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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 30, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 30 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Ferry Services (Gourock to Kilcreggan), Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


Ferry Services (Gourock to Kilcreggan)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-08659, in the name of Jackie Baillie, on the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament understands that the Gourock-Kilcreggan ferry service has been affected by unprecedented levels of disruption since the contract with the current operator, Clydelink, was renewed by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT); believes that services have been suspended, often for days at a time, due to technical faults with the vessel or following failed Maritime and Coastguard Agency spot inspections; understands that, on several occasions, capacity has been reduced to a maximum of 12 passengers due to a lack of appropriately qualified staff; believes that the unreliability has become particularly acute since June 2017, with the ferry being suspended for several days each month, causing severe disruption for travellers and businesses in both the Dumbarton and Greenock and Inverclyde constituencies; understands that SPT has agreed to retender the contract to secure a more reliable operator until responsibility for the route is transferred to Transport Scotland, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to make progress with the transfer.


I welcome the opportunity to discuss the future of the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service. I thank the members of the Scottish Parliament who backed my motion; I am pleased to have secured support from every party that is represented in the west of Scotland. At the outset, I pay tribute to the passengers who use the ferry and who have campaigned over many years for an improved service. They have been stoic in the face of constant adversity. However, enough is enough. Some of them have travelled to the Parliament today to watch the debate from the public gallery, while others are watching at home. I am relieved that they managed to get here on time, given the constant disruption to their ferry service.

Kilcreggan has always relied on the River Clyde for its transport links. In the Victorian era, wealthy Glasgow merchants built grand summer houses along the shoreline of the Rosneath peninsula. Back then, the Clyde steamers took them directly to Glasgow’s Broomielaw. Today, local residents cannot even depend on a reliable service to Gourock. It is fair to say that this year has seen the most severe disruption on record.

The Kilcreggan ferry is operated by Clydelink and the contract was renewed by Strathclyde partnership for transport earlier this year. However, the Kilcreggan ferry is now the nautical equivalent of Fawlty Towers, with Clydelink making Basil Fawlty look competent. Barely a fortnight goes by without a problem resulting in crossings being cancelled or the service being suspended completely for days at a time.

In June, the service was suspended for seven days after Maritime and Coastguard Agency inspectors found serious defects on board the MV Island Princess. There were problems with lifejackets, a fire pump and fire extinguishers and there was a crew member with no evidence of basic safety training. Next came July, when the service was suspended again for 10 days due to more failed MCA inspections.

In August, there were staff shortages because staff had holidays. There was no planning for replacements so the service was suspended again. Later in the month, the ferry was off again because of paperwork being incomplete and unsatisfactory. In September, the service was suspended twice. On the first occasion, it was suspended for a whole week; on the second, it was suspended for one day. The same pattern has been repeated throughout October and November.

What began as a summer of chaos for ferry passengers has extended into autumn and winter. The ferry service has been off more than it has been on every month since the contract was renewed. To top it all, last Friday a fight broke out between a crew member and the skipper. Both have been arrested. You just could not make this stuff up.

Because there is no back-up vessel, every time that the ferry service is off, passengers need to make a 52-mile journey by replacement bus service instead of the usual 13-minute ferry crossing. This is a lifeline service, particularly for the communities on my side of the river. Passengers use the ferry to get to work, college or university and to access health services, which are based predominantly in hospitals south of the Clyde. The impact of the disruption on their daily lives cannot be overestimated. I have spoken to constituents who have missed job opportunities because they could not get to an interview. People have been disciplined—through no fault of their own—because of their timekeeping; others have given up on the ferry completely and moved out of the area. Local businesses on the peninsula have lost out on revenue from tourists, cyclists and day-trippers on the days that the service was cancelled. If reliability does not improve, visitors might not return next season.

I will tell members a little fact that we have gleaned from a freedom of information request. Clydelink, the ferry operator, owes more than £30,000 in unpaid pier fees to Argyll and Bute Council. Frankly, that is a disgrace. Such is the frustration of my local community that the peninsula choir has become the most likely contender for Christmas number 1 with the new song it has recorded criticising the slow and bureaucratic response from officialdom. Hundreds of people have signed my petition calling on Strathclyde partnership for transport and the Scottish Government to take the service out of the hands of Clydelink immediately.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have had very productive meetings with the Minister for Transport and the Islands to discuss this issue, so I was delighted when, before the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish Government agreed in principle to transfer the service. Last October, Humza Yousaf confirmed that Transport Scotland and SPT had reached an agreement in principle. That is great news. However, the transfer has been held back by the delays to the Scottish Government’s review of European Union state aid rules on ferry procurement. Transport Scotland has confirmed that SPT has provided all the information that it needs, so the only thing that we are waiting for is the conclusion of the review.

Why do we need to wait? In June, the Scottish Government assumed direct responsibility for the ferry service between Oban and the small island of Kerrera. The route was immediately incorporated into the CalMac Ferries contract, and the community will get a newly built vessel thanks to the Government’s intervention. The review was not an issue there; it does not need to be an issue here. If there is a will, there is a way that the transport minister can do this.

SPT has issued a new tender notice for the service from next June. I welcome that, because the poor service is, frankly, appalling. I also welcome the action that has been taken by Councillor Martin Bartos and the SPT senior management team. However, this cannot go on. We must have a reliable operator, and we must have one now.

The impact on my constituents and those from across the river is huge. We have been patient, but my community is not patient anymore. We have put up with this for seven months; we are not prepared to put up with it any longer. Para Handy would be better than this shambles. I urge the Scottish Government and SPT to get beyond the reassurances—we have had all those—and please take action now. [Applause.]

I say to those in the public gallery that it is not appropriate to show appreciation, or otherwise. Thank you.


I congratulate Jackie Baillie on securing this important members’ business debate.

The Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service has, unfortunately, been a continuing and massive inconvenience for its users in my constituency and north of the river. Jackie Baillie set out many of the problems that have beset the service, so I will not go over most of that ground: suffice it to say that it is clear that SPT has failed with the service from the outset and that its incompetence in managing the service is there for all to see. I have not always advocated for Transport Scotland to take on the service, but over the past 12 months my opinion has changed.

Prior to the current service provider operating the run, the service seemed to operate with little fuss. Retendering had to take place and the current provider won the tender, appearing to offer a £1 million saving to the public purse. That financial saving will no doubt have been nullified, as the service has lurched from one cancellation to another, which has had an effect on local businesses north and south of the Clyde.

Only two individual constituents have raised the issue with me, but the Greenock West and Cardwell Bay community council has raised it regularly. Like Jackie Baillie, I have written regularly to SPT, Transport Scotland and transport ministers—previous and current—to try to make progress on the saga. Over time, I have come to a simple conclusion: SPT should not be in charge of the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service. It has mismanaged the service, let users down and proven once and for all that it cares little for the Clyde coast.

In my correspondence with SPT of 11 August, my opening sentence was:

“The Gourock-Kilcreggan ferry route contract was renewed in April of this year—and frankly, the performance has been nothing short of appalling.”

In its reply, which came within a week, SPT said:

“The contract specification to which Clydelink are operating does not require a back-up vessel or for them to supply a replacement bus service.”

That seems in contrast with comments in the press release that SPT issued in January 2012, when the contract was awarded. In its press release, SPT said:

“Using a new-build 60-seat vessel, Clydelink will provide a Monday-Saturday service between Gourock and Kilcreggan.”

The vessel that is used is the MV Island Princess, which is not a new-build vessel for that route. Is there the potential that the press release that SPT issued was not accurate, or was SPT just sleeping on the job? Irrespective of the chicanery from SPT on the issue, which goes back to the signing of the contract, the situation has not improved and has left a sour taste in the mouths of people on both sides of the Clyde.

I have a meeting with the Minister for Transport and the Islands on 12 December, and I look forward to discussing the issue with him directly and trying to find a way forward.

The issues with the route are not new. It is not just about the past year. The issues have persisted for years, due to many faults. However, it is clear that SPT is not the correct organisation to be in charge of a service that affects both sides of the Clyde.

When the contract was awarded, way back in 2012, a different group of individuals ran SPT. I hope that the new group of councillors on SPT can force through a change of mindset in the organisation and get it to take responsibility for problems of its own making.

The people who use the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service deserve a working and reliable service. If that means that Transport Scotland must become the agency that delivers the service, so be it. Such an approach really is in stark contrast to the agenda about delivering services at local level that so many members support. If and when Transport Scotland takes responsibility for the route, I am sure that the Scottish Government will be accused of centralisation. However, irrespective of who controls the route, my constituents and people north of the river deserve a service that works when it says that it will work and which complies with the contract that has been signed.


I am pleased to participate in the debate, because I raised the issue with the First Minister in the Parliament a few weeks ago. It is telling that no one is making political points in the debate and that the support for Jackie Baillie’s motion comes from parties across the chamber. I am pleased that Mr McMillan, who represents Inverclyde, has spoken in the debate.

This is really about people. The service simply cannot be allowed to continue in its current state. The status quo is completely untenable and is unacceptable to people on both sides of the Clyde. Passenger numbers on the service have plummeted. In 2009-10, around 71,000 people used the service regularly but, by last year, that number had dropped to around 53,000, which is no great surprise, given its unreliability. Passenger numbers have fallen by around 30 per cent, possibly as a result of the service’s unreliability.

Despite the fall in passenger numbers, the service is similar in size to that on many other routes. Some of those services are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, and they carry a comparable number of passengers—on an annual basis—more reliably, so one must ask why the Gourock to Kilcreggan service has been allowed to descend into such disarray.

Instead of looking back, I want to look forward to what we could do about the situation. The contract with Clydelink costs the taxpayer around £320,000 a year. That represents an increase of around £80,000 compared with the previous contract. There is also the matter of the subsidy that Clydelink receives, which increased by around 55 per cent in the new contract.

The company claims to provide

“Frequent reliable ferry services from Gourock & Kilcreggan”,

but anyone who lives in Gourock or Kilcreggan knows that that statement is simply not true. On several occasions, there have been staffing issues that have limited the number of passengers who have been able to use the service, for safety reasons. Staffing shortages mean that less-qualified shipmates often captain the service, with the result that only 12 passengers can be carried. At peak times, the service should carry around 50 people, which is the maximum capacity of the vessel. It is simply unacceptable for the vessel to carry only a quarter of the people that it could carry.

Technical faults have caused the majority of the delays and cancellations. To my knowledge, high winds have disrupted the ferry only twice since June. The situation will only get worse as winter kicks in and the weather deteriorates.

Jackie Baillie’s motion notes that the disruption has become “particularly acute since June”. To put that into context, there have been more than 50 days of disruption since June. However, the problem did not start in June; it is a long-standing issue that has affected people on both sides of the Clyde for quite a long time. The problem is that, when the service is cancelled, the only alternative is to go by road, which is a journey of more than 100 miles. That is simply unacceptable to the many different types of people who use the service, who include students who commute to Greenock to attend college, as well as people who use the service to get to work. I have heard stories from constituents who have got the ferry to work only to discover that they could not get the ferry home, so they had to get the bus or call for someone to come and pick them up. The drive takes hours, and it is the last thing that people want at the end of a long day at work. The issue is also affecting tourism and people’s ability to get to Inverclyde royal hospital. The ramifications are considerable.

Before the debate, I was unsure about what the best solution was; I did not know whether SPT should maintain the existing contract or seek to renew it. I think that the general feeling in the chamber is that Transport Scotland should look to take on the contract. In my meeting with the minister, he promised to review the cost of the service and to look at the ramifications of taking it into his department. Perhaps he can update us on any progress that he has made in his thoughts on those matters.

Whether SPT continues to be responsible for the contract or whether it becomes Transport Scotland’s responsibility, and whether the existing operator or a new operator provides the service, people just want to have a reliable service that is on time and is there when they want it. That is the outcome that all members want.


I thank Jackie Baillie for securing the debate and for ensuring that the concerns and, indeed, the frustrations of those who rely on the Gourock to Kilcreggan service are put on the record in the Scottish Parliament.

Jackie Baillie rightly spoke about the importance of the ferry to the community in Kilcreggan and the surrounding areas. The short crossing to Gourock makes hospitals, shops and public services accessible to people who would struggle to reach the same destinations timeously and economically if they travelled by land. For many people, the ferry is a lifeline service that makes living on the Rosneath peninsula viable. Without it, fragile communities would be even more exposed to depopulation and the risk of exclusion and isolation.

Disruption to the service brings disruption to the lives of people in those communities, but it is not just passengers who are based on the Kilcreggan side of the crossing who depend on the ferry; people who depart from the Gourock side do, too. I am thinking, in particular, of the workers at the naval base on the Clyde. For them, the alternative to a 13-minute journey by ferry is, as we have heard, a 90-minute journey by land, which is a massive increase in their total commuting time. However, with frequent cancellations, staffing issues, mechanical faults, safety defects and fundamental questions about the current operator’s ability to deliver a safe, consistent and reliable service, commuters have to take that hour-and-a-half journey more and more. The situation is unacceptable. Clydelink is contracted to provide that service. It is not optional; it is a contractual requirement.

The extension to the contract that was agreed by SPT earlier this year was reportedly worth £320,000. That is £320,000 of taxpayers’ money. Clydelink has been unable to demonstrate that it is capable of honouring that contract and meeting the agreed terms of service; therefore, the contract should be cancelled and a new operator should be found.

As Jackie Baillie mentioned, the chair of SPT, Martin Bartos, has confirmed that, in his opinion, the situation in which travellers presently find themselves, in being dependent on such an unreliable service, is “unacceptable”. He has also advised that SPT has arranged for checks of both the Island Princess vessel and its crew, and he has specifically said that “any deficiencies” will be reported.

Nevertheless, action is needed on the contract itself. I note SPT’s announcement that it will tender early after what was reported in the Greenock Telegraph as “increasing frustration” with Clydelink. Moves to replace Clydelink with a more dependable operator are welcome.

As other members have said, the Kilcreggan ferry is, largely for historic reasons, in an anomalous position in that it is still being provided by SPT. Surely, now is the time for the Scottish Government to make good on its promise to assume responsibility for the service and for SPT and the Scottish Government to transfer responsibility for the Kilcreggan route to Transport Scotland. There should be no more delays and no more prevarication; let us just get it done. That is what the passengers want, including the hundreds of passengers who signed Jackie Baillie’s petition on the subject, some of whom have joined us today, and that is what the communities want, including Cardwell bay and Greenock west community council, in my region, which has specifically called on the Scottish Government to

“resolve this once and for all”.

I see no reason why the Scottish Government should be dragging its heels. The misery for passengers has gone on for too long. Enough is enough. It is time for the Scottish Government to intervene, and I urge it to do so.


I thank Jackie Baillie for bringing the debate to the chamber—it is an important one for our community—and I welcome residents from the peninsula and from Inverclyde. It is great to see them here. That shows the minister the support that we have in trying to sort out the problem.

The Kilcreggan ferry is a long-established link between the north and south sides of the Clyde. Sadly, the number of passengers has dropped to around 50,000 a year from 80,000 when the service ran really well. The primary reason for that drop in travellers is the unreliability of the service, which has forced commuters to find alternative, much longer and costlier routes to work, as other members have said.

Many members will have experienced delays on trains, buses and other modes of public transport, so they will appreciate the frustration and inconvenience that such delays cause even on the odd occasion. However, when delays become regular and constant, they become unacceptable and a daily nuisance that costs people unnecessary time, money and stress.

There were also problems last year, when it was suggested that Transport Scotland should assume responsibility for the service. At the time, I made it clear that offering a short-term contract would only continue the problems that were being experienced with the service and that a 16-month contract was not long enough to attract new investment. I stress again that the service needs a long-term and well-funded contract to ensure that it is managed efficiently.

There appears to be unanimous agreement on the transfer of the contract from SPT to Transport Scotland, but the service between Kilcreggan and Gourock must be kept as a single service and not bundled into another contract, which could take the focus away from that important service.

Colleagues across party lines on both sides of the Clyde have campaigned for the end of the contract and a new one. I understand that cancelling the contract would leave no service running, which would be even worse than the current situation. However, SPT could issue a new tender with a transfer clause if Transport Scotland were to agree to take over the service. My team and I have been proactively working on the issue to find a solution and have highlighted local businesses that are willing and keen to put together a tender. I urge SPT to issue a tender and to get the process under way so that the issue can be resolved as quickly as possible for the benefit of commuters who are having to travel for over an hour instead of making a 10-minute journey.

Does the member welcome the fact that the tender is out and the tender period is about to close, meaning, hopefully, that we will have a new operator?

Of course I do. I welcome that and I am glad that it has happened.

The route is important for the workforce and the important employer at Coulport and Faslane. At peak times, the ferry is terribly important in getting people from Inverclyde across and back.

The large increases in travelling time and inconvenience deter day trippers from visiting the Rosneath peninsula, which impacts heavily on local businesses. Kilcreggan village has several good local businesses that are suffering massively as a result. For example, I know of an individual who travels from Gourock to Kilcreggan to visit the award-winning butcher on behalf of several families and who, while the order is being prepared, enjoys a few pints in the local pub. Groups of cyclists and walkers are unable to make the trip or choose other destinations because of the risk of not being able to return.

As Jackie Baillie said, only last week, a song was released to raise awareness of the issue. It was performed by the local peninsula choir on Kilcreggan pier, and I am delighted to see some of those who have worked studiously on that in the public gallery today. That community project was co-ordinated by my team to highlight the issues and to bring to the attention of the Scottish Government the frustration that is being caused not just in Kilcreggan and Cove but in Gourock, Greenock and Inverclyde.

The song has received attention from as far away as Australia and California, where a choir wished the group good luck in sorting out our service and applauded the local community for raising issues in such a creative and unique way. Well done to the choir for that. I hope that the minister has seen the video of the song and has noted the support for the service and its importance to the local community.

With those points in mind, I once again appeal to the minister to bring the service under the control of Transport Scotland to ensure its reliable, safe and efficient operation in the future. As the final line of the song says:

“We need our wee ferry, and we need it now!”


I thank Jackie Baillie for bringing the motion to Parliament for debate. We have had excellent contributions from across the chamber, and there were a number of common threads that I will comment on. I will try to answer the questions that members have asked but, of course, members can intervene if they think that I have omitted anything.

I will get right to the nub of the issue. I am acutely aware of the recent periods of significant disruption to the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry service, which Jackie Baillie described, and I understand the frustrations of passengers who rely on that important link. In my role as Minister for Transport and the Islands, I hear from service users from across Scotland whenever a ferry service is disrupted, whether due to weather-related reasons, technical issues or other unforeseen circumstances.

In relation to the service, I have met Jackie Baillie and members of the Kilcreggan community council, and I will soon meet Stuart McMillan. I have exchanged a number of letters on the issue, and I am aware that officials recently met members of community councils on both sides of the crossing and heard at first hand how the disruption has affected them.

I welcome ferry service users to the gallery. The users of the service are quite entitled to make a song and dance about the disruption to the service. I have viewed the performance of “Oor Kilcreggan Ferry”, and I congratulate all those who were involved. It is a novel way of making the point, but it is born of very real anger and frustration. As Neil Bibby said, disruption affects workers who travel to and from Faslane and Coulport. As Stuart McMillan said, it also affects commuters who travel to Gourock, some of whom make onward connections to Glasgow. It also affects locals who use the service and businesses on both sides of the crossing.

It is clear that we are all in agreement that the current service offering is simply not acceptable for anyone. However, it is also clear, as has been said correctly by every member, that SPT has responsibility for that service. I have met the SPT chairman, Councillor Martin Bartos, and I have had a number of discussions with him, over the phone and face to face, during which I have expressed my concern.

I have been asked by many members to address the issue of transfer of responsibility. The “Scottish Ferry Services—Ferries Plan (2013-2022)” states that the

“Government is willing to take responsibility for any ‘lifeline’ ferry service”

subject to the principles that are set out in the plan, so we will work with local authorities and regional transport partnerships to discuss the possibility of the Government taking over responsibility for the services.

I appreciate that that may seem like bureaucracy from the point of view of the constituents of Jackie Baillie and Stuart McMillan, but the issue of the true cost of the ferry service still needs to be discussed. Jackie Baillie rightly highlighted that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency noted more than 30 defects, some of which were serious, in the vessel that was being used for the service. The Government and Transport Scotland have to know the true cost in order to take on that service, including the cost of replacing the vessel.

I am grateful to the minister for taking an intervention. Will he confirm that SPT has provided Transport Scotland with all the information that it requested in order for him to make that decision?

Recently, I received more information from SPT, and I promised Councillor Martin Bartos that I would examine it closely. I want to talk about a way forward, but we have legitimate concerns and we have questions about the true cost, to which we need answers.

Another issue that was correctly raised is the retendering of the service. I was recently advised by SPT of its plans to retender the service. The tender closes on 4 December, or thereabouts. What is important about the tender is that SPT has emphasised quality over price, which is welcome. I will wait for the tender process to close before re-engaging in my conversations with Councillor Martin Bartos to see what his feelings are about the expressions of interest.

Jackie Baillie mentioned the information that was provided recently, and I will continue my conversation about the transfer of responsibility. Every member is right to say that the service that is provided by the operator is simply not acceptable. If SPT wishes to explore whether the operator has lived up to its legal obligations, I will be more than happy to provide the resources and expertise of Transport Scotland and our other experts in the field to work with the partnership to see whether that can be explored in more detail. I agree with Jackie Baillie that we cannot have months of continued disruption as we wait for the retendering of the service for a route that may not come into operation until next summer, so if that will be helpful to SPT, I will do it, but I want to wait until the tender closes before I re-engage in conversations with the head of the partnership.

I thank the minister for taking my intervention. Is he saying that it is his understanding that the service cannot be classified as a lifeline service? Is he also saying, possibly indirectly, that if it is identified that the cost is more than the current £300,000 and he deems that to be too much, Transport Scotland will not take on liability for the service? I am a little confused as to what the plan of action is.

I was not disagreeing about the nature of the service: lifeline services are clearly defined in our ferries plan, so that is not a bone of contention. I am saying—reasonably, I hope—that in order for us to take responsibility for the service we need to know its true cost, because the budget will be announced in a couple of weeks. That true cost will not include just the contract cost per annum. There is clearly an issue with the vessel, so we need to drill down into the cost of replacing the vessel and, perhaps, of providing a back-up vessel. We need to know the true value of taking over the entirety of the contract. That was done in previous examples that Jackie Baillie mentioned. We need to have that cost: SPT has provided more information, which I promise to look at. If it is helpful, once the tender has closed, I will have further conversations with Councillor Martin Bartos, and I will endeavour to update every member who has spoken in the debate.

As Jackie Baillie mentioned, we still have, in principle, an agreement to take over lifeline services, so I do not shy away from that. That is based on the criteria that are set out in the ferries plan.

It is important for us to see the feedback from the tendering exercise. I would welcome members’ thoughts on that and I will certainly give my thoughts to SPT. I guarantee that, on the closure of the retendering process, I will engage with the chair of SPT who has—I must remind members—responsibility for the service. I hope that, with the steps that SPT has taken and with continuation of the conversation, we will provide users with an improved service that they can rely on.

13:25 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—