Latest blog postings…
Meeting the Ferry companies
Today I met with Red Funnel CEO Kevin George, and Marketing and Communications Director Jonathan Green. This follows from a meeting with Wightlink CEO Russell Kew, and their Operations Director John Burrows, back in February. All Parliamentary Candidates were invited to get together with the ferry companies, as it is in everyone's future interests to listen and learn from each other.
On the Isle of Wight, we are in the difficult situation of living on an island, only a handful of miles from the coast, and having to use a ferry service which is fully privatised and without regulation or subsidy. Particularly in the last few years, we have seen a rise in ticket prices and a fall in frequency of sailings. The OFT concluded in 2009 that there is no monopoly - because there are 3 companies serving islanders (including Hovertravel). This leaves island residents and businesses at the whim of the two car ferry firms, who run their operations for profits for their owners and shareholders (currently Balfour Beatty investments, and Prudential). It is this lack of public accountability, particularly when faced with variable and unpredictable and rising ticket costs, which can leave islanders feeling unsupported and isolated.
So - from my two meetings what have I learnt?
- I have learnt that both ferry companies have a vested interest in the growth of the Isle of Wight economy. It is through the island's growth and recovery that they can grow their own share of the market. Wightlink even have the UK GDP charted alongside the growth in vehicle numbers for their ferries - and it is true that there is a distinct correlation between the two.
- Both ferry companies wanted to know my thoughts about a Fixed Link - and both were at pains to explain to me why it wouldn't work, or would not work within the next 20 years.
- Red Funnel and Wightlink explained how they do a lot of work for charity, supporting island workers, sponsoring island events and organisations and working to promote the island. Regarding residents, Red Funnel reiterated their quaterly discount vouchers delievered to every door, whilst Wightlink emphasised their 'multilink tickets' scheme. I pressed Wightlink about the scarcity of places for 'multilink' holders - and they stated that islanders need to book car spaces well in advance. I pressed them further about growing their resident market (they said it was around 30%) and they answered that they had offered 20% discounts for islanders a few years back on the Y-L route and the uptake had been low. They believe that islanders just don't travel so much as holiday makers.
- Investment in refurbishment and new ferries is an undergoing program. Red Funnel are about to release the new look Osprey, and Wightlink are hoping to announce new ferries in due course (as current ones are over 30yrs old). Both companies say they are concerned with safety, and improving customer experience.
- Wightlink were particularly interested in the Green Party policy of renationalisation of rail (and thus looking at ferries). They had done their homework on me. They were insistent that it couldn't work. Red Funnel representatives did not instigate a conversation on this - but I did bring up the possibility of regulation and/or subsidies with them.
As short initial meetings go, I felt the time was well spent by both parties in laying the groundwork for future discussions. However, we cannot continue as residents to be left exposed when the companies up their prices, drop sailings and change rules (are you a long car or a small van?). It is this lack of public answerability which leaves residents feeling vulnerable. How do we get a service which is run for public need? A passenger service after 11pm from Portsmouth in an evening? A reasonably priced 'turn up at the gate' ticket? An acknowledgment of responsibility when another ferry is cancelled due to 'lack of staff'?
As the MP, I would fight hard for more accountability to the public, and explore all possible avenues to achieve this - including subsidies and regulation and nationalisation. I believe that the recent drive towards investigating a fixed link is largely due to a failure of our ferries to be responsive to all resident needs - families, workers and business owners. It's great to hear about how much Red Funnel and Wightlink put into growing our economy - all the positive changes and charity work. But the fact remains that those of us who live here need to be able to access the service when we need it - and that means timetables, and that means affordable prices.
Wightlink bosses described me as 'pragmatic'. I'll take that as a compliment...