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Protest Mounting Over Certain Gills Bay/John O'Groats Bus Services To Be Cancelled

11th June 2018

Since the news came out in the John O'Groat Journal that Stage coach are to change bus services for Gills and John O'Groats protests have been getting louder.

the proposed bus timetable changes from 20th August which effectively abolish the direct route from Wick to John o'Groats and Gills. This would seem to mean that apart from the weekday school service there is no direct link to Wick (and the General hospital) from anywhere within the Community Council area.

No direct link for tourists from the top tourist destinations in Caithness (John o'Groats and the Castle of Mey) to one of the two major towns in Caithness.

No direct link from Wick to the busiest Orkney vehicle Ferry port in Caithness or the main passenger only ferry port.

No direct link to the General Hospital, Main council offices, Courts or main shopping facilities in Caithness.

In other words the most dynamic settlement and tourist destination in the county as well as the most popular ferry route to Orkney is being made inaccessible from the Counties biggest medical, legal and shopping centre other than via Thurso or Castletown.

It also seems to eliminate any bus at all (to anywhere) other than the school bus, for communities such as Auckengill and Freswick and areas in between.

Below we publish a letter from Bill Mowat chairman of Gills Harbour Ltd to Stagecoach managing director David Liston.

Bill Mowat also contacted Edward Mountain MSP who has agreed to concat Stagecoach over the matter.

David Liston, Esq.,

Managing Director,

Stagecoach North Scotland,

Union Square Bus Station,

Guild Street,

ABERDEEN AB11 6NA.

Dear Mr Liston,

STAGECOACH SERVICES TO GILLS BAY, CAITHNESS, FOR THE MOST POPULAR 'SHORT SEA CROSSING' OVER THE PENTLAND FIRTH TO THE ORKNEY ISLANDS.

I am writing to you as the unremunerated chairman of Gills Harbour Ltd (GHL), a community-owned body that has the title to the above small port that is best known as the Scottish mainland terminus for the thrice-daily year-round services on the modern 70 metre catamaran ROPAX ferry Pentalina.

She is operated by Pentland Ferries Ltd, a family company that re-introduced the Pentland Firth's 'short sea route' in 2001, after an absence of in excess of a century. GHL leases part of its land-holding to the above company that also rents a submerged area of the adjoining seabed from the Crown Estate Commissioners, on which Pentland Ferries has built its modern ROPAX terminal at no cost to UK taxpayers.

Before I get into detail, may I first congratulate you on your prestigious appointment as successor to Mr Mark Whitelocks ... whom I had contact with on more than one occasion ... as MD of Stagecoach North Scotland Ltd. I would like to make it clear that there is no way I attribute any blame for the consultation proposal (as below) on your good-self.

The proposal to 'axe' all ferry-link services to Gills Bay has come as a great shock to those GHL directors who I have managed to contact after the announcement appeared in the Caithness Courier of 06.06.2108.

I am writing to you to respectfully ask that this change from mid-August 2018 be not implemented at that date, and that extensive consultations take place on both sides of the Pentland Firth.

As you will perhaps be aware, Pentland Ferries Ltd has invested £15 million in a brand-new 85 metre long British-designed catamaran vessel to be introduced on the route in Autumn this year (2018). She was originally programmed to have been plying the Firth by this month (06.18) but there have been delays at the SE Asia shipyard where she is being fabricated with key components ... engines, electronic gear, hydraulics, fittings and furnishings etc. ... assembled from world-wide specialist supply-chain.

Pentland Ferries is continuing to invest in enhanced port infrastructure facilities at Gills Bay; to date that private-sector investment runs into many millions of pounds.

It receives no capital taxpayer-funded grants nor receives any revenue subsidies for its sailings. It has however been promised that a variation on 'Road Equivalent Tariff ' will apply for crossings in the second half of this year (2018).

In late 2017, the (Scottish) Government spending 'watchdog' Audit Scotland released figures that showed that the one-hour Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope route was in 2016 the busiest seaway to/from Orkney. There was a considerable gap in favour of Gills when it came/comes to vehicles crossing, but less so over Scrabster in passenger numbers.

The continuing trend toward Gills and away from Scrabster is noted in the top-level independent report done for Gills Harbour Ltd by eminent Scottish economist Mr Tony Mackay. The Gills Harbour Development Study will be made public later this month. It largely relates to GHL's directly-owned Inner Harbour but, of course, looks to wider issues influencing developments at the Scottish Mainland's most Northerly small port.

A key reason for the success of Pentland Ferries Ltd is, of course, the fact that the Eastern Pentland Firth seaway is much less exposed to heavy swells that roll in from the Atlantic ... and interact with the fast-flowing tidal streams ... driven by the prevailing (c. 66% of the time) Westerly winds/gales that habitually blow in from near 3,000 miles of open ocean seas over Northern Scotland.

Almost all of the 28 mile crossing from Scrabster to Stromness is open to such swells, whilst only the 2.5 mile section of the 15-mile short-sea route (between the mid-Firth islands of Stroma and Swona) are exposed to 'open Atlantic' swells.

Pentland Ferries operations are widely hailed in the transport & business sectors as an 'outstanding Scottish success story' and MD Andrew Banks OBE is the only living entrepreneur that has had biography book commercially published about him: Pentland Hero (Birlinn Press Edinburgh) by former Highlands & Islands Enterprise transport director Mr Roy Pedersen.

The 15-mile, hour-long route from Gills is universally accepted as the shortest, smoothest and quickest seaway connecting the Scottish Mainland and Orkney.

All of this is despite the 'competing' Scrabster to Stromness route getting a annual passenger 'subsidy; of c. £8 million per annum of UK taxpayer funds. This amounts to c. £ 80:00 per single passenger trip on the mv Hamnavoe (I use 'c' for approximate, as the precise Pentland Firth 'subvention' figures are not published but are part of a wider 'bundle' involving Aberdeen-based sailings to Orkney & Shetland.

Serco NorthLink ferries does not provide the ship (as above) and she plies to the pier that was built with largely public money at Scrabster to accommodate her 8,000 tonnes.

Up until 2016, Stagecoach provided an exemplary service to Gills Bay meeting all crossings with direct coach links to Inverness via Wick and similar in reverse, with the exception of the morning outward sailing tying in only with a bus from Wick.

This was cut down as 'a result of Stagecoach losing school runs in East Sutherland and East Caithness'. Those have subsequently been transferred back to your company, after the successful bidder went into receivership, but the Gills-link buses were not re-instated. In fact, precisely the opposite occurred

For this led on to the withdrawal of Gills Bay as a destination from enquiries made by members of the public to your excellent CityLink call centre in Glasgow last year. But from earlier this year it has been possible to travel ex-Inverness at 14:30 to connect via Wick with the early evening 18:30 pm sailing from Gills, although this does not seem to have been publicised.

At our last (Late May) GHL board meeting bus/coach timings were discussed albeit in the absence of director Mr Tom Meikle Snr. that normally represents us on land-transport matters and is an 'expert' on the subject.

At present the upwards X99 goes to Wick, but no announcement by the driver regarding Gills is made at Dunbeath, where most Thurso passengers disembark for the remainder of the journey that terminates at Scrabster.

Thus with no publicity ... and the non-reinstatement of the CityLink 'choice' ... it is hardly surprising that the non-commercial sea-ferry route 'is the most popular'.

At May's GHL board, several members suggested a 'conspiracy theory' as the real reason for the serious deterioration of Stagecoach's services to Gills Bay.

I did my best to persuade them otherwise.

That was in advance of knowing that all services to Gills Bay were being pencilled in as ceasing in mid-August 2018.

If these proposals as outlined in the local newspaper proceed, then I would have to say that 'maybe they were correct, after all' and that an artificial means of boosting passenger numbers on the competing service was being put 'in place'.

As stated, the Serco NorthLink Ferries service from Scrabster operates at a very high financial loss and is only kept afloat by large cash injections from UK taxpayers.

I am thus urging you not to proceed with discriminating against Scotland's most successful Mainland to Island Group sea-service in favour of one that has the deserved reputation of 'stinging' the public purse for many millions annually; sums that many persons argue would be better spent on internal inter-islands ferries in Orkney or for bolstering land-based passenger transport matters on the Scottish Mainland.

Only yesterday (06.06.18) morning on BBC local radio, I heard that Orkney Islands Council were calling for a mid-day year-round service to be re-introduced from Scrabster to Stromness.

But there was zero mention of what the cost to UK taxpayers would be ... perhaps an educated guess of £150:00 per single passenger journey subsidy might be an underestimate?

Is it really fair that taxpayers money could be deployed to undermine a normal mid-day commercial service, such as Pentland Ferries operates year-round from here?

The proposed axing of all Gills Bay services is to my mind, hardly the proper way to 'hansel' Scotland's most modern and innovative ferry, purpose-designed for the short-sea route and provided by an 'outstanding entrepreneur' heading a family business employing c. 60 persons in rural Orkney & Caithness.

Mr Andrew Banks OBE is a well-known figure in Scotland's transport industry. He has convincingly proven that subsidies are not needed on trunk routes such as across the Pentland Firth, whilst investing many tens of millions of pounds in new-build vessels and modern terminal facilities at Gills here.

Denying the elderly or non car-owning persons the opportunity of sailing on Scotland's most exciting new ferry to arrive for a decade seems less than fair to me.

But this will be the end result if your company's consultation statement is proceeded with. Demand is sure to be high when the innovative 85 metre ship starts sailing; like all brand-new passenger ships she will have a design life of upwards of 20 years.

Then there is the matter of 'greenness', especially significant in a key area for marine renewable electricity generation, such as the Pentland Firth area is.

Pentalina broadly burns as much fuel for a week's triple-crossings as the competing Hamnavoe uses per day when she is on her peak-season three sailings routine.

So I would humbly request you to reverse the decision, as suggested in your current Stagecoach consultation, to scrap all links to the most popular Orkney-service terminal.

I would also suggest that you re-instate 'Gills Bay' as a destination for foot passengers on your CityLink 0871 call-centre/website, all starting in August 2018 in time for the debut of Scotland's 'revolutionary' twin-hulled ROPAX ferry.

Because of his achievements, Andrew Banks is a well-known personality in Scottish transport circles and I would be surprised if he has not come across your founder Sir Brian Soutar.

The thought occurred to me : 'Is the latter aware that one of his managers could be proposing to sever all service bus/ coach connections with the former's ground-breaking sea-link crossings?'

Yours sincerely,

BILL MOWAT,

Chairman, Gills Harbour Ltd.,

GILLS BAY,

Caithness KW1 4YB.

07.06.18

 

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