CALEDONIAN MacBrayne’s official carrying statistics for 2016 show that the west coast ferry operator passed five million passengers for the first time since 1997.
The company, which has its headquarters in Gourock, operates the UK’s largest ferry network, with 32 vessels carrying out more than 136,000 individual sailings annually across an area which extends 200 miles from Campbeltown on Kintyre and the Isle of Arran to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
Many routes saw very significant rises in both passenger and car numbers in the first full year after the roll-out of road equivalent tariff (RET) across all areas, with a total of around 5,055,000 passengers and 1,356,000 cars carried network-wide. This equates to around 428,800 more passengers than in 2015 and 186,700 more cars.
The busiest route overall in the network continues to be Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran, carrying 828,000 people and 203,000 cars in 2016 -– a rise of 8.7 per cent and seven per cent respectively.
Two other Firth of Clyde routes complete the top three highest passenger totals with nearly 740,000 (up 7.5 per cent) on Largs to Cumbrae and 675,700 (up seven per cent) on the Wemyss Bay/Gourock to Rothesay, Bute route.
In terms of cars, the Rothesay route was second with about 173,000 (up 19 per cent), with Oban to Craignure on Mull showing a 41 per cent rise to about 162,000 -– this route was the fourth busiest for passengers carrying 645,000 (up 16 per cent).
Ardrossan to Brodick ferry Caledonian Isles
CalMac say that better value fares may be influencing the rise, though many routes which already had RET introduced in the preceding years as part of the phased introduction also showed an uplift in passenger and car numbers – possibly attributable to a knock-on effect of publicity surrounding the major pan-network roll-out.
RET is a Scottish Government policy to ensure that those living on an island are not unduly financially disadvantaged by ferry fares. It has had a phased introduction, beginning in 2008 with a number of Western Isles destinations and culminating with full network coverage in October 2015. The RET scheme involves setting ferry fares on the basis of the cost of travelling an equivalent distance by road.
CalMac’s managing director Martin Dorchester said: “Last year was our busiest in terms of passengers for two decades. This is a great reflection of the professionalism of our staff in dealing with an increase of more than 400,000 passengers and almost 190,000 cars, whilst still running a smooth operation to help all our travellers, whether islanders or visitors, business or pleasure to get where they are going.”
The highest increase on a 2015-2016 like-for-like route was a substantial 74 per cent rise in cars on the Tobermory to Kilchoan crossing and 52 per cent on both the Oban to Lismore and the Mallaig to the Small Isles runs respectively. A larger vessel will operate the Tobermory-Kilchoan crossing this summer to help cater for the growth in numbers.
In terms of largest percentage increases in passengers, Tarbert on Loch Fyne to Portavadie recorded 35.5 per cent, with 30 per cent and 22 per cent on Tobermory to Kilchoan and Oban to Lismore respectively.
Many others showed increases well in excess of 20 per cent for cars and 15 per cent plus for passengers. For passengers these include Ardmhor on the isle of Barra to Eriskay (up 19 per cent), Sconser on the isle of Skye to isle of Raasay (up 17 per cent) and Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris to the island of Berneray (up 15 per cent). And for cars, the routes included Fionnphort on Mull to isle of Iona (up 23 per cent), Oban to Craignure (up 41 per cent), and Tarbert, Kintyre to Portavadie on Cowal (up 43 per cent).
There is evidence on a number of routes to suggest that the substantial reduction in fares has led to islanders journeying more and taking a car with them when prices had previously been restrictive.
Of the routes which had already had RET introduced in earlier roll-outs, Ullapool to Stornoway showed substantial growth for passengers and cars with 14 per cent and 20 per cent increases respectively.
There are indications that, because of the fall in fares, some crossings are being used as ‘bridge’ crossings, either to link to further major ports or to create circular routes.
This may be the case for the likes of Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran, with travellers making a further crossing from Lochranza on Arran to Claonaig on Kintyre, and on to either Kennacraig for the Islay or Colonsay ferries or even Oban.
A variation on this route to Kennacraig may also account for increases on the Portavadie crossing with people potentially journeying from the central belt on the Wemyss Bay to Bute service, then Bute to Colintraive on Cowal and the short journey to Portavadie.
The first fully operational year of Portavadie Resort’s spa in 2016 may also explain a rise in numbers, with local people from Tarbert and Kintyre journeying to use the leisure facilities.
Many communities have enjoyed a boost in visitors during the summer months, including the isle of Barra where the Co-op reported that it had increased its deliveries from four a week to five as a direct result of increased capacity and frequency on the route.
Minister for Transport and the Islands Humza Yousaf said: “Passing the five million-passenger-mark is fantastic news and I congratulate all CalMac staff involved in delivering this achievement.
“These figures underline the success of the full roll-out of Road Equivalent Tariff on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry network, a key commitment from the Scottish Government. Cheaper fares bring benefits to locals, visitors and local businesses, making ferry travel more attractive and accessible, as well as providing a boost to the tourist trade.
“The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our island communities and ensuring these lifeline ferry services remain affordable for the remote communities that depend on them.”