The value of investing in efficient ferry links

Michael Grey discusses how recognising the value of ferry services can benefit the wider community

The value of investing in efficient ferry links
SeaLink’s Spirit of Kangaroo Island now provides commuter links and encouragers more visitors to the Australian Island

By Michael Grey |

People who are dependent upon a ferry link invariably seem to complain a lot. They moan about everything from the price of a crossing to the fact that the timetable offers sailings that do not suit them, the standard of the ships, and even the fillings in the sandwiches.

This is essentially what somebody who ran one of these lines to and from an island told me when I met him a few years ago. At the time I thought he was being a little unfair to himself as the users of just about every mode of transport habitually complain about all these matters. In fact, that very day I had been raging about a cancelled train.

These days, of course, dissatisfied customers are better organised and often form collective groups to harass the management of their transport links and create powerful lobbies to belabour local politicians to “do something”. In the USA, customers often engage in class action and lawfare in pursuit of their aims. In many cases, the dissatisfaction of frustrated travellers who are dependent upon ferry links will be thoroughly justified. As a current example one needs to look no further than both the services around the West Coast of Scotland and those to the Northern Isles, both of which are attracting a great deal of opprobrium related to service issues.

Here, ageing and broken-down ships, vessels unsuited for the vehicles that wish to use them and the inability of the government to grasp the need for better transport are permanent reminders of the complaints about these subsidised services. Frustrated islanders have even drawn on some energetic excavations on the Norwegian coast to suggest that some of the islands ought to be linked by tunnels.

Those running ferry services for people who have few alternative transport choices are often accused of providing the very minimum service that they can get away with, or that parsimonious governments are able to afford. However, there is a strong case for regarding a ferry service not merely as a means of transport across a patch of water, but also as a way of growing value on both sides of the link. This was perhaps better understood in the past than it is today – one can easily think of towns, even cities, that originally prospered because of the ferries that connected them.

Early in summer 2022 there was an interesting conference held on Scotland’s River Clyde about the provision of suitable ferries for the coastal communities that have been complaining about the standard of their shipping services. It focused on ship design, with a delegation from Australia sharing their enthusiasm for multi-hulled ships, as well as the need to revitalise domestic shipbuilding which has been languishing since the well-publicised travails of the Ferguson shipyard first hit the headlines. Why should it be necessary for ferry operators to go all over the world for suitable ships, when the Clyde was once a byword for shipbuilding? With a substantial fleet that needs replacement and modernisation, is there not an obvious demand for the re-establishment of a centre of ferry building excellence?

Some of this is probably speculative and even fanciful, as it has been traditionally almost impossible to restart commercial shipbuilding in any area once the grass has grown on the launching ways and the skills dispersed.

But it was suggested, that if we regard a ferry link as an agent for added value, maybe the attitude to marine transport investment might become more positive. Citing an example in South Australia, where a poor and subsidised ferry to one of the offshore islands had staggered on for years, it was noted that the provision of a modern, efficient and unsubsidised shipping link that offered multiple sailings per day had revolutionised life for those who had previously suffered poor service. The population had grown apace because it was feasible to live, work and even commute where it had previously been impossible as a result of the improvements. It was suggested as an example which could be followed in the Hebrides, where better ships might bring their own reward – in multiple ways.

Michael Grey is a master mariner turned maritime journalist and has edited both Fairplay and Lloyd’s List in a career spanning more than 60 years.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.


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