not acceptable .

Around 2018 CMAL announces that the Gourock link-span is in poor shape and needs to be weight limited and repaired (not that it has been much troubled by Arran traffic).

In 2019 it admits that it is beyond repair and cannot be used but no decision regarding replacement is made.

Moving forward to New Year 2020 and hundreds are left stranded on Arran after the holidays. The boat remains resolutely tied up although weather conditions are little more than moderate.

An enterprising BBC reporter films the chaos at the port on her phone and Reporting Scotland picks up the story. The next morning AFAG is interviewed on Good Morning Scotland and questions are asked in Holyrood.

Shortly after CMAL announces the replacement of the Gourock link-span. A win for Arran maybe but work is not yet complete and it remains to be seen if the Caledonian Isles will be allowed to berth there. And the new Glen Sannox? It won’t be heading for Gourock at all as it doesn’t fit the berth.

The new boat

As with Lewis what Arran needed were two simple, medium-sized manoeuvrable ferries allowing for redundancy in quiet periods and a continuing service in case of breakdowns.

What we have got, or might get eventually, is a lumbering slab-sided behemoth that will require ruinously expensive alterations to Ardrossan harbour to allow it to berth.

Virtue signalling by the add on of LNG capability will do little for its green credentials by the time the gas is trucked from Kent but much for its cost and complexity .

Strangely the alterations to the berth at Ardrossan weren’t mooted until several years after the boat began construction and are consequently unlikely to be finished before the Glen Sannox enters service, which begs the question ‘Why not and what happens then ?’

Furthermore, CMAL has admitted, only after we asked, that it won’t fit the berth at Gourock either and the plans to upgrade the harbour there are only at the nebulous stage. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

If you want an analysis on just how unsuitable these new boats are we would direct you to the work of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee which is published on the AFAG website.

Brodick harbour

Some £30 million was spent redeveloping Brodick harbour (it started out at £18 million).

The new terminal building is some three stories high with steep stairs and a passenger access system (PAS) some 200 metres long.

It is widely regarded as a white elephant, more akin to an airport departure lounge, with passengers segregated from friends and family like cattle and even the obligatory ‘unattended luggage will be removed and may be destroyed’ message on the tannoy (on Arran one would have to ask how).

Some older residents who previously travelled independently now need a wheelchair to access the ship. Some simply don’t want to travel at all.

The high tech docking section of the passenger access system (PAS) only allows passengers to disembark one by one rather than two by two as previously with the result that the less fleet of foot now miss the connecting bus. More significant is the re-alignment of the berth by 90 degrees.

The old pier was exposed to westerlies but relatively unaffected as the ship lay stern on to the waves. The ship now lies beam on and rolls in the berth in anything more than a moderate easterly. Result, more cancellations.

Whilst Ardrossan used to be the weak link in the service we now have two vulnerable ports. This re-aligment is the cause of much of the recent disruption.

Ardrossan harbour

As previously mentioned the harbour requires alterations to allow the Glen Sannox to berth (it won’t be able to access the Irish Berth even after the works are complete).

The figures being bandied about are between £30 million and £50 million and the start date has been continually delayed. Now slated to start in autumn 2022 it won’t be complete until sometime in 2024.

We are concerned that this will be another white elephant with little done to improve reliability. The berth is being realigned but, without significant alteration to the harbour entrance, Ardrossan will continue to be badly affected by strong westerly winds and no such alterations are planned. Reliability is key. Everything else is window dressing.

A new terminal building or improved railway station are desirable but must take second place to ensuring the harbour is accessible to ships in all weathers.

It has also become evident that the project has become a political football with North Ayrshire Council and Kenneth Gibson MSP jumping on the bandwagon by hanging Ardrossan regeneration on to the project.

More worrying, the views of the residents of the town are being given equal weight to those of the people of Arran (we have this in writing from Transport Scotland).

This seems somewhat strange as only a small number of Ardrossan residents are regular travellers to Arran and none are dependent on the ferry for their everyday needs.

It is imperative that politics does not overrule sound commercial decision making as was the case with the CMAL and Ferguson Marine.

Conclusion

All of these issues could have been avoided. The masters warned against the reorientation of Brodick pier, but were overruled. Local residents stated plainly that the proposed terminal building at Brodick was unsuitable, but were ignored.

Now the damning conclusions of the government inquiry into the procurement of our new ferry are being refuted by the very people responsible for making such a mess of it.

Since the formation of the Arran Ferry Action Group nearly two years ago, we have consistently tried to point out these shortcomings to the relevant authorities, wherever possible offering cost-saving alternatives.

In almost every instance, our participation has been refused, the status quo has been defended and our suggestions refuted.

As a result, improving the reliability and resilience of our lifeline ferry service at this stage will now cost a great deal of additional public money, entailing expensive alterations or enhancements to infrastructure.

It will also be necessary for the current shortcomings to be acknowledged by those responsible.

Arran Ferry Action Group logo.