Ferry fare hike to hit Bute this month

Ferry fares across the Caledonian MacBrayne network will rise by 6.5 per cent on March 30.
Ferry fares across the Caledonian MacBrayne network will rise by 6.5 per cent on March 30.

A WHOPPING 6.5 per cent rise in Bute’s ferry fares is now less than a month away.

The increase, well above the rate of inflation, is set to take effect across the Clyde and Hebridean ferry service network when Caledonian MacBrayne’s new summer timetable begins on March 30.

This year’s fare hike, set by the Scottish Government’s transport agency Transport Scotland, is far greater than any imposed on the Clyde and Hebridean service network in recent years – and comes amid rising local anger at a proposal set to leave Bute as one of the last islands on the west coast to benefit from cheaper travel through fares based on road equivalent tariff (RET).

The forthcoming increase compares with a rise of 3.4 per cent at the start of the summer 2011 timetable, and one of 4.2 per cent 12 months previously – though the 2010 fare increase was originally only 2.2 per cent, until the Scottish Government nearly doubled it just before the increase took effect.

Fares on the CalMac network went up by 2.5 per cent in March 2005; 2.0 per cent in March 2006; 2.2 per cent in March 2007 (except Gourock-Dunoon, where commercial vehicle and coach fares rose by 3.8%), and 1.8 per cent in March 2008.

Discounted fares on routes to Coll, Tiree and the Outer Hebrides took effect in October 2008, reducing fares by up to 50 per cent, but on non-RET routes a further increase was imposed of 3.8 per cent in March 2009 before the ‘double whammy’ rise a year later.

Tickets bought on Bute will continue to be charged at the lower winter fare level all year round, though these, too, will be subject to the 6.5 per cent increase.

Meanwhile, a proposal in the Scottish Ferries Review’s draft plan that fares based on RET should be applied to Bute services only “within the term of the current Parliament” - that is, potentially as late as May 2016 – has been heavily criticised at a meeting of the island’s community council.

During discussions on Wednesday on BCC’s response to the draft plan, which is out for consultation until March 30, local Argyll and Bute councillor Len Scoullar said it was “grossly unfair” that Bute had been left at the end of the queue for RET.

“Clyde fares are going up by six per cent this year,” Cllr Scoullar said, “and if that continues to be the case, we will be paying 24 per cent more than at present by the time RET is introduced.

“To me it is absolutely wrong that RET should be rolled out like this. Where are tourists going to go? Somewhere cheaper.”

Isobel Strong, one of the island’s two SNP councillors, said she had spoken to her party colleague, Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell, about local discontent on the issue of RET.

“He told me that if people want to make representations on the issue as part of their response to the review, they should do so,” she added.

“It would certainly strengthen his hand if people wrote to him on the matter.

“It was also pointed out that the closer an island is to the mainland, the less benefit it would get from RET.”

And Wednesday’s meeting heard a warning from Brian Fulton, CalMac Ferries Ltd’s head of operations, who pointed out that unlike the Western Isles RET trial, the draft ferries plan contained no mention of a guarantee that the cost of travel would not actually increase under the formula being used by the Scottish Government to calculate RET fares.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Ministers’ clear direction of travel is towards ferry fares based on RET, as set out in our recent announcement.

“The decision on ferry fares was not taken lightly - due to the cuts imposed on the Scottish Government’s budget by the UK government, Scottish ministers had to make difficult decisions to ensure routes and services were maintained.”

* Following publication of the above article, we have received the following email from Brian Fulton of CalMac Ferries Ltd, which we reproduce in full:

“Sir: I must correct the comments attributed to me in relation to the introduction of RET in your recent story ‘Ferry fare hike to hit Bute this month’ (March 1.) I am at a loss to understand how these alleged comments came to be reported as they do not reflect what I said at the meeting.

“As operators of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract, we apply whatever fares regime the Scottish Government wishes to apply, and have no opinion on levels of fares or how the Government calculates them. This applies to RET as much as any other ferry fares, and we are not party to any discussions within Government about how these will be calculated. I am therefore in no position to issue ‘warnings’ or have any view of future fares policy.

“Ferries are an important part of the lives of every islander and the mis-reporting of any ferry-related issues will undoubtedly cause unnecessary uncertainty and concern. I would therefore be grateful if you would make it clear to your readers that The Buteman’s interpretation of my comments was wrong and misleading.

“Yours, Brian Fulton, Head of Operations, CalMacFerries Ltd.”

[Editor’s comment: Our written note of Wednesday’s meeting was not immediately clear on the context in which Mr Fulton spoke on the subject of RET. During discussion of the issue, it was recalled that when the RET trial took place on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree routes, there had been a commitment that no-one would pay more under the new fares structure, even if the formula used calculated that they should; Mr Fulton then asked whether this would be the case when RET is rolled out elsewhere, rather than stating it as the above article suggests, and received an answer in the negative from Councillor Len Scoullar. We should have made this clear in the original article and apologise for not doing so.

Further to Cllr Scoullar’s answer, it is worth confirming to anyone unfamiliar with the draft ferries plan that the section dealing with the future roll-out of RET states: “As well as retaining the RET scheme to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree, there will be further RET pilots on the same basis to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha from October 2012 and to Arran from October 2014. The intention is to rollout RET to all other West Coast and Clyde islands within the term of this Parliament, including to some inter-island routes such as the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra.”

The words “on the same basis” appear in this context to apply to RET fares to Islay, Colonsay, Gigha and Arran; there is no clear commitment that fares based on RET, when rolled out elsewhere, will be cheaper (or indeed more expensive) than the non-RET fares they replace. The only such commitment anywhere in the document relates to RET fares to and from the Northern Isles.

The consultation on the draft plan lasts until March 30 (links to the draft plan and an online response form appear to the right of this article), and readers might wish to bear that in mind when considering their response.]