Cheaper ferry fares would come at a price, says RET report

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DEMAND for ferry services in the Firth of Clyde could increase by up to 40 per cent if ‘road equivalent tariff’ fares were introduced in the area, according to a draft report for the Scottish Government.

But introducing fares based on RET across the whole of the publicly-supported Clyde and Hebrides ferry network would require a major increase in subsidy.

The assessment of the impact of the RET trial in the Western Isles found that while demand on the routes in question increased, particularly among tourists and leisure users, overall it did not do so by enough to offset the reduction in fares.

The trial began in October 2008 on the Ullapool-Stornoway, Uig-Tarbert/Lochmaddy, Oban-Castlebay/Lochboisdale and Oban-Coll/Tiree routes currently operated by Caledonian MacBrayne - prompting criticism from opposition politicians angry at the apparent exclusion of Argyll and Bute, the Clyde and the Northern Isles.

The experiment was originally due to end in the spring of this year, but the Scottish Government announced last August that it was to be extended for another 12 months.

The interim report by the Halcrow Group on the trial scheme’s impact concludes that extending RET to the whole of the Clyde and Hebrides network could result in the loss of £14 million a year in fares revenue – and that if extra demand created by the cheaper fares could not be accommodated, that annual loss could rise to £21 million.

In their final paragraph, the report’s authors state: “Potentially the greatest growth in demand from RET would arise on the Clyde routes, where an estimated 40 per cent increase in traffic might be generated on the basis of the results observed in the pilot scheme.

“However this provisional conclusion must be tempered by consideration that the short and frequent Clyde services are in many ways dissimilar to the long and infrequent sailings in the study area.

“On the Clyde day trips are a feasible option, opening up those islands and peninsulas to a range of travel behaviour (commuting, shopping and short leisure trips) that simply are not feasible in the study area, regardless of the fare.”

Separately to the RET pilot, the Scottish Government’s ferries review last year suggested that several of the busier west coast services, including the Rothesay-Wemyss Bay service, could be tendered as single routes rather than as part of the whole Clyde and Hebrides network, as happens at present.

But ferry services expert Professor Neil Kay told us he did not think the findings of the RET assessment would necessarily influence any future decisions on single route tenders, on the Clyde or elsewhere.

“I’ve always felt that RET is a very arbitrary structure, and doesn’t take account of the varying needs and circumstances of different communities,” he said.

“Both single route tendering and RET are the result of immense amounts of pressure from different groups of lobbyists, but the issues themselves are very different, and I don’t think the findings in the RET report will necessarily have an impact on whether some routes are tendered separately in the future.”

Gordon Ross, the managing director of Western Ferries, who has made no secret of his company’s desire to see the CalMac network split up, said: “A fare structure based on RET would remove one of the major concerns customers have expressed about the breaking up of the current network. “The decision on whether or not to proceed with RET and single route tendering will be one for the next Scottish Government, but I do believe the prospect of single route tendering would be more appealing to island residents if there are strict controls on fare levels.”